Continuity: One of the most important qualities to have in an offensive line, and a quality that was present along the New England Patriots' offensive line for years. But the continuity that held them together for the better part of a decade has been torn to shreds in the course of one offseason.
Tackle Matt Light retired, guard Brian Waters is thinking about it, tackle Sebastian Vollmer is nursing a bad back, and Pro Bowl guard Logan Mankins was nursing a bad knee.
Top that off with the struggles of center Dan Koppen, injuries that have ravaged the Patriots' depth at offensive tackle and the sudden retirement of recently signed guard Robert Gallery.
It's easy to see why the offensive line has been in focus all of camp—the situation was so blurry. Until Sunday, that is, when Mankins finally returned to the practice field. With the silverback back in the fold, things have finally started to clear up.
Even watching from the sidelines for the first two-plus weeks of camp, Mankins noticed the lack of continuity and the constant rotation of linemen.
"It's been a weird camp. A lot of guys coming in and then they'll come in for one day and then they're hurt so it's been a lot of shuffling parts in there," Mankins told the media Sunday according to Patriots.com. "I think there were a few practices we only had eight or nine guys. That's pretty tough during camp—not having two full lines."
But Mankins' return is the first domino to fall of three total dominoes that could have the Patriots offensive line back to normal—or as close to normal as it can be.
Waters has yet to report to camp, but the exact reason why remains unclear.
The Boston Globe's Greg Bedard doesn't think he's retiring.
Unless he is retiring, his absence shouldn't be a concern; with 13 years of experience, he should be able to get back in the swing of things fairly quickly. Head coach Bill Belichick even excused him from the start of camp. In fact, he missed all of last year's offseason program, as he was a free agent up until just days before the regular season began, when the Patriots scooped him up.
When he returns, the issues on the inside of the Patriots offensive line should be just about resolved, with the nucleus of Mankins, Waters and center Dan Connolly still in-tact.
From this perspective, Vollmer's situation may be a bit cloudier. He is currently on the active/physically unable to perform list with a back injury. His back has been a problem for the past couple of years, and it wasn't hard to see him walking very gingerly off the practice field at practice last week.
As key players return to the fold, the line will look a lot more like the one we saw to end the 2011 season than the one we've seen in training camp and the team's first preseason game against the Saints.
Thus, while the offensive line is a cause for concern right now, it won't be if and when the Patriots get their big three back in the fold. They made the first of three steps in that direction with the return of Mankins.