THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Not playing really hurt Ross and Neal

By Julian Benbow
Globe Staff / October 18, 2008
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FOXBOROUGH - Oliver Ross wound up on the non-football injury list because of a freak accident.

He was camping.

It was either in Yuma, Ariz., or El Centro, Calif. He can't really remember.

At the time, the 6-foot-4-inch, 327-pound offensive lineman didn't have a job after being released by the Cardinals. He didn't have many new leads, either.

Just the Patriots.

He was out on one of the three or four camping trips he takes every year with his family, and he went to grab a gas jug about as tall as an elementary schooler.

"I was carrying it to go out of the trailer," he said. "It's like maybe three steps. Missed a step and fell on top of it."

The Patriots signed him anyway, broken collarbone and all. They knew his situation, and Ross knew what the team was going to do with him. So when he landed on the non-football injury list, he wasn't surprised.

As a matter of fact, there was another lineman there to meet him. Guard Stephen Neal was on the list because of an injury he's not at liberty to explain.

It happened in the Super Bowl. That's all he can really say.

"One of those knees," he said, bracing and wrapping the right one.

Either way, the first six weeks of Neal's season were spent on the physically unable to perform list, putting him in essentially the same situation as Ross, without the freak accident.

Ross, who missed all of last season with a triceps injury, would have to wait out the first six weeks as well before he could practice. So, logically, the Patriots paired them up.

"They pretty much said, 'You guys are both on PUP, so work out,' " Neal said.

It made sense to have Ross and Neal on injury lists when that was their status. But once they were healthy again, it was like being stuck in a waiting room for six weeks. They met at Gillette Stadium almost every day, lifting, running, waiting.

"You're just sitting there and there's nothing you can really do about it," Neal said. "You just have to wait. The only thing you can try to do is get in shape and get as ready as you can when the situation comes and you can do something to help out."

Both players were able to practice for the first time this week.

"Whenever you have two people, it's a lot easier than when you have one person," said Neal. "You have someone else there with you and you can push yourselves."

"That's my buddy," Ross said. "That's my best friend. My BFF."

They're still sort of in limbo. The Patriots have three weeks to decide whether to add them to the active roster, release them, or place them on season-ending injured reserve. But with right tackle Nick Kaczur out with a right ankle injury, the Patriots could use help on the offensive line.

But there's also no rush to throw them in after they've sat out more than a third of the season.

Bill Belichick said he was able to get his first looks at Ross and Neal Wednesday. The coach gave them more reps Thursday, and said he would take a closer look as the week went on, with more time to evaluate them because the Patriots don't play until Monday night against Denver.

So far, there hasn't been any heavy lifting. They've mostly reviewed first- and second-down situations, not enough to determine whether either can be activated for Monday.

"By the end of the week, when you throw it all in there, you realize that a player's just not quite ready yet," Belichick said. "On the other hand, sometimes by the end of the week, you feel like, 'Well, this guy's handled everything, we went through everything and he handled it all. He's ready to roll.' Right now we're just giving guys reps, letting them go, taking a look at them."

Physically, Ross says, he's fine. It's the things you miss when you're not on the field that set you back, which is why he can understand the evaluation process.

"When a guy's on a PUP list, you really can't throw him out right away because you've got that timing process and all those steps that have to take place in order to get on pace with everybody else," he said. "Guys want to play and get out there, but your timing may be off, and it may do more harm than good."

The biggest challenge is translating what they've been studying to game situations.

"It's different from when you're just looking at it in a book vs. going out there and stuff is happening," Ross said. "If I could come in and have the technique down, first day, that would have been perfect for me. But that's in a perfect world."

After taking Wednesday's practice off because of a knee injury, left tackle Matt Light said the timing couldn't be better for Neal and Ross, especially since the Patriots have given up 20 sacks (compared with 21 all last season). But Light also said Ross and Neal must get reacquainted with things.

"There's always a break-in period there when you get back in and you put the pads on and you get back into practice," Light said. "But they're two guys with a lot of experience. I don't think it will take them too long to get back on the same page with the rest of us."

At the same time, Light said he could empathize with the two linemen having to watch the sand pass through the hourglass for six weeks.

"Any time you're on that list and you're sitting there waiting for your shot to get back out there, it's a little grueling," said Light.

Right now, it's up to the coach. Ross and Neal could play this week, or Belichick could hold them out until he thinks they're fully prepared.

"Ideally," Neal said, "we wanted to get back out there as soon as we can, but it's not up to us, it's up to the coaches, whenever they feel like we're ready to go."

Julian Benbow can be reached at jbenbow@globe.com.

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