Mankins watching Pats from afar

TAMPA, Fla. -- The NFL playoffs began this weekend, and Logan Mankins was watching.

This is not an unusual trend, since during his long and decorated career as the mainstay of the offensive line for the New England Patriots, Mankins often had the first week of the postseason off because his team had secured a first-round bye.

The difference this time around is when the Patriots host the Baltimore Ravens on Saturday, Mankins will be watching that, too. His season is over, a demoralizing 2-14 campaign with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers that came to an underwhelming end amid charges of the team tanking in the final game, in which the Bucs pulled many of their starters in the second half of a 23-20 loss to the New Orleans Saints. That defeat assured Tampa Bay the No. 1 pick in the draft.

The notion of tanking flies in the face of Mankins' dossier, which was predicated on toughness, resilience and, above all, continuity and professionalism.

The shocking decision by the Patriots to deal their six-time Pro Bowl guard two days before the final exhibition game left Mankins reeling. He threw some clothes in a bag and hopped a flight to Florida, reluctantly leaving behind his wife and his four children ranging in age from 4 to 14 for the entire season.

"Oh yeah, it's been hard," Mankins said in a late December interview. "It's been a long, tough year."

When New England approached Mankins about taking a pay cut from his $6.25 million salary, he knew it could signal his demise with the Patriots. In his first extensive comments since his departure, Mankins revealed he was willing to rework his salary.

"I was open to the idea," he said. "It was a just a matter of how much. We couldn't agree on that.

"What they offered wasn't good for me and what I wanted wasn't good for them.

"And you know when you don't [rework the deal], something can happen."

Mankins started every game he played for the Patriots and played an entire season on a torn ACL. He engaged in a lengthy holdout in 2010 over a contract dispute and was slapped with the franchise tag before agreeing to a six-year, $51 million deal that paid him a $20 million signing bonus in August 2011.

He understands football is a business. It was the fact the Patriots chose to trade him just before the season began that bothered him the most.

"Looking back on it now, especially in my case, the timing of it was very disappointing," Mankins said. "If it happened during free agency, that would have been a lot different.

"But the timing of how I left was the hardest part."

Mankins said he had just finished practice on Aug. 26 when he was told coach Bill Belichick wanted to see him. Mankins didn't immediately jump to conclusions.

"I get called in a lot, actually, to discuss this and that," Mankins said. "So I wasn't really sure. But when you get called in that time of year, you have to know there's a chance something is up."

The news he was being traded from a Super Bowl contender to a rebuilding team took some time to absorb, although the move was hardly unprecedented for the Patriots. Richard Seymour, also a Pro Bowl player who engaged in a contract dispute, was moved to Oakland as he approached his declining years. Wildly popular linebacker Mike Vrabel was shipped to Kansas City after he asked to rework his deal. Receiver Wes Welker tried and failed to negotiate a deal in advance of free agency and later signed with Denver.

"You can always disagree with your bosses and I did -- lots of times," Mankins said. "There were a lot of great players up there I was really sad to see go, guys like Vrabel and Welker, who were not just friends but guys who did so much for us on the field. They were guys who made sacrifices, and you wanted them on your side."

As Mankins departed, Belichick lauded him as "the best guard I've ever coached." His shocked teammates tempered their frustration per company policy, although quarterback Tom Brady found a unique way to express his solidarity by growing a bushy Mankins beard for the Week 1 game against Miami.

"That was great," Mankins said. "I talked to each one of the guys before I left, and the things they said to me meant a lot."

Close friend Dan Connolly was awarded Mankins' captaincy, a fitting passing of the torch. It was Mankins who invited Connolly and his wife to holiday and summer gatherings and helped him acclimate to his new surroundings when he arrived in New England as a practice player. The two developed a close personal and professional connection.

"He's definitely set the stage of the way to play around here, at least for me," Connolly said. "I've always tried to live up to that, to try to emulate that. We've tried to keep that mentality going, the mentality the Patriots have always had, even with him gone."

The absence of public outrage from Mankins' teammates was expected. That sort of discord has been frowned upon all the way back to Lawyer Milloy's sudden release in 2003 after refusing to take a pay cut.

"When you play there you aren't allowed to say exactly what you feel," Mankins said. "When I was there, there were plenty of times when I wanted to say stuff and I never did.

"Even as I talk to you now, I'm probably not saying all that I feel. It's just the way I am, I guess. I'm not going to say something I shouldn't. In that way, I was probably the perfect guy to play in New England."

Mankins' absence was deeply felt in the early weeks of the season. Brady was sacked four times in a season-opening loss to the Miami Dolphins behind a line that had Jordan Devey at left guard, Connolly at center and Marcus Cannon at right guard.

Belichick plugged in rookie Bryan Stork at center and Cameron Fleming at right guard in a Week 4 loss to Kansas City before settling on the current configuration of Nate Solder at left tackle, Connolly at left guard, Stork at center, Sebastian Vollmer at right tackle and Ryan Wendell at right guard. Wendell's insertion, Mankins said, is what helped stabilize the line.

"I'm very happy for him," Mankins said. "He was center for us for a few years and he did a good job, and they were trying to get him out of there, and then they said he couldn't play guard. Well, look who is playing guard. He's done a great job."

Asked what he's specifically seen in Wendell, Mankins responded, "I see him talking to the center a lot, setting the line, getting everyone on the same page. He's playing real physical. He's not the biggest guy, but he plays hard and plays physical, and the big thing is he plays snap to the whistle."

First-year Tampa coach Lovie Smith was hoping for similar results from Mankins. The Buccaneers attempted to shore up their offensive line by acquiring him and signing free agents Evan Dietrich-Smith and Anthony Collins.

