The NFL’s most publicized scandal of 2013 is a portrait of two Dolphins offensive linemen smiling at each other while obviously not really understanding each other. That is the curious picture Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin painted before they blew up the Dolphins offensive line and sent a franchise reeling.
Sam Brenner is the face of that scandal’s silver lining.
You probably don’t know Brenner. You probably wouldn’t recognize him while out Christmas shopping.
Take heart. No NFL personnel man knew or thought enough of Brenner in April to draft him. Brenner allowed only one sack in 743 plays while playing both guard and tackle at Utah and was an All-Pac-12 Conference second-team selection, but no one thought him worthy of a pick.
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“I was frustrated, to be honest,” Brenner said after a practice spent preparing for Sunday’s game against the Patriots, an outing that could be his third of the season with a starting role.
“It was a frustrating thing for me because I felt I was as good or better as some of the guys that did get drafted … I felt a lot of people overlooked me, so I came in here with a chip on my shoulder. I felt I was going to prove guys wrong. I wanted to show everyone I can play in this league, and I belong here.”
A lot of undrafted players say the same thing. Few get much further than their good intentions. So no one really gave Brenner much of chance of making the Dolphins when he arrived in South Florida. Even he concedes it was “overwhelming” when he first got on the field with the rest of the team.
Then, over a period of weeks, he wasn’t overwhelmed anymore. The heat didn’t seem as hot. The assignments didn’t seem as difficult. The technique of playing offensive line became more ingrained.
Soon, Brenner was catching the eye of a former offensive line coach who has some say on the Dolphins about which players stay and which get cut after training camp.
Brenner caught coach Joe Philbin’s eye.
“When it really happened for me was just watching the one-on-one pass-rush drills,” Philbin said. “I don’t usually go down there. I watch it when I go back upstairs [on tape] at night. But I like to use the term that he moves like a football player. It’s hard to quantify that or describe that, but he was down there and, when you watch, he does a nice job.
“He blocks his guy. He has a pretty good base. His hand placement is pretty good. And that’s where he flashed for me. Then we watch him a little closer, give him a couple of more opportunities and it doesn’t seem too big for him.”
Those one-on-one drills against players such as Paul Soliai and Randy Starks and Jared Odrick might seem like tedium day after training-camp day. For Brenner, they were life and death.
“I took those drills pretty seriously in camp because that’s a great opportunity to prove yourself,” he said, “to show you can block a starter by yourself.”
Catching the head coach’s attention is one thing. Earning a spot on the practice squad, then jumping to the active roster, then jumping again to the starting lineup is completely different.
Like a trip around the block is different from one to the moon.
But the Dolphins were desperate in November. With Martin AWOL and Incognito suspended, the Dolphins needed bodies. And the need became more acute when center Mike Pouncey got ill and missed two games.
So backup Nate Garner, who was starting for Incognito, had to move to center and replace Pouncey. Brenner, who had jumped from the practice squad to active roster as depth, was thrust to the starting left-guard spot.
“It was a crazy thing,” Brenner said. “But stuff like that happens in the NFL all the time. Guys go from not having a shot to starting. So every week, even when I was on the practice squad, I tried to prepare like I was starting the game. That’s what set me up to be ready to play.”
Brenner is a success. Is he dominant? No. But he’s solid. He’s not a weak link. He’s good enough that even when Pouncey came back and Garner could move back to guard, the Dolphins continued to give him playing time.
Garner started last week against the Steelers, but Brenner played more snaps — 48 to 16. This week, it would be no shock if Brenner actually starts ahead of Garner.
That kind of arc is impressive even to Brenner’s teammates. Right tackle Tyson Clabo is a nine-year veteran but was once an undrafted player also, so he understands why Brenner’s rise is so improbable.
“A guy in his position, they’re not going to keep giving him chances,” Clabo said. “A guy drafted in the third round goes and looks terrible, they’re going to keep putting him in. He’s going to continue to get opportunities.
“A guy like Sam that they have nothing invested in him, really, he goes in and doesn’t do well, he’s gone. They got no reason to continue to go in that direction. But you go and do well, then you can continue to do well from there.”
Brenner has done particularly well run blocking, which is so far better than his pass blocking. He made that clear when he pulled left and planted Pittsburgh cornerback Cortez Allen face-first in the Heinz Field turf last Sunday.
The pancake block helped spring running back Daniel Thomas on a 55-yard run.
“Sam is a really good left guard,” left tackle Bryant McKinnie said. “I like having Sam next to me
“Judging by his play I wouldn’t know he wasn’t drafted. I just found out last week. Sometimes it doesn’t matter if you’re drafted or not. It’s about the heart you have and how much you’re willing to work when you’re out there competing.”
Brenner understands his work is not done. He has, by no means, arrived.
“My goal since I came in is you don’t come to the NFL and say, ‘I’m just happy to be here.’ You want to start, take a starting job on a team and play for a long time,” he said. “And hopefully you win a championship.
“So the goal for me since Day One has been become a starter and win a championship — whatever team I’m with.”