Foxborough, Mass. - Offensive linemen don't get headlines or garner national media attention. What their job entails doesn't often produce highlights or touchdown dances. Ray Lewis, Terrell Owens and Randy Moss these guys aren't. Any clutching and grabbing done by an offensive lineman is done in a battle for the line of scrimmage, not for media attention.
By definition, offensive linemen are overlooked. It's the nature of the position. And at a position where anonymity probably means you're doing your job quite well, the Patriots have a collection of players along the offensive line that are best known for the sum of their parts.
Of the seven linemen the Patriots generally carry for a given game, only one (left tackle Matt Light, a second-round selection) was higher than a fifth-round pick. Three entered the league as low-round picks - center Dan Koppen (fifth-round), right tackle Brandon Gorin (seventh) and reserve Russ Hochstein (fifth) - while three others (left guard Joe Andruzzi, right guard Stephen Neal and reserve Gene Mruczkowski) were undrafted rookie free agents.
Judging by resumes alone, the Patriots offensive line is hardly a collection of what are considered "blue chip" players. Go ahead and place Neal and Gorin - who make up the right side of the Patriots offensive line - firmly in that category. Of all the linemen who fly below the radar, it has been Neal and Gorin who fly the lowest.
"That's fine by us," Koppen said. "I know they aren't out for personal recognition, they're just trying to do their part on the team."
"They're [offensive] lineman," adds Tom Ashworth, another former undrafted free agent who is out for the season on injured reserve. "Offensive linemen never get any credit, that's just part of the job. That's fine. We don't care."
Gorin and Neal have ridden inattention and oversight all the way to the Super Bowl, where they'll be the most improbable of starters next weekend. Rewind back to August, when both started the season at the bottom of the depth chart, afterthoughts on a roster than won Super Bowl XXXVIII six months earlier. Neal was a reclamation project who had missed a full season and a half with a shoulder injury he suffered in his first NFL start midway through the 2002 season. His drastic improvement was apparent during training camp, where he pushed himself into the rotation at guard before winning the spot outright in Week 4. Gorin, a three-year starter at Purdue University, bounced between the San Diego Chargers and the Patriots practice squad his first three NFL seasons (2001-2003). Following season-ending injuries to Ashworth, and then reserve Adrian Klemm, he found himself in the starting lineup over the final 10 weeks of the regular season.
When Patriots head coach Bill Belichick talks about the right side of his offensive line, he talks in terms of improvement and progress.
"I think they've gotten better as they've worked more together," Belichick said. "That's certainly helped us. Neal has been in there pretty much all year, and Brandon took over for Tom [Ashworth]. But their working together has helped their continuity. They're both fairly young players but they're smart. They work hard and they've worked hard together and gotten better."
Gorin and Neal have combined for exactly 28 career NFL starts, the majority coming as the two started alongside each other the final 10 weeks of the season. Disregarding starting experience, the two had only played in eight NFL games combined heading into this season, with the lone start made by Neal in Week 6 of the 2002 season. It's hardly the pedigree of Super Bowl starters.
Yet the Patriots have reached the Super Bowl in large part due to the most productive rushing attack during the Belichick era. The Patriots finished sixth in the AFC and seventh overall in rushing yards (2,134) this season, finishing the season with their highest yards-per-carry average (4.1) in 19 seasons. They rushed for over 200 yards on two occasions (against Buffalo and at Cleveland) and paved the way for first-year Patriot Corey Dillon to set career-highs in rushes (345), yards (1,635), touchdowns (12) and 100-yard games (9). Despite the constant rotation, especially early in the season before the starting unit became set, the Patriots also allowed only 26 sacks during the regular season, ranking sixth in the league in sacks per pass play.
What Neal, 28, and Gorin, 26, have been able to accomplish this season is as remarkable as it is unnoticed. But hardly anyone is surprised by the transformation that has occurred over the last two months. While it may be a feel-good story to some, Neal is quick to point to what went into what is now viewed as a seamless changeover on the line.
"Yeah, but Brandon and I have worked really hard on that," Neal responded when asked if the season has been surprising. "We watch film together, we're always talking, and I try to help him out and he tries to help me out. There's been a lot of work put into the dynamic on the field.
"Something that I've learned from being out of this sport and coming back is that the only way you can really get better is by getting the game experience. You get the game experience, and you can either learn from it or you cannot learn from it. Brandon and I watch film together all the time, we're always watching film together before the games. If he sees something he recognizes he tells me, and if I see something I recognize I tell him. We communicate pretty well."
Gorin and Neal have forged a close working relationship since becoming starters. According to Belichick, who says there's "no question" he's seen improvement in the two over the second half of the season, the improvement is best seen in their consistency, communication and overall ability in picking up the details of an oncoming pass rush. Both Gorin and Neal acknowledge the development as a byproduct of game experience and a rising comfort level.
"I wouldn't say learning on the fly," Gorin said. "I get more comfortable every game. I think experience-wise, you get more experience and you feel more comfortable out there on the field. Obviously that comes in and you gain that every game."
What Gorin and Neal lack in game experience they've made up for in the ability to step into the lineup without the Patriots missing a beat. As the season has worn on, the Patriots have run the ball more, and run it more successfully. After averaging 109.0 rushing yards per game over the first seven games, the Patriots averaged 152.2 yards per game over the final nine regular season games, scoring 11 of their 15 rushing touchdowns. The dominating second half of the season on the ground includes six of their seven highest single-game rushing totals of the season, not to mention impressive rushing performances against Indianapolis (210 total yards) and Pittsburgh (126) in the playoffs.
Neither Gorin or Neal, both rather unassuming off the field, approach what has transpired this season as anything out of the ordinary.
"I don't know about expectations," Gorin said. "I think the coaches believed in us and that's our job and that's our role. We have to keep the thing rolling."
A small part of the mystic of the current Patriots is that reserve players - which is actually every player on the active roster - is fully expected to contribute when called upon. Instead of surprise at what Gorin and Neal have contributed as starters, it's an expectation they're held to as teammates.
"I think without question," Ashworth said. "The coaches hold them to that, but I think the other players hold them to be accountable as well. Probably the reason why we've had so much success is the guys on the team demand it from each other. I'm not really surprised. It's kind of the story of my life and of a lot of guys who have played around here. Brandon and Steve are both great athletes. They're both smart. They pick it up and they work at it extremely hard. That's just what [offensive line coach] Dante [Scarnecchia] demands out of all the lineman anyways. I'm not surprised at all."