FOXBOROUGH, Mass. - Leave it to offensive linemen to be overlooked. A look back at the New England Patriots in 2004 will reveal that the performance of the offensive line was the most unrecognized and unheralded success stories of the season. It's not really a surprise, though, that the dominating performance of the group flew well below the radar for most casual observers.
Void of a Pro Bowl player, a first-round draft pick and a big-name player, the current group of offensive linemen fit smugly into the team-centered, hard-working ideal that has become synonymous with being a Patriot. So naturally, it's without much fanfare or excitement - as is usually the case at the position - the offensive line helped the Patriots to one of their most prolific and balanced offensive performances in recent seasons.
The Patriots ranked fourth overall in the AFC in total yards, finishing sixth in both rushing and passing yards. They finished the regular season as one of the best rushing teams in franchise history, rushing 524 times for a total of 2,134 yards and more than 4.0 yards per carry (4.07) for the first time since the 1985 season. The group was equally efficient in the passing game, allowing 26 sacks, the fifth-lowest total in the league and the lowest team total since 1994.
The most telling statistic about the offense is scoring, where the Patriots ranked fourth in the NFL at 27.3 points per game. The 437 points scored during the regular season was just short of the team record (441 points in 1980) as the Patriots scored more than 30 points on five occasions and averaged 29.9 points per game over the final nine games of the season.
Under the leadership of 23-year coaching veteran Dante Scarnecchia, much of the Patriots offensive success this season can be traced directly to the offensive line.
]()The starting unit at the end of the season looked slightly different than the group that began the season as starters. The left side of the line - tackle Matt Light, guard Joe Andruzzi and center Dan Koppen - each started all 19 games. Stephen Neal eventually won the job at right guard after a solid pre-season, starting the final 17 games at right guard after he was inserted into the lineup for Russ Hochstein in Game 3. Tom Ashworth, the incumbent starter at right tackle, started the first six games before a back injury put him on the injured reserve. Fourth-year pro Brandon Gorin took over the following week, staring the final 10 games of the regular season and all three playoff contests.
In a group commonly referred to as "anonymous" and "unassuming," Light is often the most highly regarded member of the Patriots line. The 26-year-old, a second-round pick in 2001, started every game for the third consecutive season and now has a resume that features 58 consecutive starts at left tackle. Light, who along with Andruzzi has three Super Bowl starts, had a mostly consistent season despite battling through an ankle injury and is still thought to still be improving with experience. The Patriots signed Light to a contract extension during the season that runs through 2010.
Right tackle proved to be an Achilles heel of sorts in 2004. The Patriots first lost top reserve Adrian Klemm - considered to be the top reserve at both tackle spots - when he was placed on the injured reserve on Oct. 6. Klemm, 27, is a former second-round pick in 2000 who is considered a borderline starter, but has made 10 starts in 26 career games over five seasons. The loss of Klemm was compounded four weeks later when Ashworth was also put on injured reserve. Ashworth, also 27, is still relatively inexperienced but had looked to get a lock on the position by starting 19 of his 23 career games there. The injuries left the Patriots to look to Gorin, who started his first career game against Pittsburgh in Week 8 and proved to be a stable starter through the remainder of the season. Gorin, 26, originally projected as a backup but showed improvement over the second half of the season as the starters along the line remained the same for the final 13 games.
Andruzzi, 29, is the most veteran of the group. The 6-foot-3, 312-pound veteran has made 76 starts in 95 career games over eight seasons and can also play both guard positions. He started the first two games of the season at right guard before shifting to the left side when Neal was inserted into the lineup. Neal, 28, provided one of the most interesting storylines of the 2004 season. A former two-time NCAA Champion wrester who did not play college football, Neal regained his health this season after missing nearly all of the last two seasons due to injuries. After beginning the season in a rotation with Andruzzi and Hochstein, Neal won the job outright, showing as much improvement over the course of the season as any other Patriots player.
]()At center, Koppen is a centerpiece of the Patriots line. A fifth-round pick in 2003, he took over as the starter two games into his rookie season and has started the last 37 games (including six playoff games) as the Patriots signal-caller along the line. Already considered to be a quality NFL starter, the 25-year-old continued to grow in his second season as the starter and will only improve with experience.
Several other young players - Hochstein, Gene Mruczkowski and Billy Yates - played reserve roles this season and will likely compete for a roster spot next training camp. Hochstein, 27, started two games at right guard and played a key role as a reserve for the second consecutive season. Originally a fifth-round pick by Tampa Bay in 2001, the 6-foo-4, 305-pound Hochstein proved his value along the interior with his ability to play both guard and center. The injuries at tackle opened the door for second-year reserve Gene Mruczkowski, who played in 10 games this season. Mruczkowski, 24, is also a combination guard-center who missed all of his rookie season with a leg injury. Yates, 24, spent the 2004 season on the practice squad before a call-up to the active roster for the Super Bowl.
Position Analysis: The Patriots will face some important decisions along the offensive line during the offseason. Its most experienced member, Andruzzi, is an unrestricted free agent who could command a larger contract on the free agent market than the team is willing to invest at the position. Neal, who proved he could stay healthy and be an above-average starter, is a restricted free agent. At tackle, Klemm is also an unrestricted free agent while both Ashworth and Gorin are restricted free agents. The team generally carried seven active linemen during most games this season, giving increased value to versatile players.
The offensive line represents one position on the roster that may undergo changeover for next season. While the team will hold the right of first refusal on the restricted free agents, it could still potentially lose three starters along the line if teams make sizeable offers. The team would certainly like to bring back most, if not all, of its own free agents, but losses at the tackle spot could dramatically change the team's plans because of the depth concerns at the position. While the team generally doesn't spend high draft picks on linemen, this may be the year that changes. And if it should lose two of the three free agent tackles (Klemm, Ashworth and Gorin), the Patriots may be shopping for a veteran right tackle in free agency as well.
Frank Tadych is a reporter for Patriots.com and contributing writer for Patriots Football Weekly. He can be reached at *FrankT@patriots.com.*