Scarnecchia approach invaluable in 'sink or swim' world of NFL line play

Scarnecchia approach invaluable in 'sink or swim' world of NFL line play

When Dante Scarnecchia sat down in front of a crowd of reporters earlier this month, he tried to explain why he came back to a job as demanding as that of Patriots offensive line coach. He was, after all, returning to that gig after enjoying the comforts of retirement for two years.

The first words out of his mouth were telling.

"I really like," he said, "teaching the game."

Those comments resonated with me while going through Pete Prisco's excellent roundtable discussion with a handful of NFL offensive linemen for a piece called "In the line of fire" on  In it, Prisco speaks with Titans guard Chance Warmack, Bears guard Kyle Long, Bears tackle Bobby Massie and Giants center Weston Richburg, who point out the difficulties of playing on the line in an age where so-called experts and graders occupy every corner of the internet. As they vent, they manage to almost uniformly hammer the way that offensive line play is taught at the NFL level.

Teaching technique, in particular, has apparently fallen by the wayside. For someone like Scarnecchia, who has built a reputation on being able to mold raw athletes -- with former Patriots guard Steve Neal, a college wrestler, as the most extreme example -- into capable pass-protectors and run-blockers, the comments thrown around in Prisco's piece must be cringe-worthy.

"There isn't much teaching going on at all," Richburg said. "It's kind of sink or swim."

"In practice you have to do what the coaches want to make them happy," Massie offered. "Make them feel like they have the big d--- in the room. On game day, you have to do your own stuff. The coaches, they're not out there blocking. They're in a big, comfortable chair with the clicker. The O-line and D-line are the best athletes on the field. It's not the quarterback, the receivers or the corners. We're going against the biggest, strongest, fastest in the world."

The players' criticism of coaching they've received didn't stop there.

They also expressed some frustration at being taught by someone who hasn't ever walked in their shoes. A coach's credentials are something that will be scrutinized, these players made it clear, and if someone's isn't up to snuff, he shouldn't expect to be treated as an infallible sage.

"Show me your All-Pro jersey, coach, and I will do what you do," Long said when asked if he has faced stubborn coaches in the past.

"I had one dude (coach) who played D-III football at linebacker," Warmack said, apparently referring to former Titans offensive line coach Bob Bostad, who played linebacker at Wisconsin-Stevens Point in the 1980s.

"And he's teaching me how to play offensive line? If there's nothing wrong with that, you tell me. I play offensive line. I don't play linebacker. I definitely didn't play D-III football. Not knocking D-III schools out there. We're talking about the highest level of football in the world. And you have a guy who has never put his hand in the dirt teaching me how to block. You don't think there's anything wrong with that?"

One glance at the list of Patriots coaches makes it abundantly clear, however, that having former NFL players on staff is not a prerequisite for success. The only coach in New England at the moment with any kind of NFL playing experience is assistant special teams coach Ray Ventrone. And the three men at the top of the coaching ladder -- head coach Bill Belichick, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia -- played Division 3 college football. 

Still, it would come as no surprise if Warmack's point, imperfect as it is, was widely shared by others in his position.

Even Belichick has admitted in the past that there are certain things that only players-turned-coaches can share with 20-somethings in an NFL locker room. In 2012, Belichick highlighted the playing experience of Pepper Johnson, who at the time was coaching Patriots linebackers, and how it might benefit the team.

"I'd say the big thing with Pepper is, unlike really anyone else on the staff, he’s actually played in our system," Belichick said. "I’ve coached the way I’ve coached at the Giants and at Cleveland and New York and so forth, but he’s actually played it, and I think there’s something to be said for that. 

"There’s certainly a perspective as a player who’s played in the system relative to a coach, even though I’ve coached it a long time, he has the perspective of playing in it that I just don't have or our other coaches don't have -- Matt Patricia or Pat [Graham] or Brian Flores or any of those guys. Nothing against them, it's just different. 

"I mean there’s something to be said for a player who's played the game -- particularly played the system you're coaching and can coach it. He has a perspective on it that as a coach having never played it, I just can’t give. And they can talk about, ‘Hey, when you're out there in this situation, here’s what you're thinking about,’ or ‘Look, the coach is telling you to do A, B and C, but really what you have to worry about is C; A and B, yeah, but forget about those and let’s make sure we get this one right.’ Things like that, things that happen in a game. 

"And they talk to our players, Pepper talks to our team, not just the defensive players or the linebackers, but our whole team about that from time to time about just what it’s like – especially the rookies – what it's like to play in a preseason game, what it's like to play in an NFL game, the difference between  NFL and college football, what the adjustment was for him, what he’s seen from other players that he’s coached in that experience, what things to expect, what's different from a pro game and a college game, things like that that I think helps them make their transition. He brings a lot of that to us."

Clearly there is value in that type of experience. But how much, exactly?

Is there any concern that Scarnecchia's message won't get across to his players this season because the highest level of football he ever played was at California Western University in the 1960s? He owns three Super Bowl rings and more than 30 years in the league that should suit him just fine if players ever feel the need to check his resume.

