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Impact of losing Koppen?

Nine-year starter Dan Koppen left Monday's win in Miami with a broken ankle.

Despite a comfortable win in Miami, a venue that had previously brought out the mediocre in Tom Brady and the rest of New England, the Patriots are dealing with some bad news this week. Late in the first half, center Dan Koppen led the way on what amounted to a meaningless quarterback sneak, but stayed on the ground wincing in pain after Dolphins linebacker Karlos Dansby landed on his left ankle and broke it. There is no official timetable for his return, but The Boston Globe is speculating somewhere between six and 10 weeks.

While Koppen is a fine center, his 2007 campaign earned him both Pro Bowl and All-Pro honors, what the Patriots are really going to miss here is continuity up front. Today on ESPNBoston, Chris Forsberg writes about the special bond between a quarterback and a center, but I think it goes beyond that. First, to Forsberg’s article.

Asked to describe his relationship with quarterback Jim Kelly, former Buffalo Bills center Kent Hull once noted, ‘We were almost intimate.’ Tom Brady struck a similar tone last year when talking about Dan Koppen, his center with the New England Patriots. ‘There’s only one other butt on this planet I like: Koppen’s and my wife’s,’ he said on Boston sports radio station WEEI.

There’s no way around it: There’s a certain bond that’s formed when a quarterback spends more than 1,000 snaps each season with his hands hovering near an offensive lineman’s hindquarters.

While I certainly agree that there is a special bond between quarterback and center, and I may have used the example of Terry Bradshaw asking to put his hands under former center Mike Webster’s butt one last time at his 1989 Hall of Fame induction, I think New England’s problems don’t stop there with regards to losing Koppen. It has become cliché at this point to say it, but an offensive line needs some continuity. When the Patriots insert Dan Connolly into their lineup at center, they will get a reserve that has starting experience at guard, but they will lose a leader that knew both the offensive scheme and the men to his left.

I say only the men to his left, because the Patriots have already had issues along the right side of the line. New England signed perennial Pro Bowl veteran Brian Waters to step in at right guard, and first round pick Nate Solder out of Colorado has filled in for the injured Sebastian Volmer at right tackle. Now, with the loss of Koppen, the Patriots will be playing with over half its line not knowing each other, a fact that has ramifications for both the run game and Tom Brady’s terrific passing game.

The obvious questions from New England fans will revolve around pass protection. Will Connolly make the proper calls against teams that bring complex blitz packages, such as next week’s opponent the San Diego Chargers. More than that, and here is where having a new right guard doesn’t help matters, will Connolly know when to shade to either side when a defensive end stunts down? Is there that level of trust from both Waters and Mankins that Connolly will be there as a last line of defense if they need him? Who does he assist in that situation?

And in the run game, does Connolly know both of his guards well enough to know whether or not he needs to lend them a “chip” in a zone run play when the opposing defensive tackle is in a three or four technique(lined up right in the guard or shaded outside), or if he can advance straight away to the second level to bring the wood to an opposing linebacker? On counters and trap plays, will Connolly have the timing down with his fellow line mates to pull after they all block down on the play side, along with knowing where the running back is at a given time?

All these thoughts on the sentimental value of losing Koppen are right, but if the Patriots don’t realize that this is about more than losing “Brady’s favorite butt,” there could be some big problems protecting Tom’s.

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