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Calls a snap for Koppen

Veteran steady anchor of line

Dan Koppen is the centerpiece of a Patriots offensive line that includes Stephen Neal (left) and Gene Mruczkowski (right). Dan Koppen is the centerpiece of a Patriots offensive line that includes Stephen Neal (left) and Gene Mruczkowski (right). (JIM DAVIS/GLOBE STAFF)

FOXBOROUGH -- Each play has Dan Koppen at its axis, standing over the football, analyzing the defense, and making calls down the line, keeping the other 10 offensive players in synch.

One slight misjudgment can sabotage a play.

It's a difficult job, but according to Patriots coach Bill Belichick, the ball is in good hands with Koppen.

"Seeing the front seven, even sometimes the secondary rotation on a particular play . . . he does that very well and is on the same page with our quarterback," said Belichick. "He's really good at that, probably as good as anybody I've ever coached."

Koppen, now heading into his fifth season with the Patriots, reacted to such praise with typical offensive lineman humility.

"It doesn't matter what the coach says or what the players said, all that matters is what we do on the field as a team," he said.

But he is at the center of a successful and cohesive unit.

Besides starring in a Visa commercial with quarterback Tom Brady, the line created the holes that allowed the Patriots to rush for 1,969 yards last year.

With all the starters back (Nick Kaczur and Ryan O'Callaghan split the starts at right tackle last year), the line is poised to resume its strong play, though Koppen is taking nothing for granted.

"We've got people that have been in that situation playing-wise and been around each other, so that's good," Koppen said. "But every year's different. You just have to come into it fresh and take that point of view, or else you're not going to get better in this league."

Koppen, a second-day steal as a fifth-round pick out of Boston College, debuted with the Patriots in 2003, assuming the starting center spot by Week 2. Except for a stint on injured reserve at the end of 2005, Koppen has been there ever since.

Koppen has improved by studying great centers like former Denver Bronco Tom Nalen, and picking up tips in the film room and on the practice field.

"There's always something to be learned from watching tape or going out here through the reps," Koppen said. "Maybe seeing it one time and getting it the next time, or just watching reps. You always can pick something out and learn from it."

As a result, Koppen has developed a pre-snap eagle eye that is crucial to the team's success.

"He is football smart," said Belichick. "He is instinctive and does a great job with communication on the line of scrimmage with the offensive line in the running game, passing game, [when] we change protections, or when the front stems and moves before the snap, things like that, 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.

"It's hard to put a price tag on it, but one or two mistakes on something like that, or even a late call, any kind of gray area there, it can mess up a play. One play can mess up a game, one game can mess up a season. I don't think you can overemphasize it or overstate its importance."

Just as important is Koppen's chemistry with Brady -- he is, after all, the one giving the quarterback the ball. And the O-line is more comfortable than anyone making jokes at Brady's expense.

"I think we're pretty solid, because we're the ones who can sort of give [Brady] a rip shot or something like that, have some fun with him," Koppen said. "But I guess we hold his fate, so he's got to be nice to us."

He might get some love from Brady, but Koppen doesn't get a lot of outside recognition for his critical work before or after the ball is snapped. Being a center isn't very glamorous -- television ads aside -- but that's fine with Koppen.

"We're out here because we're the fat guys," he said. "No one wants to play offensive line, but somehow you get put there.

"But thank God that I am because I love it. And we don't need the glory across the line. We don't need anything like that. We just want to come out here and help the team win."

Daniel Malloy can be reached at