Mankins spent his first weeks trying to play catch-up with a new team running new schemes, as well as finding a place to live. Without a permanent residence in Tampa, it was hard for him to serve as the ringleader for the line.

"It's been difficult to do here," Mankins conceded. "That was the great thing about there [in New England]. I have a good house for hosting, so we had the barbecues, and some of the guys over for Thanksgiving, even Christmas. Dan has taken that part over now.

"We [the Bucs' line] haven't quite developed that bond yet. It's getting closer. Hopefully we'll get together in the offseason and work on it."

One of the biggest adjustments that Mankins had to make was to find a way to handle the humidity in Florida.

"When you come down here in September, it's blistering hot," Dietrich-Smith said. "I mean it is hot. The first few days Logan was looking at me going, 'How do you play in this?"'

Mankins' solution was to spent his first week in practice running gassers by himself up and down the line for added conditioning.

"Pretty soon, there's one guy running with him," general manager Jason Licht said. "Then there's two. He's not asking them to do it. He's not a rah-rah guy. It's not something he demands. It's his presence. It's exactly why we got him."

Mankins suffered a knee injury in his first week in Tampa. He stayed late after practices, asked questions and was irritated that he wasn't helping his new team more. His children were sad and confused he wasn't home. Yet Mankins kept those concerns to himself.

"If it was hard for him, he didn't show it," Licht said. "He's the same guy every day. No emotion. He never showed any indication of being shell-shocked.

"He's the first one in the meeting room, teaching these guys how to study the right way. He holds them accountable without having to say a word. He gives them 'the look' and that's enough.

"We've had some issues [on the offensive line], but he's not one of them. He's one of the solutions."

Late in the season, the Bucs replaced the disappointing Collins at left tackle with Demar Dotson, a right tackle who likely will line up next to Mankins next season on the left side.

"The guy comes with a lot of wisdom and knowledge," Dotson said. "His leadership skills are incredible.

"He made my job so much easier. I was pretty wound up in my first game at a new position, but his communication was so good that I knew exactly what I was doing. When the ball was snapped, all I had to do was play. I've never played next to somebody like that."

Mankins said the Bucs' record is particularly frustrating because they were in so many games that slipped away in the final minutes.

"In teams past, I always knew someone was going to make a play, and someone always did," Mankins said. "Here, we haven't been able to come up with that play. We're the ones making the mistakes instead of making the play."

The 2014 season is behind him and the results of the team he left and the team he joined are in the books. If Mankins could do it over, would he take the cut the Patriots proposed?

"I don't know," he answered. "At this point, sure, I'd like to be winning more games. But everything outside of football is going great. The most important thing to me is my family, and they're doing fine."

The Tampa O-line made some strides in the final days of the 2014 season, although, Mankins concedes, they have a long way to go. His teammates believe he can make a difference, because he already has.

"When he's out there getting after it, you feel the pressure to match his performance because you don't want to let him down," lineman Oniel Cousins said.

Dietrich-Smith played in Green Bay last season, so he can relate to Mankins' situation. He believes there is reason for optimism in Tampa Bay if the veterans establish the proper attitude.

"You can't look back at where you came from," Dietrich-Smith said. "You have to take pride in an opportunity to help turn this around. You can't do the 'shoulda-woulda-coulda' thing. We have to make a name for ourselves here. That's what professionals do. No one has to explain that to Logan."

Mankins has watched as many Patriots games as his own football schedule has allowed. He believes they can win it all.

"They have all the pieces," Mankins said. "I will be rooting for them. I have too many close relationships to root against those guys.

"At the beginning of the year things looked a little different [on the offensive line]. They didn't look like the same team we had before -- or the team that's playing now. They've got it worked out now."

Mankins still talks regularly to Connolly and Wendell and has heard from Brady intermittently throughout the season.

Although it has been a hard year, Mankins said, his rookie year still was the most challenging, when he was expected to play at a high level in place of the departed (and extremely well-regarded) Joe Andruzzi.

"I don't feel sorry for myself," Mankins said. "Probably just more disappointed.

"Sometimes I wish I could do more here [in Tampa] to make the guys understand what it takes. Time will tell. We have a good group of guys. I really believe next year will be better."

The Buccaneers have positioned themselves to draft either Marcus Mariota or Jameis Winston, which means the O-line likely will be charged with protecting a young, talented potential franchise quarterback.

Lovie Smith already has decided to name Mankins captain for next season and believes his second year with the Bucs will be far more productive than the first.

"I know it's been a challenge for him," Smith said. "He played one place his whole life and he had a great setup for his family and all of a sudden it gets yanked out from underneath him.

"I picture him going forward as one of our leaders. When he talks, everyone listens. As rewarding as what he accomplished in New England has been, to help Tampa Bay become the up-and-coming franchise we believe it can be will be just as valuable for him."

The remnants of Mankins' influence still permeate the Patriots' locker room, but Connolly and Mankins' other ex-teammates recognize separation is necessary.

"Logan is still a close friend of mine, but as a teammate I have to move on," Connolly explained. "I look at him more as a mentor now, someone to talk football with. But as far as the specifics of our team, we just can't include him much in that anymore."

Mankins now is back home in North Attleborough, Massachusetts, enjoying his family and thinking of ways to get the Tampa Bay Buccaneers out of the NFL cellar.

It's not the same as thinking of ways to make sure Brady has enough time to lead the Patriots to a Super Bowl victory.

But it's still football, and Logan Mankins believes there is plenty more of it in his future, barbecues and all.