Wendell at the center of it all for Patriots

937319.jpg

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."

Curran: Do Bledsoe's recollections give insight to Brady's state of mind?

Curran: Do Bledsoe's recollections give insight to Brady's state of mind?

Drew Bledsoe’s being asked to reminisce a lot this fall. And not exactly about fuzzy, feel-good topics that warm the heart.

MORE ON BRADY: So what's he been up to during his suspension? | McCourty; Notion Brady is a 'system' QB is absurd

Instead, it’s reminiscing about 2001, the year his heart got lacerated and he was replaced for good by Tom Brady, who went on to win a Super Bowl. Or about 2006 when -- as Cowboys quarterback -- he got yanked in favor or Tony Romo and never got back in.

This being the 15th anniversary of SB36 has caused Bledsoe’s phone to ring. And the Brady-Jimmy Garoppolo-Jacoby Brissett dance early this season has brought to the fore discussion of the Brady succession plan, especially now that it appears both players aren’t going to be disasters. How is this situation similar to the one in 2001? Meanwhile, the emergence of Dak Prescott in Dallas puts the oft-injured Romo in more immediate peril of losing his job.

In the past few days, Bledsoe’s opened up to both Albert Breer of MMQB and Michael Silver of NFL Media about the emotions of getting bumped and -- with Breer especially --– the depth he goes into discussing the situation and his emotions then and now are kind of moving.

If you think you’ve heard it all before -- and I believed I had -- you probably haven’t.  The seriousness of Bledsoe’s 2001 injury was not exaggerated, as he explains in an anecdote. He acknowledges feeling entitled to a degree and admits to being bitter about the way he’s recalled.

“One thing I do bristle at a little bit is, I feel like there’s too much of me and Wally Pipp (the Yankees first baseman famously replaced by Lou Gehrig who never got his job back and birthed the verb “Pipped” for anyone who missed a day and got replaced),” Bledsoe told Breer. “I was the single-season passing leader for three organizations when I left. Unfortunately, Tommy’s been so damn good that people sometimes forget I had a pretty nice career.”

Speaking with Silver regarding Romo-Prescott, Bledsoe plumbed his experience with Brady and Bill Belichick in 2001.

"When you're young in the league -- when you're young in life -- you think you're 10-foot tall and bulletproof," said Bledsoe. "You think nobody can ever replace you, and that you're gonna be the guy forever. Eventually, you learn the lesson that it's a replacement business. Sometimes that hits you right between the eyes, which is what happened to me with [Tom] Brady, and again with Tony.

"It happens to all of us. I don't know if it's the time for Tony, but it's something that every quarterback has to confront."

In less than a week, Brady -- the best quarterback in NFL history in the minds of many -- will be back from his suspension. He will have seen in a month’s time that the NFL train rolls along without him and that, while he could never be cloned, he can be capably replaced.

Brady, because of the way he ascended to the job and the friends he’s seen get taken behind the barn in New England, has always been open about understanding he could be replaced. But now he’s got concrete evidence.

Said Bledsoe: "In our heart of hearts, we all want to feel indispensible. We all want to believe, 'There's no way the team can succeed without me.' Then you see the team going on, and winning with a young guy playing the position, and playing it well, and you do some soul searching . . . and you start to think, 'Maybe the team's gonna make that decision to move on.'

"You always want the team to do well, but it's hard. It can be [awkward]. Tommy and I are still good friends, and I text with Romo once in awhile . . . but it's hard to love 'em if they've got your job and you want it back."

Please read both.

Marchand: 'No place I'd rather play' than Boston

Marchand: 'No place I'd rather play' than Boston

The Bruins made it official on Monday -- mere minutes after the news had broken -- as they clearly couldn’t wait to announce an eight year, $49 million contract extension for Brad Marchand. who is finishing up his Team Canada gig at the World Cup of Hockey.

PROFILE: Joe Haggerty's preseason look at Brad Marchand

The deal averages $6.125 million per season, broken up between actual salary and signing bonus money. The Bruins were most definitely given a hometown discount by an elite player who snapped home a career-high 37 goals and 60 points last season, the most goals scored by a Bruins player since Glenn Murray in 2002-03. And everybody knows goal scorers get paid in the NHL, even if Marchand won’t be expected to score quite that many every year.

Marchand, 28, has also been the second-leading scorer in the entire World Cup of Hockey tournament, behind only Sidney Crosby, and continues to raise his profile in the NHL world beyond his customary agitator role. The “Nose Face Killah” could have waited for until free agency if he'd wanted to pick up every last nickel on the table, but it’s very clear he’s invested in the team that drafted and developed him, and with which he won a Cup five years ago.

"This is an extremely exciting day for me and my family," said Marchand, who now has a full no-move clause for the first five years of his next contract. "I would like to thank the Jacobs family, [president] Cam Neely, [general manager] Don Sweeney, [coach] Claude Julien, the coaching staff, my teammates and our fans for their continued support and belief in me. I have been a Bruin since the start of my pro career and there is no place I would rather play. I look forward to doing everything I can to help our team achieve success and bring the Stanley Cup back to Boston."

Marchand has been among the team’s leading scorers since joining the league in 2010-11, has been the NHL’s most dangerous penalty killer over the last five years, and pairs with Patrice Bergeron to anchor the top line. He’s also become much more of a leader in the last few seasons as other character veterans have been peeled away from the core group, and a hometown discount proves it one of the most meaningful ways possible.

It was clear Marchand was invested in the Bruins when he helped recruit free agent David Backes with phone calls this summer, and he was also present for the recruiting pitch to Jimmy Vesey at Warrior Ice Arena last month.

The Bruins players at training camp were happy to hear No. 63 was going to be in Boston for the long haul.

“Marchy is Marchy. I think everybody kind of knows what that means,” said Kevan Miller. “He’s been great for our organization and great for the fans and for this city. He’s been all in since Day One, and he’s been a guy that I looked up to.”

While the Bruins have confirmed the contract, Sweeney won't weigh in until later today. But one would expect there will be an appreciation for the skill of the player, and Marchand’s commitment to the organization after accepting less than he could have gotten on the open market.