Center of Attention
With Dan Koppen and several other rookies playing prominent roles, the Patriots stay atop the AFC East
Another Sunday, another win, another strong showing by eight rookies, another reason to think that the Patriots are going to be in the mix when the first-round byes are passed out for the AFC playoffs.
This time, in me mist and wind of a damp fall afternoon, the Patriots beat the Browns 9-3. New England is 6-2 and atop the AFC East Consider what a crazy first half of the season this has been. In the wake of releasing team leader Lawyer Milloy for salary-cap reasons five days before the season opener, the Pats suffered an embarrassing 31-0 loss at Buffalo but then followed that with a stunning 31-10 win at Philadelphia and a 23-16 nail-biter over the Jets. Injuries in those three games robbed New England of six starters, including prized new pass rusher Rosevelt Colvin, and the rookie merry-go-round began.
The team's top six picks in the April draft all played valuable roles in the win on Sunday—from first-round choice Ty Warren, who started at defensive tackle and made six tackles, to center Dan Koppen, a fifth-rounder who started his seventh straight game and didn't get pushed around by a stout Cleveland front. Throw in former castoffs like fourth-year outside linebacker Matt Chatham, cut four times by age 25, and no team has so many young no-names playing such major roles.
"You don't find another sport where a team can go from desperation to stardom in the space of a few weeks," says third-year left tackle Matt Light. "But that can happen easier on this team than others, because nobody's [perceived as being] better than the guy next to him. We bring in hardworking guys who are only worried about contributing to a winner. The mind-set is that everybody's equal, even the rookies. They're never hazed. You walk in here, you're supposed to be as good as a starter. The way we've played, with all me injuries, is a testament to the rookies."
Koppen is a prime example. He moved into the starting lineup first when Damien Woody got banged up, then after left guard Mike Compton broke his right leg against the Eagles and Woody was moved into Comp-ton's spot. A three-year starter at Boston College, Koppen lasted until the fifth round because he's neither huge (6'2", 297 pounds) nor particularly athletic. BC coach Tom O'Brien told the Patriots that Koppen would be consistent, work hard every day and hardly ever get overpowered. "He rarely has a bad play, and his strength is his strength," says New England coach Bill Belichick.
Maybe one of the reasons Koppen plays with such confidence is that he doesn't remember the last time anyone in the organization referred to him as a rookie. "It's pretty remarkable, what's happened in the last couple of months," he says. "But I don't think about [Dolphins Pro Bowl linebacker] Zach Thomas being on the other side of the line or anything like that. I can't. The last thing I want to think about is being in awe."
There's little doubt that Belichick and vice president of player personnel Scott Pioli had the best draft in the NFL last spring—one of the best in years. In addition to Warren and Koppen, the secondary hasn't missed a beat with Eugene Wilson (selected in round 2, out of Illinois) starting at free safety and Asante Samuel (round 4, Central Florida) at nickelback; Bethel Johnson (round 2, Texas A&M) is a speed threat as the fourth wideout and as a return man; and Dan Klecko (round 4, Temple) is on the field for about 35 plays a game at linebacker, defensive tackle, blocking back or special teamer. Two more rookies, linebacker Tully Banta-Cain (round 7, Cal) and safety Shawn Mayer (undrafted, Penn State), contribute on special teams.
What's scary for the rest of the league is New England's rich draft situation in 2004: After making some wise deals last spring, the Pats have two picks in each of the first and second rounds and three in the fourth.
In Pioli's office at Gillette Stadium there's a sign that reads WE ARE BUILDING A TEAM—NOT COLLECTING TALENT. This year it seems as if the Patriots are doing a pretty good job of both.