|Two-time Pro Bowler Matt Light, the leader of a Patriots line that allowed just 21 sacks this season, knows how to play a prank - and left tackle. (Jim Davis/Globe Staff)|
Light side of things is his specialty - so is blocking
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. - Guarding Tom Brady's blind side is no laughing matter; well, except when the man charged with protecting the NFL's preeminent passer is also the Patriots' foremost prankster.
Left tackle Matt Light hasn't given opponents a lot of reasons to smile this season as the leader of an offensive line that allowed just 21 sacks during the regular season, the Patriots' lowest total in a non-strike year since the league switched to a 16-game schedule in 1978, but he's constantly keeping his teammates entertained - and on their toes - with his hijinks.
"He's always pulling pranks on people," said left guard Logan Mankins. "He is always playing pranks on Russ Hochstein, really. Things like stealing his car, pouring cologne all over him, just stuff like that."
"The wheels are always turning. He's very clever. It's kind of frightening," said reserve right tackle Ryan O'Callaghan.
Nobody is immune from Light's penchant for puerility, including the primary beneficiary of his Pro Bowl-caliber blocking this season.
As Patriots locker-room legend has it, Light once completely filled Brady's car with Styrofoam peanuts.
"We haven't found out who did that, but yeah, somebody did get him pretty well," said a sheepish Light yesterday. "I think they put exactly five bags of Styrofoam peanuts in his car. Growing up, my family has always been pranksters. It's probably part of my genetic code."
While humor is in Light's DNA, so is outstanding athleticism for someone who is 6 feet 4 inches and 305 pounds. Light was an All-State linebacker at Greenville (Ohio) High, and in his true freshman year at Purdue, he played tight end.
Former NFL offensive lineman and current NFL Network analyst Jamie Dukes said Light is a perfect fit for the Patriots' system. He's athletic enough to be an adept pass blocker and physical enough to be effective in the running game.
"He's a left tackle and a high-priced left tackle in this league for a reason, so he's got it mastered," said Dukes. "He's a dancer. I'm just impressed with his abilities. He still has problems with quick guys, real quick guys, but that's really the only hole he has in his game. He is among the elite tackles in this league."
Although he's been the Patriots' starting left tackle since his rookie season of 2001, it's only within the last two years that the lighthearted Light has gained serious recognition from his peers and the football press.
Last year, he was named to his first Pro Bowl, going as an injury replacement, and this season he was voted a Pro Bowl starter and selected to the Associated Press All-Pro team.
"He's been up there, but he's not a mauler," said Dukes. "See big [Jonathan] Ogden [of the Baltimore Ravens]. He's not that. He's the right guy that fits what they like to do."
In typical self-effacing linemanese, the 29-year-old Light deflected any individual attention, saying his honors were the result of the collective success of the offense and the team, which can complete a 19-0 season with a win Sunday over the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLII.
"I think I've gotten better each season from the standpoint of mentally that I can understand the game a little bit better and all those things make the game a little bit easier for you," said Light. "There are a ton of great players out there. I watch guys a ton on film going against the guys that I'm getting ready to play against and how they play them. Really, they could pick a lot more than they do now and I just feel fortunate to be among those guys."
Brady, who threw an NFL-record 50 touchdown passes this season, said playing offensive line is devoid of glory, so any plaudits that come Light's way are well-deserved.
"Any time your left tackle has a Pro Bowl season, you as a quarterback, you owe him an awful lot," said Brady, who has had Light protecting his back since he took over as the Patriots' starter in 2001, with the exception of the 2005 season, when Light broke his right leg and missed 13 games and the playoffs.
Light is one of nine Patriots who played in Super Bowl XXXVI in 2002, when the Patriots started their reign. That makes Light the envy of the quarterback he used to protect at Purdue, Drew Brees of the New Orleans Saints.
"He's had a great career and I'm extremely happy for him," said Brees, who said he spoke with Light prior to the Patriots' playoff game against the Jacksonville Jaguars. "He's had a great career. He has the potential to have four rings before I have one. That bugs me a little bit."
Brees flashed a big smile when asked if Light was always such a big jokester. He declined to share specific anecdotes, but wasn't surprised that Light's teammates enjoy his comedic turns.
Not everybody at the Super Bowl is a fan of Light's extracurricular conduct. Giants defensive end Osi Umenyiora insinuated in an "Inside the NFL" HBO interview last week that Light was engaging in questionable play.
Light has defused the controversy all week. He said during Media Day that he thought it was Bob Costas stirring things up.
"I didn't think it was anything out of the ordinary," said Light of Umenyiora's comments. "I think we've both said the same thing and I think we both feel as though it was a physical game and one of those types of games where everybody was going to the whistle and that's how it was. If you guys watch the film, it was a dogfight from start to finish, and I think we have a lot of respect for each other."
When it comes to what happens on the field, Light isn't playing around. He's serious and focused.
But his teammates definitely appreciate his ability to keep things, well, light leading up to a game, especially one the magnitude of the Super Bowl.
"It's always fun to have him around," said right guard Stephen Neal.
Just don't turn your back on him, because Light usually gets the last laugh.
Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.