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The SPORTS ISSUE

All Guts, No Glory

As the world of pro sports is consumed by egos, me-first attitudes, and over-the-top celebrations, there is still one place - the offensive line in football - where the game is all about teamwork, skill, and anonymity. Few units have learned this as well as the blockers on the Patriots.

On an offensive line, there's no room for individualism.
On an offensive line, there's no room for individualism. (Photo by Erik Jacobs for the Boston Globe)

Out off California's Route 140, a little more than halfway between Merced and Mariposa as the Steinbeck drives, Logan Mankins grew up on a 10,000-acre ranch in a place called Catheys Valley. He wanted to rope cattle for a living on the professional rodeo circuit. He outgrew his dreams. He topped out at 6 foot 4 and 310 pounds, which made him a bit of a load for your average cow pony. However, football coaches looked at Mankins and saw smart, quick, and big, which is exactly what coaches look for in a beast of burden. They saw an offensive lineman.

Mankins made All-America at Fresno State, and in three pro seasons, he has become one of the most important players on the New England Patriots, a skilled protector of Tom Brady's invaluable hide from his position at left guard, and he's done so in the kind of professional obscurity that agents at the CIA can only dream about. Playing the offensive line doesn't get you the cover shot for Madden '08. It doesn't get you the VIP table in the various gentlemen's clubs around the NFL, where famous players go to avoid being gentlemen for an evening. When Brady's linemen made a memorable series of Visa commercials two years back - commercials in which the linemen, and not Brady, had all the good lines - the public reacted as though it were watching hippos perform Shakespeare, without realizing the kind of intelligence and discipline it takes to do a largely thankless job extremely well.

"I was an offensive lineman when I was little, and then I didn't play O-line anymore when I got to high school," Mankins says. "When I got to college, I played O-line, and that's when I became an O-lineman. We're the only ones that really see it. You always want to impress your peers. Sometimes, they give us a little pub on TV, but the majority of the time, if you hear our name on TV, it's for holding or for false starts or something like that." Or because Brady is raising himself from the turf, bits of linebacker slobber still clinging to his jersey, and some former quarterback, who once got all the good tables and most of the great press, is up there in the booth, telling a good portion of the nation how badly you just did your job.

The offensive line of a football team is about the only place in professional sports where teamwork exists completely unsullied. Let us be honest. In all our team sports, athletic performance is always a dodgy mix of the individual and the collective. The whole process begins with the kind of deeply solipsistic drive it takes to make yourself so good at a particular skill that people will pay you for performing it, in public, in front of millions. Which, if you manage to accomplish it, can be a huge infusion of helium to your ego, even for offensive linemen. As we've come to learn in this summer of Vick and Bonds, however, when that process leaches out into the life of the athlete generally, bad things usually occur. Off the field, the results can often be found in the courthouses, in the pages of America's finer tabloid newspapers, and stuck between Nancy Grace's teeth every night on cable television. On the field, the results are more subtle. The mutual dependence of individual achievement and team accomplishment is so delicate that it can collapse without warning.

This is the case even with professional football teams, on which the various parts are more interdependent than they are in any other sport. Even on a football team, there are still places in which individualism can grow unchecked until it's too late to be controlled. This can certainly happen with quarterbacks and running backs. It can happen with linebackers and safeties. Prior to his arrival in Foxborough this year, Randy Moss built an entire NFL career as testimony to the fact that it can happen with a wide receiver.

Offensive linemen are different. In this, the Patriots' offensive line is the same as every other one in the league. This group is remarkable, however, in that it has survived, relatively intact, for a few seasons now and in that almost every member of the group has improved steadily - in the case of Mankins, significantly so - without the line ever developing the kind of dominant single ego that might capsize the whole business. At least on the field, their careers have no space in which those kinds of problems can grow. They take the job of slamming themselves into huge people, one play at a time, 50 or 60 plays a game, and they derive individual satisfaction from collective success.

Last month, they had a right to be quite satisfied. Brady was virtually untouched against the New York Jets in the season opener. Then, after a week in which their achievements were diminished by some critics because of the team's sideline-spying capers, the linemen put up another strong game against San Diego, and followed that with a dominant performance against Buffalo (despite guard Stephen Neal sitting out the two games with a shoulder injury).

Quarterbacks often make a show of giving the people who keep them from being trampled on a weekly basis expensive gifts at the end of the season, but the quarterback is always said to be giving those gifts to "his line," which can make an individual lineman sound very much like a undifferentiated side of beef. Which is why the commercial with Brady and his linemen seemed so counterintuitive.

