FOXBOROUGH -- Logan Mankins wished his inquisitor good luck, then laughed to himself. The subject was offensive guard play.
Surely, Mankins was asked, there must be something exciting about being a guard, a story that could bring to life what it's like being tightly sandwiched between a center and tackle each snap.
"Just a lot of knocking heads," he said ever so politely.
Mankins, a budding second-year pro, knocks them with decisive force from his left guard position. Meanwhile, Stephen Neal brings a similar approach on the other side of the line, at right guard.
It's nothing fancy, but together Mankins and Neal form a 1-2 punch that coach Bill Belichick believes is instrumental in helping the Patriots achieve their offensive goals. The key is that both are athletic, strong, and tough, which allows the offense to run the same plays to both sides of the field.
"I do think there is some symmetry there and that certainly helps us offensively and helps our play-calling, because any time you're in balance like that you can do one thing for one guy, and then if you do it the opposite way, you're sort of flipping roles," Belichick said.
Being able to flip those roles seamlessly is a benefit compared to the alternative.
"We've all been in that situation before, where you pull one way because the puller can pull, and the guy who doesn't pull can be more of a double-team guy. Or you run screens one way so your athletic guy can get out and be in the screen and your stouter, more physical guy who doesn't run as well doesn't get out," Belichick said.
"Sometimes you have to modify your scheme and play-calling a bit, but I don't think that's the case with those two guys. We run plays in our offense where the guards pull and lead the runner through the hole. So having guys that can do that, you don't have to make them all run one way because one guard can pull and the other guy really can't. It's not one of those deals."
As guards, Mankins and Neal are also asked to hold up in pass protection, blocking linemen while possibly picking up blitzers. Their ability to execute and hold blocks -- and adjusting at the last moment to changes from the opposition -- figures to be a key in tomorrow's game against an aggressive Bears defense.
The 6-foot-4-inch, 310-pound Mankins, the team's first-round pick last year, has been the mainstay of the line since the start of the 2005 season. He's the only player to start every game since that time, and is now picking up momentum in league circles as a potential Pro Bowl selection.
Meanwhile, the 6-4, 305-pound Neal returned to the lineup last week after missing three games with a shoulder injury, and his presence seemed to provide a jolt to the line that is always seeking synergy.
"I enjoy playing in between them," said center Dan Koppen. "I have every confidence in the world that we're on the same page with the stuff that's going on, and we're also able to figure stuff out on the run. The thing about those guys is that they're always trying to get better, and they're physical. They like to get up there and hit people."
When the 24-year-old Mankins looks at the 30-year-old Neal, he sees a guard who plays with uncanny balance, which is partially a result of Neal's background as a collegiate wrestler at Cal State-Bakersfield. When Neal peers to his left to size up Mankins, he sees pure strength, which probably traces to Mankins's days growing up on a cattle ranch in Catheys Valley, Calif. Neal also marvels at how Mankins can dunk a basketball.
A good pair of guards can indeed take a team far on the basketball court, while Patriots fans can certainly appreciate the position on the football field from the days in which Hall of Famer John Hannah starred in Foxborough (1973-85).
With Mankins and Neal signed through 2009, the Patriots have a pair of guards that can grow together for years. Belichick looks at the duo and sees players who could also line up at tackle because of their athleticism.
"I'd imagine if Steve had been a college football player, they probably would have played him at tackle, like Fresno played Mankins at tackle in college," Belichick said. "I can't imagine colleges having a lot of players who would be better than them at that position. So that being said, I think they have some tackle qualities that they can bring inside to playing guard, in terms of playing in space and pass protection."
Both said they are happy at guard, and agree that they'd be even happier if they continue to fly under the radar. Much like the position they play, Mankins and Neal are no-frills guys, content to knock heads with little fanfare.
In other words, there's nothing exciting to see here.
"I'd say if you hear a guard's name, it probably means a penalty or you're getting beat," Neal said. "You really don't want to be known."
Mike Reiss can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.