By: Bob George/BosSports.net
March 05, 2005

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Next in a series of positional analysis for the 2004 New England Patriots. Today: offensive line.

"There's an Andruzzi"¦and there's another Andruzzi"¦and there's another Andruzzi"¦"¯

So spoke John Madden from the Fox broadcast booth during Super Bowl XXXVI. This was the Super Bowl just removed from September 11, and Joe Andruzzi became a national figure thanks to his three FDNY brothers. His brother Jimmy was inside one of the twin towers of the World Trade Center on that horrid day, and just barely made it out before the tower collapsed. His three brothers all made it to New Orleans and saw Joe win his first of three Super Bowls, and all of them wore his jersey number 63.

Andruzzi no longer works for the Patriots. He signed a new four-year deal to be reunited with assistant line coach Jeff Davidson, who defected to Cleveland after the Super Bowl along with Romeo Crennel. Reports surfaced that Andruzzi would have stayed if the Patriots hadn't lowballed him, and some of his family members publicly chastised the Patriots for allowing this to happen. Andruzzi would have loved to finish his career with the Patriots, but instead took the Damien Woody route and switched to a bad team who was willing to pay him lots more than the Patriots would.

On the business side, this development doesn't really hurt the Patriots. With the emergence of Stephen Neal and the fact that Russ Hochstein has previous Super Bowl experience, the Patriots have two men who can step right in and start at guard next year. Tom Ashworth and Brandon Gorin can fight it out for the right tackle position, while Matt Light and Dan Koppen have left tackle and center nailed down solid. This unit can get right down to business next year and open lots more holes for Corey Dillon and keep Tom Brady well protected.

But the loss of Andruzzi does tug at the heart just a bit. Acquired from Green Bay in 2000 following a career in shambles, he came here in Bill Belichick's first year and, along with Sale Isaia, formed a guard tandem which was only slightly less maligned than Max Lane and Damon Denson. Then comes 2001, the WTC tragedy which brought his family front and center, and his career renaissance which found him a Super Bowl starting guard by season's end. Andruzzi has been a fan favorite ever since, and his departure from the Patriots leaves somewhat of a bitter taste in people's mouths.

He does leave the Patriots a rich man, and if not bitter, at least a grateful man. But watching a guy like Andruzzi bolt to Cleveland for big bucks once again speaks volumes for how the Patriots do business. The Patriots will spend about $2 million on Neal and Hochstein combined, a little less than Andruzzi will average on his four-year deal with the Browns, and can reasonably expect little or no loss in overall productivity from the guard position. As long as Andruzzi is replaceable, sentiment means nothing.

With or without Andruzzi, the Patriot offensive line remains one of the most intriguing such units in the league. Opponents both marvel at and ostracize the Patriot offensive line for how well it performs despite the lack of name recognition or individual talent. One might want to keep an eye on this bunch in 2005, given that Davidson is now gone and Dante Scarnecchia may inherit Charlie Weis' old job of offensive coordinator. Some people believe that the heart of this unit's success was the coaching, and if Scarnecchia is going to be called upon to take a less hands-on approach to this line, the results could be impacted in 2005.

Reading the experts' take on Koppen make you wonder if he was the biggest steal of the 2003 draft. Some think this guy either is the best center in the league or some day will be. He was at least good enough to cause the Patriots to let his fellow BC Eagle alumnus Woody bolt as a free agent. He has been a rock at the center position, both in pass protection and run blocking. And he is an incredible bargain with a cap hit of $445,000.

Light was, like Andruzzi, another shining example of how the Patriots do business, albeit in a different vein. He passed up the chance to test the free agent market at the end of the 2004 season by signing a new deal which will keep him here through the 2010 season. At a glamour position, Light chose to take less money to stay with the Patriots because he loves the organization and loves to win. Instead of taking the Andruzzi/Woody/Ted Washington approach, Light instead took the Tedy Bruschi/Willie McGinest/Troy Brown approach. As long as the Patriots continue to have these kinds of players on the club, the ones in search of the big bucks will merely leave quietly with no one complaining.

With Ashworth, who started in Super Bowl XXXVIII, down with an injury, Gorin had a chance to show himself in 2004. He had some bad moments, including giving up a sack to Joey Porter in the AFC Championship Game, and often times needed tight end help to keep pass rushers off Brady. Ashworth might win his job back next year, as he had a more consistent 2003. Ashworth shined in Super Bowl XXXVIII with some nice run blocking against Julius Peppers.

Hochstein, meanwhile, made his mark in that same game by holding his own against Kris Jenkins (and shutting up Warren Sapp in the process). Above all other things, he may be the biggest reason why Andruzzi was let go. Both Hochstein and Ashworth proved their "big time"¯ status last year, and they both might be in a position to reclaim their starting jobs next season.

The main reason Hochstein did not start in 2004 was because of the emergence of Neal. The former Cal State-Bakersfield wrestler finally realized a lot of his potential in 2004, all the while providing great inspiration to all "projects"¯ out there. Neal owns three Super Bowl rings, but can say that he really had a hand in this most recent one. Face it, not too many collegiate wrestlers from institutions without a football program (like CSUB) entertain chances of eventually starting for a Super Bowl champion. Neal is still a work in progress, but his overall technique and knowledge of the game began to pay big dividends in 2004.

The Patriots might want to draft some offensive line depth in the draft, though Belichick has shown to be lukewarm to drafting linemen. Gene Mruczkowski is the only bona fide backup lineman. Belichick usually likes to bring in a free agent, provided that he doesn't wind up retiring in training camp in August. This position was ignored last year in the draft, and with linebacker and cornerback needs out there, it's a good bet Belichick will try and get this depth with a veteran castoff rather than a rookie.

But whoever winds up playing offensive line for the Patriots had better be prepared for two things. Doing well. And nobody believing it or understanding why.

Next installment: defensive line.


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