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When the 2012 New England Patriots kick off their season in a few months, many of the faces will look familiar. Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski and Wes Welker will still be there, picking apart defenses. Jerod Mayo will still blow up any receiver foolhardy enough to run across the middle of the field. Stephen Gostkowski will still split the uprights with computer-like proficiency.
But one familiar face won’t be there: Matt Light, who retired from the NFL Monday. Light played for the Patriots for 11 years, starting 153 of 155 total regular season games, plus 16 playoff games. He started all 16 games in seven different seasons, playing a key role in the Patriots’ transformation into the premier NFL franchise of the 21st century.
In the five years before Light arrived, the Patriots’ offensive line averaged just under 41 sacks per season, with an average rank smack in the middle of the NFL (16). With Light anchoring the team starting in 2001, average sacks dropped down to 30.5, and average ranking improved to 11.1.
The Patriots had allowed 40-plus sacks each of the three seasons prior to Light taking over as left tackle. They allowed 46 during Light’s rookie year – which ended in the Patriots’ first Lombardi Trophy – but did not allow more than 32 in any season after except for 2008, when Brady’s injury in the first game of the season forced Matt Cassell to take over as starting quarterback.
Because Cassell didn’t have Brady’s rhythm with his receivers, Cassell’s passing plays took longer, leading to more sacks. In a season doomed after its opening quarter, the blame should be spread equally.
When Brady played, Light and teammates like Dan Koppen and Logan Mankins consistently gave him sufficient protection to get rid of the ball. The Patriots finished among the NFL’s top five in allowed sacks four times during Light’s tenure, a feat accomplished just twice in the 12 years beforehand.
Light turned the offensive line around, but Patriots fans shouldn’t misconstrue him as the greatest tackle in Patriot history. The Patriots never led the league in allowed sacks from 2001-11, and they never featured the most dominant running games – not they tried.
And since he usually had to deal with the most dangerous passers, Light himself struggled from time to time, especially in the playoffs. While the offensive line kept Brady on his feet for most of their run to Super Bowl XLVI, breakdowns in protection cost the Patriots their undefeated season, with the Giants sacking Brady five times in Super Bowl XLII.
While sacks weren’t the only reason the Patriots lost to the Giants that year, cameras showed Brady repeatedly staring down his offensive linemen – Light in particular – during the game. Following that loss, the Patriots lost their next two postseason games, and the line gave up eight sacks between the two losses.
Light played left tackle well enough to win three Super Bowls and earn four trips to the Pro Bowl, but don’t expect to see him in Canton unless so many members of the early-2000s Patriots dynasty get inducted that the Hall of Fame has to take him as well. He bears some similarity to Hall of Famers Jim Ringo and Jim Otto, but neither of them played tackle.
Patriots fans should remember Light as part of a unit that helped make Brady into a Hall of Famer. They respect Light for playing through the constant gastrointestinal distress of Crohn’s Disease, and they should support his decision to leave the NFL with his health – especially his mental health and cognitive faculties – fully intact.
With Light’s retirement, the Nate Solder Era will begin next season. Solder has already been used as a lead-blocker on goal-line plays – a secondary talent Light never displayed. A taller and heavier player than Light, Solder’s physical presence adds an element of intimidation to his game.
Solder definitely has the potential to be as good as Light, if not better, despite getting flagged five times in 2011. NFL pass-rushing is much faster than NCAA pass-rushing, and Solder’s penalties – three holding, one hands to the face, one clipping – came from his inexperience with how quick NFL players are off the snap.
Once Solder understands that, he’ll start blocking without getting flagged. And that will make the Patriots’ line even more dominant.