The Patriots have been fortunate in that they've benefited from having abnormally consistent personnel at some of the game's most critical positions. Tom Brady at quarterback is obvious. Having Adam Vinatieri and Stephen Gostkowski at kicker has been a luxury Bill Belichick has referenced many times in recent years.
Left tackle has been a similarly steady spot. Belichick began with longtime starter Bruce Armstrong in 2000. Then Matt Light took over, almost uninterrupted save for a serious injury in 2005, from 2001 through 2011. Then it was Nate Solder who manned Brady's blindside from 2012 through last season.
Now? It's the biggest question mark on the Patriots roster. Light's aware. And after it was announced that he'd be this year's inductee for the Hall at Patriot Place, he explained how critical offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia will be for the club as it transitions to whoever is next up at that position.
"I'm not sure it's as appreciated as it should be," Light said Wednesday, "but the work that Dante does and the work that he puts into the offseason, and the work that he puts in with the young guys who come into the organization, and how he motivates those guys and pushes them to be in the best position possible to play the game, I’ve got a lot of confidence in his ability to prepare the guys that he thinks are the best to take the field. And maybe that means they’re going to be juggling a lot of guys in and out and trying to play multiple positions, and getting them in the fire a little bit and seeing how they react."
Light recalled the work done behind the scenes by Scarnecchia and his teammates when he went down with an injury, whether it was a minor issue or a long-term one.
"They've done it in the past," Light said. "There were times that I went down and Nick Kazcur, Tom Ashworth, the guys that backed up and played the tackle position. We got a lot of great play from those guys. The all-time swing guy Russ Hochstein, and the different ways that Dante had guys ready to go in and fill the void. And it's a big void. It’s definitely something that we’re all going to be keeping an eye on. It’ll be interesting to see how they do it and how teams try to take advantage of maybe a younger player or a guy that doesn’t have as many snaps . . . They'll be ready to roll. They'll be prepared."
That "younger player" could very well be first-round rookie Isaiah Wynn. Wynn is considered undersized for the position, but he put together a strong resume in the nation's best conference while at Georgia. He's cut from a very different mold compared to Solder, and if he's chosen to start the season as the anchor on the left side, he'll have very big shoes to fill, Light explained.
"Nate’s not a guy you can just replace," Light said. "No. 1, because he’s a ridiculously large mammal. I’ll never forget the first time I met him, I thought, man, it shouldn’t be right that guys like this are designed the way they are. No fat. Runs like a deer. Has got the reach and the wingspan of a vulture. The guy’s just unbelievably talented in so many ways, and he’s smart. Nate was a very smart, cerebral player. You don’t replace a guy like that overnight . . .
“They’ve got some guys that have had a little bit of experience and seen some stuff, but overall, you got, it looks as though you’re going to be going with a guy that may have zero experience in the NFL. Who knows how it all shakes out. But it’s been done before.”
Light started 12 of the 14 games he played as a rookie. (He explained he was benched to start the season-opener his rookie year because he got stuck in traffic behind a jack-knifed tractor trailer somewhere between Cincinnati and the team hotel in Kentucky.) But his performance on the left side that year, which culminated in the franchise's first Super Bowl, propelled him to an illustrious career and an induction to the team's hall of fame that will take place on Sept. 29.
"It's very humbling," Light said. "It's the biggest honor that I could think of to be honored by the people in the community and the fans that really understood you as a player. This is hard to put into words really. I had an opportunity to come to New England and play football. I didn't have any major dreams growing up as a kid to be an NFL player. I was one of these guys as an NFL player who was extremely fortunate to not only make it to the NFL but make it to an organization that put winning first, but right behind that did so many other things that made my experience extremely special, whether it was the community side of the organization and giving back, the people I got to meet, raising my family here in New England.
"There are so many things about my NFL experience that is truly unique. I just gotta say that an honor like this, it's hard for me to not bring up the guys . . . so many guys that I look up to and so many guys that I feel deserve this award. It's just hard to believe that this is something that I'm now gonna be able to say that I'm a Hall of Famer for the Patriots, it's tough for me to really grasp that."
Light said he missed Robert Kraft's initial call to let him know he'd won the online fan vote, beating out Mike Vrabel and Richard Seymour to be this year's inductee. When he finally got the call, it was a day later, and he was in the woods of Burrillville, Rhode Island, "chasing the elusive wild turkey."
"Apparently turning my cell phone off [Tuesday] wasn't a good idea," he said. "We were running a leadership conference for some kids in Brockton, New Bedford, Fall River at Bridgewater State for the [Light] Foundation and I missed a call from Mr. Kraft. [Wednesday] morning, I know he was juggling a lot . . . but in between a busy schedule that he had, he reached out and let me know that I was joining a very special group, and that this was gonna be a special year for the Hall. They're celebrating their 10th year. Just to have him call and let me know that the Hall of Fame -- the selection committee, and of course the fans --voted to bring me in, it's just really special."