ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Dan Koppen wasn’t blind. He could see the way he was being used in the preseason by the Patriots. He knew what that meant.
“I wasn’t shocked when it happened,” Koppen said Wednesday of his release on the day rosters were cut to 53. “Still, not the best feeling in the world.”
He had been playing with the reserves, with Ryan Wendell and Dan Connolly ahead of him at center. And so, even though he was a stalwart on the Patriots’ offensive line, his tenure in New England was done.
Asked what went wrong, Koppen would say only, “You’d have to ask Bill [Belichick] that. I don’t make those decisions.”
Koppen had spent nine seasons with the Patriots, every one of his professional career. He had started all but one of the games in which he had played (121), though he played in only one game in 2011, because of a fractured ankle. He re-signed with the Patriots before this season, but it didn’t last.
“It’s tough,” said Koppen, who was drafted in the fifth round out of Boston College in 2003. “You play there so long. That’s the only team you’ve played for. That’s really the only thing you know.
“It’s tough. It’s scary. Then you go home, you see your family, and you realize what’s really important.”
And you wait for a call.
For Koppen, that call came from the Broncos. It was an opportunity, though he would not be a starter, with Denver’s offensive line mostly set. Until, that is, J.D. Walton suffered a season-ending broken ankle last Sunday against the Raiders, pushing Koppen into the starting lineup Sunday against the Patriots.
“When you play this long, it’s a game,” Koppen said. “It comes down to the fact that when you step between those lines it’s going to be a football game. They’re trying to beat us and we’re trying to beat them.
“It’s going to be a little different, but with that being said, it’s still just football.”
It was a fortuitous move for the Broncos, signing Koppen for the depth they hoped they wouldn’t need.
“I’m sure glad we brought him in,” coach John Fox said. “At no point were we thinking he’d be lining up as the starting center as we head into Foxborough this weekend.”
As Fox had said when the team signed Koppen, “It’s just depth, and an accomplished guy that can step in if, God forbid, anything happened.”
It did, and he did.
“When you lose a starting center who has started every game for the past three years, it’s very rare that you can replace him with a veteran like Dan who has played in many huge games and is experienced,” said Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning. “So we feel fortunate to have him and it’s always nice having a veteran player who’s been around winning for his entire career on your team.”
Koppen will line up on a field he knows better than any other, in a stadium that used to be his home. Instead of snapping the ball to Tom Brady, though, he will be snapping it to Manning, a rival for all those years and all those playoff matchups.
“He’s one of my best pals, so I’m happy he’s got the opportunity,” Brady said of Koppen. “He’s a great friend of mine, so we’ve had a lot of battles together and I miss having him around here, but that’s part of this business. He moved on and he’s got an opportunity and hopefully we play well against him.”
It will be different. That much is certain.
“It’s just two different quarterbacks,” Koppen said. “When guys change teams they have new players and they have new teammates. It just so happens that it’s Peyton.
“He’s pretty good at what he does, like Tom, so it’s not a bad deal.”
There have been a few things that have aided Koppen’s transition. The Broncos’ offensive line coach, Dave Magazu, was the offensive line coach at Boston College when Koppen was there, an added enticement when Denver contacted him.
The offense, too, is similar to what he was used to in New England, which Koppen said has helped him get up to speed quicker. Josh McDaniels, the Patriots’ offensive coordinator, was the architect of much of what is run in Denver under new coordinator Mike McCoy.
Still, there is more work to be done. It wasn’t always perfect on Sunday after Koppen stepped in for the final play of the first half and all of the second half against the Raiders. The Broncos spend a lot of time in the no-huddle, something that needs time for a center and a quarterback to get on the same page.
“We got the win and that’s the most important thing,” Koppen said. “But when you look at the film there’s always room for improvement. So hopefully with the reps this week, more reps with the guys, hopefully more comfortable and more communication and we’ll get better.”