It seems as though what should carry the most weight for linemen is not if their coach has ever blocked an NFL-caliber pass-rusher before, but if he has a history of helping others do just that. Ultimately, players are looking for someone they can trust, someone who is going to give them the tools they need to succeed and allow them to keep their jobs.

In Scarnecchia, the Patriots have that someone.

Report: Cam Fleming visiting the Cowboys

File Photo

Report: Cam Fleming visiting the Cowboys

There's one gigantic hole to fill on the Patriots offensive line.

Replacing Nate Solder is no easy task and it's not exactly clear how the Pats will yet.

NFL Network insider Ian Rapoport was first to report the Patriots would like to bring back Waddle or Fleming.

It now appears that one of the former backup tackle is taking a serious look elsewhere, according to Ian Rapoport. 

It's not the best offensive line free agency market this season, so the Pats may prefer to bring back a guy they are familar with.

If Fleming is off the board, Waddle still remains as an option for New England.



How the compensatory pick formula may impact Patriots free-agent calls

AP Photo

How the compensatory pick formula may impact Patriots free-agent calls

How highly do the Patriots value their mid-round draft picks? We'll find out as the run on NFL free agents continues this week. 

If Bill Belichick and Nick Caserio plan to make any signings from outside the organization, they'll have to factor into that decision what they will be giving up. Money and cap space matter . . . sure. But there is draft capital at stake.  

The Patriots are currently projected to land two third-round compensatory picks in 2019 after losing both Malcolm Butler and Nate Solder in free agency. There's real value there, and the decision-makers at One Patriot Place may be reluctant to give that up. 

Recent Patriots third-round picks include Derek Rivers, Tony Garcia, Joe Thuney, Jacoby Brissett, Vincent Valentine, Geneo Grissom, Duron Harmon and Logan Ryan. 


Before we get into how the Patriots might lose those third-round comp picks if they remain active in free-agency, it's worth noting how comp picks are assigned. 

The compensatory-pick formula the league uses has never been published, but we know the basics. It's based on free agents lost and free agents acquired in a given year by a particular team. The level of those players is taken into consideration -- based on salary, playing time and other factors -- and then picks are issued to teams who have lost more (or better) free agents than they acquired. Only free agents whose contracts have expired (not players who've been released) qualify for the compensatory-pick formula.'s Nick Korte is the best in the business when it comes to predicting how many picks teams will land based on their free-agent losses and acquisitions, and he has the Patriots down for two third-rounders in 2019 and nothing else. 

That may sound surprising given the Patriots lost Dion Lewis and Danny Amendola in addition to Butler and Solder, but that's the way the formula broke, according to Korte. The Adrian Clayborn signing (given a sixth-round value by OTC) cancelled out the Amendola loss (sixth-round value). The Matt Tobin signing (seventh-round value) cancelled out the Lewis loss (sixth-round value). And the Jeremy Hill signing (seventh-round value) cancelled out the Johnson Bademosi loss (sixth-round value). 

Why do Tobin and Hill cancel out Amendola and Lewis, despite being lower-value moves? Here's how OTC describes the process. (Free agents who qualify for the comp-pick formula are known as Compensatory Free Agents or CFAs.)

1. A CFA gained by a team cancels out the highest-valued available CFA lost that has the same round valuation of the CFA gained.

2. If there is no available CFA lost in the same round as the CFA gained, the CFA gained will instead cancel out the highest-available CFA lost with a lower round value.

3. A CFA gained will only cancel out a CFA lost with a higher draft order if there are no other CFAs lost available to cancel out. 

That final point is key. An example? The Seahawks recently signed CFA Jaron Brown, a seventh-round value. The only Seahawks "CFAs lost" available to cancel out the move were Paul Richardson and Jimmy Graham, both fourth-round values. Even though there's a three-round difference between Brown and Richardson, per Korte's projections, those moves still will cancel each other out. 

With that in mind, the Patriots may want to tread lightly when it comes to signing free agents who will qualify toward the comp-pick formula. They could lose out on the third-rounders they've received for Solder and Butler even if they sign a lower-value free agent.

Players like Saints safety Kenny Vaccaro or Raiders linebacker NaVorro Bowman would count toward the comp-pick formula. Would their value to the team be such that losing a 2019 third-round pick wouldn't matter to the Patriots? Or would their comp-pick impact hurt their chances of being picked up in New England? My guess would be the latter. 

The good news for the Patriots is that re-signing their own players -- like offensive tackles LaAdrian Waddle and/or Cam Fleming -- doesn't impact the comp-pick setup. Neither does signing players who've been released, meaning the Patriots could theoretically make a splash by signing Ndamukong Suh or Eric Ebron and they'd retain their comp picks.

Given the Patriots made just four draft picks last year, and since comp picks can be traded now (that rule was changed last year), it would come as little surprise if retaining those picks weighed heavily on Belichick and Caserio's decisions as they move through the remainder of the offseason.