FOXBOROUGH - The last time Dan Koppen was spotted in a Patriots uniform, he was being carted off the field at Miami’s Sun Life Stadium last September with a fractured left ankle.
Less than two quarters after the season began, Koppen’s was over.
He was back on the field Thursday - the practice field behind Gillette Stadium - taking part in the Patriots’ third organized team activity, and the first that was open to the media. Following the two-hour workout, Koppen said he’s healthy, hungry for action after missing last season, and happy to still be a Patriot.
He became an unrestricted free agent following the team’s run to the Super Bowl, but re-signed last month for two years. Returning to the only NFL team he’s played for - the Patriots picked him in the fifth round of the 2003 draft out of Boston College - is exactly where Koppen wants to be.
“I didn’t want to go anywhere else,’’ he said. “Thank goodness it did work out, it’s probably more of a pain moving the whole family and getting all that stuff squared away. I’m hoping to play for a little bit more and end my career here. This is where I want to be, this is what I know.’’
Koppen has been the starter at center since his rookie season, but might have to overtake Dan Connolly this year. Connolly, who replaced Koppen after the ankle injury, also became an unrestricted free agent following the Super Bowl before signing a longer deal (three years) with a larger signing bonus. At 29, Connolly - who can also play guard - is three years younger than Koppen. Competition, though, comes with the job.
“There’s always guys coming in trying to take your job,’’ Koppen said. “My approach this year is not going to be any different from last year. No one’s job is safe on this team, maybe minus 12 [quarterback Tom Brady], but you never know around here.
“You’ve just got to go out and compete and work hard, show the coaches that you can be reliable and dependable, and they know that you know what you’re doing. I’m just excited to get the opportunity to play. However everything falls, I’m just going to come out here and do everything I can to get better as a player and help this team in any way possible.’’
Koppen has been here long enough to know that injuries aren’t discussed much (“I’m good’’ was his response to a question about the ankle), and that the primary focus is on working hard for the upcoming season. With a number of offensive linemen not at Thursday’s OTA - Logan Mankins, Sebastian Vollmer, and Brian Waters all missed - Koppen and Connolly were part of a depleted unit, splitting the drills at center.
They might have been missing some key pieces, and weren’t wearing pads. But Koppen said taking advantage of these “voluntary’’ practices can pay off once the season starts.
“If you’re going to stay still, everybody else around you is just going to get better,’’ he said. “All 32 teams right now, the 31 other teams, we’re at the same point. It’s how hard we work now that’s going to really determine how we do this year.
“If we come in and think we have all the right answers, that’s not the right approach.’’
Missing games for the second time in his career - he was also placed on injured reserve with a shoulder injury in 2005, when he appeared in just nine games - gave Koppen a vantage point that he’d rather not assume again, but also guaranteed that he wouldn’t take his extended playing opportunity with the Patriots for granted.
“You’ve got to be mentally strong enough to handle that and say injuries happen and move on, but it’s tough to sit there and watch,’’ Koppen said. “To sit around and watch, it makes you have greater appreciation for your job. Being around the guys, it’s good to be back.’’
After becoming an unrestricted free agent for the first time he visited the Titans, but chose to re-sign with New England. Why?
“You’ve got the opportunity to win,’’ Koppen said. “It’s not an easy place to play, but if you do your job and you’re where you’re supposed to be, just go out there and give everything you have, they really can’t ask for too much more. You’ve got an opportunity to win, and it’s all about winning.’’
He doesn’t have recently retired linemate Matt Light to kick around anymore - asked how the line will be without Light, Koppen said, “Probably less fun’’ - but given another chance to play will allow Koppen to update the lasting image of him in a Patriots uniform, not the one of being carted off with a fractured ankle.
“I don’t want to go out like that,’’ Koppen said. “I’ve still got a lot of tread left on these tires, especially taking last year off. I got a chance to rejuvenate. I’m good to go.’’