FOXBOROUGH — When the Patriots made the first of their seven trips to the Super Bowl — on Jan. 26, 1986 — the average size of their starting offensive line was 6 feet 4 inches, 276 pounds. No one topped 300 pounds.
A generation later, as the Patriots attempt Sunday to qualify for their eighth Super Bowl, the physical enormity of the players is impossible to miss. All five offensive line starters weigh at least 300 pounds.On the defensive line, Vince Wilfork (325) and Kyle Love (315) dwarf most of their predecessors.
All this supersizing might suggest the National Football League is now strictly a big man’s game. Don’t be misled. Some of the smallest players are making the largest impact.
How do they do it? To play big, says 5-foot-9 receiver Wes Welker, you have to believe that you can.
“I think the two key things are being tough and being smart,’’ says
Welker. “Being able to take those hits, and at the same time being smart and understanding what the defense is doing, being able to attack it a certain way where you make those windows just a little bit bigger where you’re not taking those hits.’’
Patriots fans have, over a steady string of 1,000-yard seasons, seen Welker repeatedly take big hits from bigger defenders that leave many wondering if he’s hurt and won’t be able to get back up.
Welker’s not the only one. Of the 52 players on the Patriots’ active roster, only one is listed shorter than the 5-9 next to running back Shane Vereen’s name.
Vereen, though, has an announcement to make.
“They always say I’m 5-9. I’m 5-10, for the record,’’ said Vereen, smiling.
Assuming either figure is correct, Vereen is still considered small by NFL standards. But he joins fellow running back Danny Woodhead (5-8), and 5-9 receivers Welker and Deion Branch, a foursome who have repeatedly shown that there are more important football traits to consider than simply height.
This, despite a longstanding trend that NFL players keep getting bigger.
“I don’t think you’re ever going to squeeze small guys out of the game. The Patriots just do an unbelievable job of putting players in a position that regardless of size, they can win,’’ said Gil Brandt, who has evaluated NFL talent since 1960 and was the longtime director of player personnel for the Dallas Cowboys.
“I don’t know if anybody has ever done it like [Patriots coach] Bill [Belichick] has, or anybody ever will. They know what they’re looking for. Bill has a vision of how these guys are going to be and how he’s going to play them. What the Patriots do, when they see a player who might not be as tall as they’d like, or not as fast, they go to other traits or characteristics.’’
It seems to have worked, because the Patriots have won division titles in 10 of the past 12 seasons, with five Super Bowl trips in that span.
They’ve done it with contributions from players tall and small. Welker is the Patriots’ career leader in receptions, and has more catches since the start of the 2007 season than any NFL receiver (80 more, to be exact). Woodhead has scored seven touchdowns this season and is a dual, hard-to-cover threat running or catching the ball. Branch is the club’s career leader in postseason receiving yardage, and was the MVP of Super Bowl XXXIX.
Pro football might be getting bigger, but according to a former receiver who felt he was undersized, the game has never been built around size. It’s fueled by two other must-have attributes.
“The game will always be built on speed,’’ said Don Beebe (5-11), who spent nine seasons in the NFL and played in six Super Bowls, helping beat the Patriots in January 1997 while with the Green Bay Packers. “Players are getting bigger, but they’re keeping their speed, if not getting faster.
“But attitude, hands down, is the No. 1 thing that separates the player from making it or not making it. That’s why a guy like Wes Welker can make it, no matter what his size is. Wes Welker knows when he steps on the football field that nobody can guard him.’’
Locating the little guy and bringing him down is the defense’s job, and facing Woodhead, Vereen, Welker, and Branch in practice every day isn’t easy for the Patriots’ defenders. But it could prove beneficial on Sunday, when they will try to stop the Ravens and their 5-8 running back sparkplug, Ray Rice.
“People have problems with Woodhead because they can’t see him, and it’s true, going up against him in practice, you really can’t see him behind those offensive linemen, especially because we’ve got some tall guys,’’ said Love, the Patriots’ defensive tackle who stands 6-1. “It’s tough on defenses keeping track of him, and it’s part of the reason why Ray Rice has so much production himself, because by the time you see him, he’s gone.’’
The Patriots’ huge offensive line will shield Woodhead and Vereen as best it can and protect quarterback Tom Brady long enough so he can throw passes to Welker. It’s a strategy that has worked exceptionally well for the Patriots over the years, no matter how big or small the players might be.
“Players are often stereotyped,’’ said Patriots left tackle Nate Solder, who is 6-8, 320 pounds. “But if you can make plays, it really doesn’t matter what size you are.’’