Offensive linemen are the game's straight men. Always. And it's not as though their stories are not compelling. Tackle Nick Kaczur was born in the same town in Ontario as NHL immortal Wayne Gretzky, and guard Neal was a good enough wrestler in high school and college to defeat along the way both future NFL running back Ricky Williams and future WWE performer Brock Lesnar. However, no matter how vital what they do on the field is - and imagine Tom Brady trying to take advantage of all of his new offensive weapons while being blasted play after play in the general direction of Narragansett Bay - what the offensive linemen accomplish rarely gets anyone interested enough to read that deeply into their official biographies.

"It really is the game within the game," Patriots head coach Bill Belichick says. "You have to get a lot of personal satisfaction out of doing that job. Nobody watches them, and nobody cares, but they keep doing it because they love the competition. It's not about the crowds or the fans; it's about doing their jobs. You can score a goal in lacrosse. You can make a basket. [For linemen], that's not the nature of that position. It's competitive, but it's just a little different."

Consider - in the Patriots' media guide, the offensive linemen are the only players whose entries contain no statistical charts. None. Their successes and failures are as minutely calibrated as those of any other players on the team, but the calculations are done in strange, coachly hieroglyphics, and the analysis drawn from those calculations largely is done in the monkish isolation of the film room. Little of it ever comes into public view, and that's so essential to the culture of the position that, for example, at least two generations of talented offensive linemen for the Denver Broncos declined en masse to speak for public consumption. The excellence of offensive line play is so arcane that it can take years for a deserving young lineman to make his first Pro Bowl game, and once there, he can find himself reelected with the regularity of a Chicago alderman. Great linemen understand one another, but they're quite sure nobody else does. Nobody stands out unless everybody does.

Forty years ago this New Year's Eve, an offensive lineman managed to get himself famous. The Green Bay Packers were trailing the Dallas Cowboys, 17-14, in the final minute of the NFL championship game. With 16 seconds left, a Packer guard named Jerry Kramer wedged a very large Cowboy named Jethro Pugh just far enough out of the way so that quarterback Bart Starr could fall into the end zone and win the game. Kramer got two books out of the deal, and to this day, he probably threw the single most famous block in the history of professional football. That it remains such an anomaly should be an indication of how slowly fame comes dropping onto the offensive line. Which is why very few people, if any, will admit to having launched their football careers wanting to play the position.

"We're the fat guys," says Dan Koppen, New England's gifted center. "Nobody wants to play offensive line, but somehow you get put there. Thank God that I am, because I love it."

Once, offensive linemen didn't differ much from the other players on the team. A long time ago, team members played both on offense and defense, so linemen were simply linemen. An offensive end was a defensive end. Even when that ended, some offensive linemen still contributed elsewhere. (In his years with the Packers, Kramer was also the team's backup place-kicker.) But, gradually, as the athleticism of the players improved, thereby enabling the development of more complex offensive and defensive schemes, the offensive line became as specialized and as jargoned up as any other part of the game. Often, a player becomes an offensive lineman because he wants to play football, period, and that's the only place on the field he can find to play. Which is another reason why playing the game for its own sake is so crucial to being an offensive lineman.

"A lot of offensive linemen are offensive linemen, frankly, because they don't run well enough to play on defense," Belichick explains.

Matt Light is in his seventh season with the Patriots. He played in three Super Bowls before playing in his first Pro Bowl in February, which is not unusual for an offensive lineman. Even so, he's as vague as any of them as to how he actually got started. "Usually, it's in college," the tackle says, "and you're the guy who's as big as a couch." However simply an offensive lineman's career gets started, the job grows increasingly complex.

Two years ago, guard Logan Mankins was a promising rookie thrown into action. That would have been hard enough, but, as the season went along, the Patriots piled up injury after injury on the line. Light broke his leg. Koppen dislocated his shoulder. Both of them were lost for the season, and for a while, Mankins was just lost, playing with new linemates, week after week, while trying to learn his own job on the fly. "I had a different guy playing next to me every week," Mankins recalls.

"From week one on, it was just a blur. You're just trying to hang on and learn," he says. "Halfway through my rookie year, things sort of slowed down, and I really got a grasp of what playing offensive line in the NFL is all about. You sink or swim. I was lucky. I swam."

