BLOOMINGTON, Minn. -- Dante Scarnecchia says he doesn't know if Super Bowl LII will be his last game. What's more likely the case is that he has an idea, but he's not saying.
The longtime Patriots offensive line coach -- who retired following the 2013 season but returned to work before last season -- will turn 70 on Valentine's Day, and we thought it would be a good idea to spend a few minutes with him to chat about a wide variety of topics ahead of what will be his ninth Super Bowl and quite possibly his final time on the sidelines.
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The result was a lively back-and-forth with multiple reporters that featured a coach who was still very clearly passionate about teaching the game, who was very clearly enjoying the moment, and who very clearly wasn't afraid to show emotion when discussing the relationships he has with his linemen.
Below is a transcript of his answers from that discussion with Scarnecchia earlier this week. The questions have been edited and his answers have been re-ordered for clarity.
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REFLECTING ON A REMARKABLE CAREER
Q: How did you end up focusing on the offensive line for a combined 30 years between jobs at the professional (19) and collegiate (11) level?
DS: "I played it. I always gravitated towards it. I don't know. I like doing it. I don't know if I'm any good at it. I just like doing it."
Q: How big were you when you played?
DS: "I was 20 pounds heavier than I am right now. I was 185. But I didn't play at [University of Southern California]. I played at Cal Western University. I'll tell you, 185-pound guard. [Twelve-year veteran] Shelby Jordan. He used to play [in New England]. He was a defensive tackle at St. Louis University. And we played them. And I played against him. He was as big then as he was . . . How am I supposed to block this guy? It was one of those deals."
Q: Any techniques to help in that situation?
DS: "Reach down and bite him in the ankles and don't let go, man. That's about all you can do."
Q: Did you ever, after 32 years with the Patriots in a variety of roles and plenty of down periods, think you'd be part of one of the greatest dynasties in sports?
DS: "You said all that, I didn't. I never would ever, ever thought that I'd be able to be a part of nine Super Bowls. I just don't think that way. I'm not a person that's a negative person. But nine Super Bowls? I'm grateful for every minute of it. Grateful for every opportunity. Grateful for this opportunity. Can't explain it. We have a great owner. We have an unbelievable head coach and we have maybe one of the greatest quarterbacks that's ever played. That's an awful lot going for us."
Q: Did the time away, during retirement, change you as a coach?
DS: "Honestly, it didn't change me. I think I'm the same coach as when I left. I was only gone two years. I came back. I was ready to coach. I never quit because I didn't like coaching. I liked coaching. I just quit because I got tired of the other things. I was re-energized, had to knock some rust off maybe the first couple weeks, but everything worked out all right."
Q: What "other things?" Was it the hours?
DS: "It wasn't the hours,. It was getting off the bus at 4:30 a.m. from an away game, walking into the building, working until midnight. That's hard. You know, just all the things that go along with the job. It's a hard job. It's a hard job. A lot of hours. It's amazing. It's 11:30, it's 12 o'clock at night and you're not the lone ranger in there now. There's a lot of guys in there. Come in the next morning and there's a lot of guys in there. It's all day, every day . . .
"The lifestyle was really hard. I'm going to be 70 in two weeks. I'm not a young man. Did you know that when I started coaching, there was only two other guys on our staff that were alive when I started coaching? This is my 44th, 45th year. Who's 45 on our staff? Ivan [Fears], myself and Bill. That's it. All the rest of those guys weren't even born. Now that's a damn shame. What do you say to that?"
Q: Does the time spent bother you more or less now?
DS: "Does it bother me more now or less now, I don't know. I think you look at it and say, 'Wow, that's a lot of time.' That's OK. The other thing, working with these players, especially these group of players -- these guys are really good guys. The veterans that we have, it makes it really pleasurable. Every game that we've been fortunate enough to win has been earned the hard way a lot of times. It's all been a really great ride. These two years. I can't explain it."
Q: Any difference in Bill Belichick over the years? Any changes?
DS: "Does he look any different to you? Does he sound any different? He's the same old guy, man. Set your watch. That's what he is. You know? We're gonna go in here and watch this practice tape for two hours after we're done. We're gonna watch the special teams, we're gonna watch the defense, we're gonna watch the offense. That's what we do. He's the same guy. He ain't changing."
Q: Do you think he ever gets bored or tired of it?
DS: "I don't have that kind of relationship with him where he'd come up and . . . 'I'm really tired of it.' No. I don't think he'd ever do that."
Q: Do you see yourself coaching another year?
DS: "Sure. We'll see. I'm taking it day-to-day. I can't wait for tomorrow. I'm anxious for Sunday and we'll see what happens after that . . . I don't know. Dick LeBeau is 80 years old. I'd never make it. I could never make it. I think he's the greatest coach ever. I could never make it."
Q: If you coached as an 80-year-old, the year would be 2028.
DS: "Oh my god! What's the world going to be like then?"
APPRECIATING HIS RELATIONSHIPS
Q: What does it say about Nate Solder that he's been through all he's been through and remained a steady presence?
DS: "I get choked up. The guy is a rock. He and [wife] Lexi, you know, and little [son] Hudson . . . pretty special people . . . We drafted him and know him very well. He's a great kid. Great kid."
Q: How do such tight relationships form between a coach and his players?
DS: "Any time you're sharing the same space with guys and working with them on a daily basis, on the field, in the classroom . . . You know their girlfriends. You know their wives. You know their significant others. If you care about them, you know it. You just have that kind of relationship with those guys. It's all great. It's partially one of the reasons why you coach, the relationship with the players. I like that part of it. I really like this group."
Q: What makes this group different than others?
