Connolly stepped up in Mankins' absence

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- New England Patriots running backs coach Ivan Fears was asked for a reaction to left guard Logan Mankins' return to the team.

"Are you kidding?" Fears said with laugh. "The guys are jumping for joy."

You can't blame New England's running backs for being ecstatic. Mankins is a two-time Pro Bowler and a mauler. He'll make it easier to run, especially in short-yardage situations.

At least one player on the Patriots roster cannot be so thrilled.

Dan Connolly rose from third on the depth chart over the summer and has played admirably at left guard in Mankins' absence. Connolly is about to go from starter on the team with the NFL's best record to backup again.

"It'll be a little bit of a bummer and a little bit of setback for him personally to not play for a while," said ESPN.com columnist Ross Tucker, a former NFL offensive lineman. Tucker was with the Patriots in Mankins' rookie year.

Patriots coach Bill Belichick said the Patriots will evaluate Mankins on a day-to-day basis and hasn't committed to when Mankins would return to the field or the starting lineup.

Regardless of his conditioning, Mankins must reacquire his command for pass sets, get used to pulling to the right side or bursting to the perimeter to block on a screen.

Connolly might remain in the lineup Sunday against the Cleveland Browns, but it's only a matter of time until Mankins takes his familiar spot between left tackle Matt Light and center Dan Koppen.

"A lot of it's just getting back into your stance," Tucker said. "But I don't care how in shape you are. You're still not ready for a two-minute drill. You're still not ready for a 14-play drive.

"There are a lot of different body movements you need to work on to get ready to perform on the offensive line. No matter what he has being doing on his own, they have to make sure he looks comfortable before they put him in a game."

Rather than write about Mankins' return, let's take a few moments to salute the often overlooked and underappreciated interchangeable grunt.

Connolly, a former Patriots practice squad player, has been solid despite preseason fears he would be their weak link.

As it became clearer Mankins was entrenched in his contract demands, the Patriots shifted last year's starting right tackle, Nick Kaczur, to left guard. Kaczur suffered a season-ending back injury early in camp.

Connolly took over with four career starts -- all last year for injured right guard Stephen Neal -- in five NFL seasons.

Before we knew Mankins would choose this week to end his contract dispute with the Patriots, I had the chance to ask Patriots coach Bill Belichick and Neal about Connolly's contributions.

Using a scale of 10 -- with one being total peace and 10 being sheer panic -- I asked Neal how he would describe his mindset when Kaczur went down.

Neal's response: "Zero."

"Dan plays good football and has just been waiting around for an opportunity," Neal said. "I don't think it's a surprise to anyone in this locker room what he's doing out there.

"I know how hard he works. I know he's going to do everything he can. As a line, it's not about each individual. It's about all of us collectively. If we can all work together we can slay the monsters out there."

Connolly has started every game at left guard, has lined up at fullback in jumbo packages and is on the kickoff unit.

"We have asked Dan to do a lot," Belichick said. "He has played left guard obviously, but has also played fullback in our short-yardage and goal-line packages. Smart guy. Good technique player.

"He has really improved a lot over the time he has been here. He has gotten a lot of playing time this year and has continued to improve. So he is doing a solid job."

The Patriots believe in plug-and-play backups. If Belichick doesn't have confidence in someone being able to handle the job on Sunday, that player won't stick around long. Connolly has been working with offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia for four seasons.

With that plug-and-play mentality, however, comes a strong possibility of relinquishing the job at some point -- and starting again if Mankins, Neal or Koppen gets hurt.

"Connolly is smart enough to realize Logan is a rare player," Tucker said. "Logan is a powerful, powerful blocker in the run game. He is a tone-setter. He's the intimidating force of that offensive line.

"It's fun to play. Practice stinks. Meetings stink. All the other stuff is not fun. The games are fun. For Connolly, it must be neat to get out there with the guys and win games. They're 6-1. But for him, he should take it as a positive because he has now shown he can start NFL games and play at a competent level. This has been really good for his career."