FOXBOROUGH - The last impression left by the Patriots' offensive line was not a favorable one, and it is the one that remains etched in most people's minds.
They don't see the line that produced three Pro Bowl selections, allowed 21 sacks, the team's lowest total in a 16-game season, and opened the holes that allowed the team to rush for 4.1 yards per carry, its highest average since 1985.
They see the line that surrendered five sacks and nine hits of Tom Brady to the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLII, the line that couldn't keep the quarterback clean when it counted most, the line that looked overmatched and overpowered in the biggest game of the season.
"It was tough," said Pro Bowl guard Logan Mankins of the Super Bowl loss. "We know we didn't play up to our potential that game and that had to do a lot with why we lost."
Redemption for the offensive line may lie in the lessons learned from that game. When the Giants loaded up on pass rushers to pressure Brady into oblivion, the offensive line was unable to take advantage by creating holes in the running game. New England averaged just 2.8 yards per carry (16 rushes for 45 yards) in the Super Bowl. Yesterday, the Patriots spent a lot of time working on the running game, trying to, in the words of Laurence Maroney, "just finish everything and become more of a balanced team."
The Patriots rushed for 1,849 yards last season and had seven games in which Maroney or Sammy Morris went over 100 yards. The offense had balance - the Patriots passed it 586 times and ran it 451. But despite the numbers, it seemed as if offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels became enamored at times of his record-setting passing attack, neglecting the run game, content to Brady-to-Moss opponents into submission. Against the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 12, the Patriots passed the ball 54 times and ran it just 16.
The best cure for an offensive line that is having trouble in pass protection, as the Patriots had in the Super Bowl, is to ram the ball down the opponents' throats with the running game.
Former 49ers center and current CBS broadcaster Randy Cross, who calls the Patriots' preseason games, said few teams have as many skilled pass rushers to throw at the Patriots as the Giants did last season with Michael Strahan, Osi Umenyiora, Justin Tuck, and Jay Alford.
Cross said he expects a lot of teams, including the Patriots, to run the ball more out of spread formations this season to counter schemes that utilize extra defensive backs and replace run stoppers with pass rushers along the defensive line.
"The Patriots have the personnel to do it," said Cross. "Maroney is the perfect runner to do that with his combination of speed and power. Nothing vindicates a line or gives you that warm and fuzzy feeling as a lineman . . . if it's not keeping the quarterback clean, it's definitely running the ball."
That would be fine with the Patriots' offensive linemen. Both Mankins and center Dan Koppen, who along with left tackle Matt Light were the Patriots' Pro Bowl offensive linemen, said run blocking gives linemen a chance to dish out some punishment, instead of taking it.
"I think everyone has that mentality," said Koppen. "We're not the greatest athletes in the world, so when you get into pass blocking, they're more athletic than we are. Run blocking is where we get to come into them a little more. But whatever play is called, we've got to do it."
"We like to run block," said Mankins. "It makes the game go faster. You get to wear them down. They get tired. They have to chase the ball. We prefer to run it, but if the pass is working we don't mind seeing those 60-yard plays to [Randy] Moss [and] scoring faster."
Patriots coach Bill Belichick is going to do whatever it takes to win, and if that means throwing the ball 100 times a game and running it once, he'll do it. But employing a running game is like putting money in the bank - it might not pay immediate dividends, but down the line it's a wise investment.
The running game paid off for the Patriots later last season when they made more of a commitment to it. In four of the last six games, including the playoffs and Super Bowl, Maroney rushed for more than 100 yards.
The Patriots don't need to alter their offensive identity and become a smashmouth team, they simply need to give Maroney and the offensive line an opportunity to do their part.
"That's all you need, and that's all I ask," said Maroney. "I'm not asking for the ball 30 or 40 times a game, just an opportunity, so I get into the groove. Get into it and let me warm up and let me just do my thing. I could probably do my thing off of 10 or 15 [carries]. Just give me the opportunity, and let me show everybody what I can do."
The same could be said of the offensive line after Super Bowl XLII.
"We've watched the film. We've critiqued it, and we try to learn from it," said Mankins. "We have a lot of pride in what we do, and we're just trying to get better now and learn from it."
Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at email@example.com.