Wendell at the center of it all for Patriots

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Wendell at the center of it all for Patriots

FOXBORO -- Ryan Wendell is an offensive lineman straight out of central casting. He's six-foot-two and 300 pounds with a beard like Paul Bunyan's and a voice that stirs in his barrel chest and oozes bass.

He's the Patriots center, the anchor in the middle of the line that has helped produce the NFL's most prolific offense. Despite his prototypical look, it was a long time before he finally won a starting job in New England.

"I'm really happy to have a role," Wendell said, thinking back to earlier in his career, "and to have that role be something that I get to go out there every week and play on the field, and do what I can to help the team."

It was a slow climb for the guy his teammates call "Wendy." The Patriots brought him to New England as an undrafted free agent out of Fresno State in 2008. In his first two seasons, he was released and signed back onto New England's practice squad three separate times. In 2010, he played in 15 games, mostly on special teams. Last season, he started three games as a backup to a banged-up offensive line.

For four years, he worked as he waited for his chance to be a regular contributor.

"I don't think you ever have too much time to look back, especially when you're preparing for a team like the Bills," Wendell said. "But every guy on this team has a role. And everybody wants that role to be expanded. Everybody wants to do as much as they can to help this team win. I've been happy about what my role has been here, but I've always wanted it to expand. So the fact that it has, has been great. I've really enjoyed it. I hope that whatever my role is each week, I do my best to help the team win."

After a strong training camp this summer, Wendell was given the difficult task of replacing 10-year veteran Dan Koppen, who was released in August. It was clear that Wendell had the better showing, but he was still a relative unknown outside the walls of Gillette Stadium. Koppen, on the other hand, had started in three Super Bowls.

Given the reins to the position, it didn't get much easier for Wendell. The offensive line was shaky in New England's preseason games, and though he appeared to acquit himself well enough, Wendell was one of a handful under the microscope as the offensive line generated buzz for all the wrong reasons.

Tom Brady was consistently pressured behind a new-look group of lineman. Matt Light had retired. Logan Mankins was hurting, as was Sebastian Vollmer. Questions lingered as to whether or not the new group would be up to snuff.

But the Patriots coaching staff was confident things would change. They knew that they had talent on the line. And they knew that Wendell could handle things in the middle.

Now they're reaping the benefits of keeping him there.

"I think clearly the obvious is that Wendell replaced a very, very good football player and a very popular football player," offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia said recently. "Thats as tough a decision as weve ever had around here for those reasons. But we also knew that this is a young guy that has played very well when weve asked him to play. Hes done a very good job through the first eight games of the season. Hes all the things we thought he would be.

"Hes very tough, hes very smart, hes a really competitive guy on every down, through every down. Hes a great finisher. Thats why hes here and thats why we kept him as a rookie and kept him around here and thats why this kid is on our roster and thats why hes starting for us, for all those reasons. Its not a comparison, thats just what he is. So yeah, were pleased with the way things have gone there."

So are his teammates. Wendell has always been intelligent -- a Southern California boy, he earned the California Governor's Scholar Share Award in high school -- and his know-how has brought stability to an offensive line that has continuously dealt with moving parts because of injuries. He is the only interior lineman to start each of New England's first eight games.

"When he stepped in this year, he didn't miss a beat," said Patriots guard Donald Thomas. "He's able to communicate out there and he knows what he's talking about, and he gets everyone directed. I think that's what a good center can do, and I think that's what he's been doing so far this year."

Thomas knows how hard it can be to try to fill the shoes of a Patriots mainstay. With Mankins nursing injuries throughout the course of this season, Thomas has started four games. Like Wendell, he was also somewhat of an NFL long shot. The Patriots interior line is full of them, in fact.

Starting right guard Dan Connolly, like Wendell, was undrafted. He was released once by the Jaguars and once by the Patriots before becoming a regular starter last season. Thomas was a Dolphins sixth-round pick in 2008 who has been released three times in his career by three different teams.

The three of them have never taken the time to sit together and reflect on their roads to NFL relevance, but they know their experiences have allowed them to prove what kind of players they are. They are the kind that Bill Belichick loves, the kind that love football.

"You know you just never forget where you came from," Thomas said, relating Wendell's journey to his own. "You realize why you're in the situation that you are and you just have to embrace it every single time you get a chance to go out there and play because you weren't just given it right off the bat. You had to work for it."

Wendell's work has turned him into a reliable center for an improving offensive line that has only allowed two sacks in the last three games and helped produce the AFC's third leading rusher in Stevan Ridley.

The positive buzz surrounding the group now probably isn't enough to balance out the negative it heard during the preseason, but for Wendell, that's fine.