Over the years, as the game got more complicated, so did offensive-line play, and no position evolved as quickly as did the center. For a long time, when teams played with four defensive linemen, nobody even lined up over the center, who would snap the ball and then find someone who needed help on either side of him. That changed in the 1970s and '80s, when several defenses began playing a 3-4 defense - using only three linemen up front. For defenses, the trick became disguising whence a fourth pass rusher might appear. The center, now facing a large and immovable defender known as the nose tackle, would have to try and puzzle that problem out as well.

"When most teams played a 4-3," Belichick says, "the center was usually uncovered. A center could play for 15 years and never really have to block anyone. He would just clean up on pass protection.

"Now, though, sometimes the guards are covered, sometimes the center is covered, and that makes the requirements of that position different. He has to be big enough to hold up against a guy like [Tennessee nose tackle Albert] Haynesworth, and he has to be quick enough to go get [Chicago linebacker Brian] Urlacher on the second level of a play. It made things a little different as to what centers could hold up under that kind of pressure."

Koppen is prototypical of the modern center - and, therefore, of the modern offensive lineman. He came to New England from Boston College in the fifth round of the 2003 draft. He supplanted Damien Woody, another BC product and a Pro Bowl center, after Woody was injured and subsequently signed as a free agent with the Detroit Lions. Koppen learned his trade from Woody and from watching film of Tom Nalen, yet another former Eagle who was the mainstay of Denver's formidable, if publicly mute, offensive line.

"You watch and you learn," Koppen says. "I watched tape on Nalen, and Woody taught me a lot when I was at BC. You watch someone who knows what they're doing."

At 6-2 and 296 pounds, he's strong enough to move a nose tackle on running plays and quick enough not only to eliminate linebackers downfield, but also to place himself deftly in the way of any pass rushers at the line. More important, it is Koppen who calls the blocking schemes at the line of scrimmage. For example, it is Koppen who has to identify what is called the "Mike" in any defensive formation. The Mike, which can be the middle linebacker or the strongside inside linebacker, is generally central to the defense's plan of attack on every play, so accounting for him becomes vital. "It's my job to recognize the fronts and to see who the 'Mike' is and to get the calls out, making sure that everyone is on the same page," Koppen says. "If you do it enough, you get used to it," he explains.

"Dan's football smart," says Belichick, who does not toss around compliments lightly. "He's instinctive, and he does a great job with communication on the line of scrimmage, in the running game and in the passing game, when we change protections, or when the [defensive] front moves before the snap. He can identify that. A lot of times, he anticipates it before it happens, and that makes it easier to communicate and eliminates some confusion.

"As far as the overall blocking schemes and pass protections and audibles and checks and things like that, he can probably do it as well as our quarterbacks can. He's really good at that. I'd say he's probably as good as anyone I've ever coached."

While Koppen makes the majority of the line calls, it is the responsibility of all the linemen to recognize changes in the defensive alignment and to call them out so the entire line can make the proper adjustments. From his position at left guard, Mankins might detect a new wrinkle in the defense, perhaps something he recognizes from studying film of the opponent that week, and it's his job to communicate that to his fellow linemen. "It depends on the play," Belichick says. "Certain calls, a tackle might make. The center's too far away. Maybe he can't tell if a [defensive] guy is head-up or far away. The more in the middle of the line you are - centers and guards - the more multiples there are you have to account for. Further out [down the field], there's more stuff to be spotted."

And, in half of the games, it has to be spotted and communicated in the midst of a storm of barely human noise. There is nothing more oddly charming than seeing the five enormous men of a visiting offensive line holding hands so that the communication between them before the play is accurate. "Dan sets us up most of the time," Mankins says. "He makes the calls that set up the whole line. Sometimes, though, it's loud, and we can't hear what he's saying. We can't be robots and just listen to Dan. We have to know what's going on, too."

It's possible both Koppen and Mankins will become Pro Bowl players this season, that they've paid all the dues you're supposed to pay in the last place where pure teamwork flourishes, and thus have earned what few individual awards may come their way. "The other stuff doesn't matter to us," explains Koppen. "I don't need the glory across the line. The satisfaction comes from the wins and from getting better. You do something wrong one day, and the next day, you get that figured out. That's where the satisfaction comes in."

For him, it's simple: "One guy breaks down, and everybody else's going to suffer."

That won't get you the cereal box, but it's what playing a game is supposed to be about.

Charles P. Pierce is a Globe Magazine staff writer. E-mail him at pierce@globe.com.

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