By: Bob George/BosSports.net
March 29, 2006

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Next in a series of positional analysis for the 2005 New England Patriots. Today: offensive line.

They tried to make a football player out of Ernie "The Cat" Ladd and they did, to some extent.

They tried to make a football player out of Andre the Giant, but that went pretty much nowhere.

They tried to make a football player out of Stephen Neal, and he's got three Super Bowl rings when last we checked.

Vince McMahon? Who needs him? Only those folks who miss the XFL, you might say.

Of course, comparing Neal's brand of wrestling to the pro style is like comparing ground beef with filet mignon. Ladd did have a somewhat decent career, playing eight AFL seasons for San Diego, Kansas City and Houston (now Tennessee) before retiring to a career in the squared circle. The massive Andre (real name Andre Roussimoff), who at his peak stood 7 feet 4 inches tall and weighed 500 pounds, was offered a contract with the Washington Redskins in 1974 by then head coach George Allen. Andre figured he could make more in wrestling and turned Allen down.

Neal's story beats the tar out of these other two, much like being spun around over the head and then slammed to the mat in a piledriver.

Neal was a renowned wrestler at Cal State-Bakersfield, a school which is known for its outstanding basketball, swimming, soccer and wrestling programs, but has not football program at all. Western Massachusetts folks might remember the CSUB Roadrunners winning three NCAA Division 2 basketball titles in the 1990s at the Springfield Civic Center (since remodeled and renamed the MassMutual Center) when the Birthplace of Basketball hosted the Division 2 Elite Eight. In Bakersfield sporting lore (and it is a substantial one, with luminaries like Frank Gifford and Rick Mears calling this fast growing city home), when you think about CSUB, you think about basketball stars like Beau Redstone, Reggie Phillips and Pat Douglass.

But you didn't think of Stephen Neal, until recently.

Three Super Bowl rings have a way of elevating one's status in an historical context. Today, Neal is one of the biggest BMOCs at CSUB. More people in Bakersfield who follow athletics know of Neal and what he has done for the Patriots. The local media, who would otherwise not give a hang about the Patriots, go out of their way to tell all of Kern County how Neal's team did that day, much the same way they always give the Houston Texans score because of another local son, David Carr.

Neal resigned with the Patriots last week, signing a 4-year, $6.9 million deal which will keep him in Foxborough through the 2009 season. The deal, which is good in that it doesn't expire the same year Matt Light's long term deal does (Light is signed through 2010), ensures that one of the more endearing sidebars of the Patriots will continue to play out here in the area.

Neal won two NCAA wrestling titles while at CSUB. He compiled a career record of 156 wins and 10 losses. He was the winner of the Dan Hodge Award in 1999, the wrestling equivalent of the Heisman Trophy. In 2001, Bill Belichick and Dante Scarnecchia saw enough raw talent in Neal to bring him to Foxborough and see what he could do. He was signed as a free agent in July, was waived and wound up on the Philadelphia Eagles practice squad, then came back to Foxborough and was placed on the Patriot practice squad. He did travel with the team to New Orleans for Super Bowl XXXVI yet did not play, but did collect a Super Bowl ring.

Neal began to play in 2002, and began to show his promise as a guard. Injuries that year and in 2003 curtailed his progress, but by 2004 he was a bona fide starter and helped the Patriots win Super Bowl XXXIX over the other team Neal tried to make in 2001. His assimilation of guard techniques is nothing short of remarkable given the fact that he had zero collegiate football experience. The Patriots were so sure of Neal's progress that they allowed Joe Andruzzi to leave as a free agent, pairing him with last year's top draft pick, Logan Mankins of Fresno State. Neal and Mankins, both from California's vast San Joaquin Valley (in terms of which college they attended - Neal actually hails from San Diego while Mankins is from Catheys Valley), will be a terrific Patriot guard tandem for at least the next four years.

Neal's signing stabilizes the Patriot offensive line for 2006. Assuming Light rebounds from his broken foot injury sustained last year in the Pittsburgh game, the line will look like Light, Mankins, Dan Koppen, Neal and Nick Kaczur. If this unit can stay together and remain healthy throughout 2006, it will be among the best offensive lines in the conference.

Kaczur, himself also a rookie in 2005 like Mankins, was pressed into more duty than he imagined thanks to the Light injury. Leaving out all growing pains issues, Kaczur did well overall and helped make Tom Ashworth expendable (he left via free agency for Seattle). Kaczur should beat out Brandon Gorin for the starting right tackle job in 2006.

Koppen will be a major issue at the end of the season as he will be a free agent. Being from Boston College, he would be a candidate for a hometown discount. But Koppen, who himself is recuperating from a long term 2005 injury like Light is, might be looking at what happened to this year's crop of free agent departures and think things over carefully. Look for the Patriots to try and extend Koppen before he hits the open market at the end of the year.

Depth at the offensive line is adequate at the very least. Gorin, Billy Yates, Gene Mruczkowski and Russ Hochstein are the early favorites to earn backup spots. Both Gorin and Hochstein have seen extensive time as starters, the latter having been a former Super Bowl starter. All four of these players are signed through 2006.

What with all the recent defections, it was refreshing to see Neal stay put. With Carr being jostled about in Houston thanks to his joke of an offensive line, Neal might just be the brightest football light in Kern County, California. In a city with one of the more preeminent JUCO football programs in the nation, a city which craves its Friday night high school football games, a city which has a terrific AFL2 franchise called the Blitz, Neal carries the torch for Bakersfield and carries it very well.

And it all began because he was good at pinning two shoulder blades to a mat.

Next installment: defensive line.


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