Even in his attitude, he is a prototypical trench-dweller, cast perfectly for the role he's loved since he first put on pads as a freshman at Diamond Bar High School 12 years ago.

"I'm an offensive lineman," he said, smiling. "What we like the best is when people aren't talking about us. That's our goal. When we do our job right, people shouldn't be talking about us."

Mingo, Branch among the Patriots sitting out of preseason game No. 3

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Mingo, Branch among the Patriots sitting out of preseason game No. 3

Barkevious Mingo has made his way to Charlotte to join the Patriots, but he will not take the field with his new club about 24 hours after being traded by the Browns. 

The 6-foot-4, 240-pounder that the Patriots acquired for a fifth-round pick on Thursday went through a workout long before Friday night's preseason game, but he was not in uniform with his teammates leading up to kickoff. 

Along with Mingo, Rob Gronkowski, Rob Ninkovich, Jabaal Sheard, Jonathan Cooper, Shaq Mason, Malcolm Mitchell, Kamu Grugier-Hill, Shea McClellin and Alan Branch were not on the field for warmups. All four players who are still on the physically unable to perform list -- Sebastian Vollmer, Danny Amendola, Tre' Jackson and Dion Lewis -- were also missing. 

Branch has been reinstated by the Patriots and re-joined the team after serving a team-imposted week-long suspension, but it appears as though he will not take the field Friday night. 

Ninkovich (triceps), Mitchell (elbow), Cooper (foot), Mason (hand, reportedly), Sheard (knee) and McClellin (undisclosed) have been dealing with injuries and were not expected to play. Grugier-Hill is a bit of a surprise absence given that he practiced for the Patriots this week. 

Keep an eye on running back DJ Foster and receiver Keshawn Martin, both of whom will see preseason game action for the first time this summer and could make late runs at roster spots. Patriots receiver Julian Edelman may also see some game action for the first time this preseason as he was on the field with the team and in uniform before the game. Logan Ryan, Nate Ebner and undrafted rookie tight end Bryce Williams may see their first game action as well. 

As Tom E. Curran reported, Tom Brady will play, though Jimmy Garoppolo will start. Brady and the team's other quarterbacks took the field together for warmups in the lead-up to kickoff. 

Curran: In Brown case, NFL -- again -- asleep at the investigatory switch

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Curran: In Brown case, NFL -- again -- asleep at the investigatory switch

The problem isn’t that the people running the NFL are stupid. They think everyone else is stupid. That’s the problem.  

Latest evidence submitted to the already existing mountain of proof that the NFL thinks we’re all a bunch of drooling dolts? Deciding to give Giants kicker Josh Brown a one-game suspension for violating the domestic-violence policy instead of the mandated six. 

Did they not think people would find out Brown’s suspension stemmed from allegedly putting hands on his ex-wife? And that questions would naturally arise as to why Brown’s suspension was 85 percent shorter than what the NFL JUST mandated? And that, given the NFL’s brutally inept investigations and jaundiced rulings in Bountygate, Deflategate and the Ray Rice case meant that “Hey, take our word for it, we know what we’re doing here . . . ” wasn’t sufficient. 

Apparently. 

Because here the NFL is, softshoeing around the topic, suggesting without stating that Brown’s ex-wife might be given to exaggeration and expecting that to be enough. It isn’t. 

We discussed this Tuesday afternoon on WEEI and that day I said about 44 times that the NFL owes transparency to the American public that misplaced its trust in it being able to do the right thing. 
Hell, if a member Roger Goodell’s newly minted Star Chamber was saying just a year ago that he was “wrong to put his faith in the league” why should we feel okay accepting “Because we said so . . . ” as a reasonable explanation?

My friend Mike Florio at Pro Football Talk wrote on this topic as well on Friday:

But for the bounty scandal and the Ray Rice second suspension and #Deflategate, maybe folks would be inclined to give the league the benefit of the doubt and accept the notion that full transparency would undermine privacy interests of the player involved and his family. Given those past incidents and in consideration of the current circumstances, it’s difficult to not wonder whether the facts as collected by the team and the league fairly led to a decision to suspend Brown for only one game, or whether that’s simply the outcome the league and the team wanted, regardless of whether the facts (including a claim by Brown’s ex-wife of 20 prior incidents of violence) suggest that the punishment should have been more severe.

Would I like to be able to accept the NFL at face value on this issue and others like it? Absolutely. It’s not my fault that I can’t, and it’s the responsibility of the NFL and the Giants to properly balance player privacy interests against loudly-stated proclamations from 2014 about no excuses and no tolerance for domestic violence in a way that doesn’t require the benefit of the doubt or any other courtesy to be extended by a public whose confidence in the game is supposedly of paramount importance to the league.

If only the league would hire a Senior Vice President of Investigations to ensure that the league neither bungles its detective work nor loses the public and player’s faith that it’s not bending the rules. 

