Center of Attention With Dan Koppen and several other rookies playing prominent roles, the Patriots stay atop the AFC East

November 03, 2003

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 the 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 the injuries, is a testament to the

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 Compton'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
as if the Patriots are doing a pretty good job of both.

COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER A fifth-round find, Koppen has stood his ground while also makingthe line calls.

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