Commentary

Pats missing Mankins more than ever

The absence of Pro Bowl guard, and now his replacement, could derail N.E.'s offense

Updated: August 7, 2010, 12:04 AM ET
By Mike Reiss | ESPNBoston.com

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- In Bill Belichick's 11 seasons as New England Patriots head coach, he has established a winning culture that is singular in its focus.

It's a short-term focus, one that doesn't allow for looking too far into the future. He sometimes jokes that his crystal ball is cloudy.

This is why Belichick's answers have been consistent when asked about disgruntled players not reporting for camp. Whether it was Ty Law, Deion Branch, Richard Seymour or Asante Samuel, he has annually repeated that his focus is solely on the players who were present.

[+] EnlargeDan Connolly
Luc Leclerc/US PresswireWith Nick Kaczur out, five-year veteran Dan Connolly (four career starts) has been thrust into the starting unit at left guard.

It's his way of saying: This train is leaving the station, and if they want to hop on the door's open, but we're not waiting.

This year, the train has chugged along without one of its most important passengers, two-time Pro Bowl left guard Logan Mankins. Nine days into training camp, there is no resolution in sight. The sides haven't spoken since Mankins publicly requested a trade in June, and no one involved seems close to budging.

The Patriots have survived, and sometimes thrived, in similar situations in the past. But through 17 practices of training camp, one wonders if Mankins' absence might end up having the most crippling effect of all.

Left tackle Matt Light previously said that the goal was to become a more physical offense in 2010, and it obviously hurts that one of the unit's most physical players is not present. This seemed to show up at the first practice of camp when the Patriots were working on the goal line and a run over the left side was stopped short of a touchdown, with nose tackle Vince Wilfork breaking through the line and stonewalling running back Sammy Morris.

Overall, running back Laurence Maroney estimated that the running game has had about a 50-50 success rate in the red zone and on the goal line. While allowing that time is needed for the offensive line to gel, and credit must also go to the defense, those early results are probably concerning to the team's coaching staff.

It hasn't helped that the Patriots are down to their third layer of depth at left guard, with Mankins' projected replacement, Nick Kaczur, missing the past 11 padded practices and telling teammates that he has a significant back injury that could sideline him indefinitely and potentially threaten his 2010 season. Kaczur could seek another medical opinion, but the initial diagnosis is grim.

That has thrust five-year veteran Dan Connolly (four career starts) into the starting unit. At times, second-year player Ryan Wendell has filled in there as well.

The rest of the line has remained intact, with Light at left tackle, Dan Koppen at center, Stephen Neal at right guard and Sebastian Vollmer at right tackle.

"I think it's going all right," Light said when asked his thoughts on how the unit has performed through the first stretch of camp. "We've got a big test ahead of us, coming up next week with [the Saints] coming in here and making it a little more competitive from the standpoint that we're not seeing our guys, and a little bit of differences up front.

"We have a lot of young guys on the line right now," he continued, referencing some of the reserves. "We have some guys who have been here for a year and kind of understand the system. A lot of guys rotating in and out, and a lot of guys are trying out different positions. Overall, it's very competitive."

As the player who would normally be lining up next to Mankins, Light was asked how he feels the unit has been affected by his absence.

"At this point, we're doing what we have to do," he responded. "We have a lot of guys who are stepping up and playing well. Then again, you can't make up for a guy who is a Pro Bowl player and has had as much experience, as many games, as many snaps as Logan has. Outside of that, everything is going well."

The train, as it has in the past, moves on.

But based on the first stretch of training camp, one wonders if Mankins' absence will knock it off the tracks.

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPN Boston. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.

Mike Reiss

ESPN New England Patriots reporter

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