SURPRISE! It did hire one. And she’s a yooooooge! Giants fan. 

Here’s a couple of snippets from the fawning New York Times piece written in February about Lisa Friel:

“The stated option chosen by the N.F.L., … is no longer to defer to law enforcement but rather to conduct professional internal investigations that are not designed to please the head office, yet dispel the impression that its biggest stars seem above reproach.

"This option largely comes down to a woman named Lisa Friel, whose league office is adorned with portraits of giants: the former Giants quarterback Phil Simms, the current Giants quarterback Eli Manning — and, most tellingly, Robert M. Morgenthau, the august former Manhattan district attorney.

"Friel spent nearly three decades working for Morgenthau, serving for many years as the chief of his Sex Crimes Prosecution Unit. She said he had instilled in her a prosecutorial code of conduct: 'You investigate every allegation that comes in; you investigate it objectively, sensitively and thoroughly. And when you get to the end of your investigation, you make an objective decision about what happened. That’s your job.'

"Friel said she was applying those principles as the N.F.L.’s senior vice president for investigations — a position created in the wake of the league’s mishandling of the case of Ray Rice, then a Baltimore Ravens running back, whose chilling assault of his future wife was captured on surveillance video and became, among other things, a public relations disaster for the N.F.L.

"Friel is responsible for investigating alleged violations of the league’s personal conduct code: domestic violence, sexual assault, animal cruelty, blackmail, extortion, racketeering, disorderly conduct, you name it. She emphasizes that the adjudications or dismissals of court cases do not dictate the outcomes of her own inquiries, which some officials in the players’ union find at times to be overzealous."

So within a year of the NFL hiring someone because the Ray Rice investigation yielded an embarrassingly, distressingly insufficient suspension, the NFL has handed down what seems to be an insufficient suspension.

In an investigation ostensibly headed by Friel. Of a player who plays for the team she adores. 

"Her job, which is intended to establish much-needed consistency in the league’s handling of misconduct cases, is at the center of a decidedly alpha-male environment. But Friel, 58, sees it as a twinning of passions, 'a perfect fit.'

"To begin with, she is a devout Giants fan, a season-ticket holder whose basement in her Brooklyn apartment is, as The Daily Beast once reported, a blue-and-red shrine to the Jints. Among her earliest memories of growing up in New Jersey is watching a Giants game on a black-and-white television and asking her father: 'Who are we rooting for, Daddy? The ones in the black uniforms or the ones in the white uniforms?' "

Now, circling back to my original point. I don’t think Lisa Friel -- accomplished prosecutor -- is going to go easy on a wife-beater in her new job just because she’s sat in the owner’s box a few times and had a crush on Phil Simms. 

Nor do I think John Mara -- another member of Goodell’s Star Chamber and a particularly beloved owner on 345 Park Avenue -- is going to want Brown on his team if his actions were truly as revolting as they seem without context. 

But that neither Friel nor Mara are made to uncomfortably stand and explain the is a kind of favoritism. And it’s the type of wrong-headed PR move that only an arrogant monolith like the NFL would embrace. 

Friel addressed in the Times story her vigilance at being used by the NFL as a puppet. 

"But Friel also rejects any story line that she is a co-opted cog in a public relations effort to stem an image crisis.

" 'I am a professional at what I do, and I take what I do so seriously, and the repercussions are so important, that I would never not do the right thing,'  she said.

"She added, 'If I felt the pressure to do something other than that, I would go look for another job.' "

The only thing the NFL’s offered as a reason for Brown’s light suspension is that neither his ex-wife nor authorities cooperated in the investigation the NFL tried to conduct. Whether that’s the whole truth or not, folding their tent and not offering an explanation for it flies in the face of this statement made by Friel six months ago talking to the Times. 

"The only issue (she declined even to call it a frustration) is the expectation by some of instant investigative findings following an allegation. Friel said that she was no longer in law enforcement, had no subpoena power and must pursue these cases more like a reporter or private investigator.

"This means asking the local police department for incident reports, transcripts of 911 calls, photographs, interviews with responding officers. This means wading through redacted documents, being rebuffed by witnesses and alleged victims, waiting for the processing of freedom-of-information requests. This means hitting walls, putting together a to-do list, then waiting for the case to be adjudicated, dismissed or closed.

"Then, Friel said, 'we’re going to circle back and go through the whole list again.' "

The NFL had two choices when it how to package Brown’s suspension. Either leave people to presume it was trying to bury an infraction and save face for the beloved owner or a precious New York city franchise. Or demonstrate that there really was a new way of doing business by being painfully transparent. 

It chose the former. And they now deal with the fallout of mistrust. Again. Still.