INDIANAPOLIS – Dan Connolly barely gets noticed when he does his best work, a 313-pound centre surrounded by wide bodies trying to control the line of scrimmage.
It took just one play, though, lasting perhaps 10 seconds, to put him in a spotlight players his size almost never enter. And that led to his tongue-in-cheek comment about what he would do if he weren’t an offensive lineman.
“Kick returner, right?” Connolly said with a laugh Monday after the New England Patriots’ first practice for the Super Bowl against the New York Giants on Sunday.
Late last season, he was near the front of the return team when Green Bay’s Mason Crosby, wanting to keep the ball from Brandon Tate, kicked a low drive short.
Connolly fielded it on two bounces at the 25-yard line and clutched it to his stomach with two hands. He made it all the way to the Packers 4, swerving, stiff-arming and speeding downfield. His 71-yard kickoff return was the longest by a lineman in NFL history. It set up Tom Brady’s 2-yard touchdown pass to Aaron Hernandez that cut the Patriots deficit to 17-14. They won 31-27.
Now he’s filling in again, although at a position he’s more familiar with. When nine-year starter Dan Koppen suffered a season-ending injury to his left knee in the season opener, Connolly stepped in at centre and the line was just as solid.
He credited Dante Scarnecchia, a Patriots assistant since 1991 and offensive line coach since 1999, with easing his transition from guard, his primary position the past two seasons.
“It was probably something he’s been working on for years,” said Connolly, who will face the Giants aggressive pass rush. “When I was needed I was able to just step in and do it and not even think about it. I think he just prepared me a long time ago to be ready.”
Connolly was on the Patriots practice squad throughout the 2007 season after signing before the second game and didn’t play in the 17-14 Super Bowl loss to the Giants.
After Koppen was hurt this season, Connolly started nine games then was sidelined with a groin injury. Ryan Wendell stepped in for the next one but injured his calf. Then it was Nick McDonald’s turn, starting two games before Wendell came back for one until Connolly was ready again.
“Nick, when he was in there, did a great job,” left guard Logan Mankins said. “He stepped up those two weeks and did a fine job for us. He made a majority of the calls. We couldn’t have asked anything more of him.”
The Patriots have had three players starting with them for the first time on the offensive line most of the season.
Brian Waters was signed after 11 years with Kansas City to replace the retired Stephen Neal at right guard. Rookie first-round pick Nate Solder started 11 regular-season and two playoff games at right tackle, while Sebastian Vollmer sat out with back and foot injuries. Then there are the changes at centre.
The Patriots also had to scramble in the next to last regular-season game against Miami.
Left tackle Matt Light hurt his ankle in pregame warmups, so Mankins started in his place with Donald Thomas getting the call at left guard. And when Mankins was injured early in the game, Solder moved to left tackle and Marcus Cannon, another rookie, went in at right tackle.
Somehow, Tom Brady still gets outstanding protection.
“I think it goes back to practice,” Connolly said. “We don’t just play five guys in there all the time and don’t rotate. We put everybody in, different combinations of people, and I think over the years and through 110 practices through the season it pays off when we get comfortable playing with any combination of who’s in there.”
Now there’s a chance Vollmer will play against the Giants.
“There is definitely a possibility,” coach Bill Belichick said. “I don’t know if we will know about that until we put him through the full week of practice. He is definitely making progress, so he is getting there.”
No matter who plays the offensive line on Sunday, Connolly expects them to perform well, just as he’s done.
“I’ve played with anybody they could put in there,” he said, “so I know they’re going to do the job.”