FOXBOROUGH - John Hannah can't help it. It's part of his DNA.
While others might follow the path of the ball while watching a game, the former Patriots great and Pro Football Hall of Famer often locks in on the offensive line, specifically the guards.
This is what he thinks of Patriots left guard Logan Mankins: "One thing I've noticed he's doing well, and I haven't seen guys do it in a long time, is that he's a headhunter. I like to see that. When he's uncovered and a guy is not coming toward him, he really goes and whacks the guy who is coming over the center or tackle instead."
Hannah calls them attitude-type blocks, making a statement to defensive linemen that they're in for a punishing afternoon. Sometimes, the hits make rushers rethink which route to take to the quarterback.
Such crushing, legal blows are one reason the 6-foot-4-inch, 310-pound Mankins has earned growing respect across the NFL, as evidenced by his first Pro Bowl selection earlier this week.
Hannah, a former guard who naturally has high standards for the position, understands why.
"He's ahead of schedule, this being just his third season in the league, and he's destined to make a really good name for himself," Hannah said of Mankins. "When I watch him, I think he comes off the ball pretty well, and he does a lot of good things with the way they pull him. He spots his reads and gets a few good hits there. You can tell he's learning the position and developing his game as he goes."
Mankins, whose quiet demeanor belies his smashmouth attitude on the field, credits much of his development to Patriots coaches, specifically offensive line mentor Dante Scarnecchia. That makes sense considering Mankins had never played guard before entering the NFL, having lined up solely at tackle at Fresno State.
Yet the Patriots viewed him primarily as a guard, and tested the first-round pick quickly to fill the void left by Joe Andruzzi's departure following the 2004 season. Mankins was with the first string on the opening day of 2005 training camp and he's held the position since, not missing a game or start.
"At first, it was a little different," Mankins recalled of the switch to guard. "But most O-line things are about technique, and in that sense it wasn't a big change. We get real good coaching on technique here."
Mankins also has been fortunate to connect with Hannah, arguably the best guard in the history of the NFL. The team's official publication, Patriots Football Weekly, arranged a meeting at Gillette Stadium as part of a cover story last month, and it was a thrill for Mankins, who pointed out that he doesn't deserve to be mentioned in the same sentence as Hannah. "I can't carry John Hannah's cleats," Mankins said.
Still, the two talked about their life experiences, which Mankins described as a special opportunity. Hannah enjoyed it as well, taking note of how serious Mankins approached his work.
"Personality-wise, he reminded me a lot of some other people I played with, like Ron Wooten and maybe even Pete Brock in his earlier years, as Pete was a little more quiet," Hannah said.
While their personalities might be different, it didn't take long for Hannah and Mankins to find common ground. Simply put, both like to hit people.
Hannah recalled regular battles with Dolphins defensive lineman Bob Baumhower, and how "every time he came my way, I made sure to pop him right under the chin." When an official told Hannah to knock it off, he was quick with the reply: "I didn't tell him to come my way."
Two weeks ago against the Steelers, Mankins had a Hannah-like moment when he got tangled with feisty linebacker James Harrison and drove him to the ground as the whistle blew. When approached after the game, Mankins explained both players were "just having some fun out there."
In that case, perhaps there are some similarities between one of the all-time greats, and a player who hopes to be among them someday.
"First of all, you have to have an attitude," Hannah said. "I noticed that Logan does; he makes a statement out there. He's playing aggressive. You see a few guys like that, but not many guards in the league are doing what he does."
Mike Reiss can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.