Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Opinion: Time for Stork to become center of attention

Stork (66) will encounter a few bumps in the road, but his time is now regardless
He's called the pivot, and aside from the obvious grey humor involved with the moniker, he is the most important member of a team's offensive line.

How important is the center to the line of scrimmage?  As important as the point man for a military recon team.  He is as important is the point guard in basketball or the catcher in baseball or the centerman in hockey.  Every play starts with him.

The New England Patriots came into this summers' training camp touting the reigning Rimington Award winner - an honor presented to the best center in college football - as their fourth round draft pick, yet Bryan Stork quickly disappeared into the bowels of Gillette Stadium where the teams' medical staff and trainers nursed him back to health after the 6' 4", 300 pound pivot suffered a leg injury before July had expired.

He spent weeks on the shelf, emerging briefly every now and then, perhaps to let the media know that he was still with the team, and working towards a return to the field - but by the time he did, he had missed nearly all of camp, leaving last season's not-good-enough incumbent Ryan Wendell to assume his accustomed position...

...but when Wendell went down in the the first game of the season with a bum ankle, his literal right hand man - right guard Dan Connolly - took the reigns.

Wendell is certainly serviceable in the short-term, as is Connolly, but when Connolly was forced to slide over to the pivot from right guard, the choice to replace him was journeyman Jordan Devey, who at 6' 7" and 315 pounds is not well enough height/weight proportioned to handle the position, and as a result, opposing defensive tackles have been able to get under his pad level and drive him back into the pocket on passing downs.

Devey is a tackle, but has been used at guard while head ball coach Bill Belichick has been biding his time to get Stork into the line up - and as a result of the personnel needs for the experimental rotation to find a solid mix along the line, both Devey and Marcus Cannon have been miscast as interior blockers.  A move to Stork and to activate Josh Kline to take over at left guard could instantly solve the protection problem.

So the Patriots' offensive line is under intense scrutiny by media and fans, many bemoaning the trade that sent Pro Bowl left guard Logan Mankins to Tampa Bay as the culprit in the lines' struggles - but that isn't the collective issue - never was.  The unsettled situation at center is, and has always been.

Baltimore Ravens General Manager Ozzie Newsome offered his perspective on the pivot recently, stating, "You need to have someone who can neutralize that nose tackle - If you don't, everything will get screwed up."

"Your running game won't be effective and you'll also have somebody in your quarterback's face on every play."

Any of that sound familiar?

It's a domino effect: The center can't get push in the running game, so the guard on the strong side cheats over to help push the nose tackle out of the gap instead of getting to the second level and boxing out the Mike, who can now rush in cleanly and fill the gap created by the double team...

...and in the passing game the guard has to slide over to help double the rush tackle, leaving the offensive tackle on that side to deal with either the three-tech or the outside linebacker, leaving one of them free with only a running back to impede his progress.

The importance of the center position can not be overstated.  If the defensive linemen are getting to the quarterback quickly or the pocket is collapsing from the inside out, the center has either missed something in his protection cadence or is just physically unable to sustain his blocks, and Brady hasn't been able to step into his throws as a result.

If the running game isn't working or, as we've witnessed many times in the first three games, the running back is forced to bounce outside, it's because the center can't control the nose.  Of course there are sometimes mitigating circumstances, but any breakdown along the line begins at the pivot.

You see, the center has an ideal view of the opposing defenses' alignment from his vantage point, and as a result is usually the one responsible for calling out protection, forming a base call that dictates to all over the subsequent changes made by the quarterback in formation before the snap - and then has to get the ball to the quarterback cleanly and swiftly before getting to his blocking assignment, a process that takes literally a split second.

Your center has to be an athlete, perhaps the best of all of the other linemen - he has to have the feet of a tackle, the hips of a cornerback, the mean streak of a guard and the intelligence of the quarterback, for it is his job to know every play, even where the receivers are going in their patterns so as to know where the passing lanes are likely to be...

...which is probably why Stork has been relegated to minimal snaps in the fourth quarter in the past two games, using them for game reps while he continues to get up to speed - but the only way that he will ever be ready to play, is to just play.

Stork is a rookie, so there's still a learning curve.  Sometimes he's going to look like a rookie, but at other times he's looked like a season veteran - the sample size is so small that a proper prognostication of his potential success is much the same as throwing a dart, but he was a damned good center at Florida State and Belichick used fourth round draft capital to snag him.

The time for experimentation and rotation is gone and neither Wendell nor Connolly are the answer to lead this offensive line - the time is now for the reigning Rimington Trophy winner to be on the ball.  He's big, smart, athletic and has a mean streak a mile wide - and even the bumps in the road that come with on-the-job-training are better than the entire line remaining in flux.

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