DS: "I just think that collectively they have a great work ethic about themselves. This group is the first group I've ever been around that we've been in pads almost every week, [other than] those short weeks where we just couldn't. We were in pads today, and they never, ever complained. They never, ever complained. We might've had our best practice of the [year] today. Just special. Guys worked hard. They always do everything we ask them to do, but it's a good group."
GAUGING THE PROGRESS OF TWO ROOKIES
Q: How has Cole Croston (three games this seaso) developed in his first year?
DS: "The pro game is a lot different from the college game. And not so much because of Xs and Os and all the rest of it. They do great things at Iowa. The coaches there are tremendous coaches. Their system is a really good system. But the quality of the players that you're playing at this level, it's the best. I think he's learned how to deal with the speed of this game, how to deal with the athletic ability of the players he's going against. Every day I think those things. He's done well with that. He's a great kid. Happy that we got him. This has been a great year from that standpoint. We look for him to be a solid guy going forward."
Q: What allowed him to keep a roster spot? Versatility?
DS: "I think that was it. We covet three things when we look for offensive linemen: They have to be smart; they have to be tough; and they have to be athletic enough. I think he fits the bill on all three of those things. We know he fits the bill on all three of those things. Just how fast he'll develop will determine how well he does going forward in this league. We're glad we got him."
Q: How is third-round pick Tony Garcia doing? He seems thin.
DS: "Yeah. His weight is down. He's gone through some medical issues, which I will not speak about. But he is working hard. He is starting to gain his weight back. We all realized this was going to be a process for him this year. And it has been a process for him. We're gonna be extremely patient with this guy. We feel like we owe him that. And he's giving us everything he can in return right now. He's working out every day. I think he's starting to trend towards a good direction. We'll see what we've got this spring and going into training camp."
Q: Is it too early to know if he'll be ready for 2018?
DS: "It really is too early because he really didn't have too much of a training camp. We liked what we saw when he was able to practice. I think we only got like 10 days, 12 days out of him. Then Jacksonville came in and he wasn't able to practice. He'll be all right. We'll just see what we've got."
COMMENTING ON THE STATE OF TACKLE PLAY IN THE NFL
Q: Why did the Patriots keep as many tackles as they did out of training camp? Solder, Marcus Cannon, Cam Fleming, LaAdrian Waddle and Croston all made the club. Tony Garcia and Andrew Jelks were in the building on reserve lists.
DS: "I think what caused it was the fact that we had the two starters, plus two additional guys, plus Cole, who could play guard or tackle. You really can't look and say, 'Oh we're tackle rich. Let's get rid of one.' Look what happened. We've had four tackles that've played this year. When you have good players, you have players that are good enough to play, you keep those guys around. You don't just get rid of them because you think you've got enough. You say, 'OK, this is what the deal's gonna be.' And we decided we wanted to keep four tackles, and I think that's helped us a lot."
Q: How has the team managed with backups at right tackle for 13 of the team's 18 games (including playoffs) this season?
DS: "It's not like [Fleming and Waddle are] not good players. They are good players. Their skill set seemed to fit that position pretty well. They have the traits that we covet. And they're both really smart guys, very willing learners, and they're both driven to be good and they want to play good. And I think all those things have manifested themselves when they've been out there playing. And we've been very, very pleased with what they've done for us this year, essentially splitting that position. Hopefully that will continue through Sunday night."
Q: Has there been anything you've focused on in your work with Waddle and Fleming over the course of the season?
DS: "For us it transcends everything. Obviously run-blocking and pass-blocking. They're both good at those things. Are they great at those things? No. But they've been able to steadily improve over the last two years to the point where we put them out there and no one's worried. And it's been that way the whole season after Marcus got hurt. Yeah they've done a nice job for us."
Q: Does having players like Solder, Fleming, Croston, Joe Thuney and David Andrews -- who all played in "pro-style" systems in college -- help them make the transition to the pro game?
DS: "I think it's all helpful. I'll give you an example. A lot of guys you named came from offenses where they run and they pass the ball. Shaq Mason came from Georgia Tech where they did nothing but run the ball. But he's been able to make that transition and become a good pass-blocker because he has an immense skill set. Those are guys that you take, and you teach them how to use their skills to be able to function in a game that's the preeminent game. If you can't pass-block or you can't run block in this league, you're going to have a hard time playing."
Q: Has tackle play dipped, as some have suggested, because of the prevalence of the spread offense in college?
DS: "I don't think it has at all. Maybe 15 years ago, everyone was so put off and worried. 'Well everybody's running the wishbone and split-back veer, and none of those guys can pass-block.' Well, they could. Those that could did. Those that couldn't didn't. That's no different than guys coming out of college right now. Some guys can't pass-block right now. They just don't have the skill to do it. But you can take a guy like Mason who's got good skills and you can teach him how to pass-block. And you can teach guys out of systems like Texas Tech, where they throw the ball a lot, and you can teach them how to run-block if they're tough guys and willing to do those things. No, do I think the skill set of the offensive line has diminished? No. There's a lot of really good offensive linemen in this league right now that would transcend any era before them. They're just good players. I don't really think that's the case."
LOOKING AT SUPER BOWL NO. 9
Q: Standard operating procedure this week?
DS: "I think we've done a few things differently than we've done in the past. We spent a lot of time last week on the Eagles because what we normally do is we don't get into the game plan very heavily the first week, but we did last week and it served us very, very well These three days that we've practiced here, we've really just been fine-tuning everything."
Q: How important is technique for a player like David Andrews (295 pounds) against a player like Fletcher Cox (320)?
DS: "You can be better with technique. You can. I think you can. I think you have to give up some size plenty of times, and it works both ways. There's 270-pound defensive tackles that make life miserable for linemen because of quickness and explosion and all that. I think it works both ways. We have certain parameters on them. We've never had a lot of big guys. We never had a lot of small guys, either. It works all right . . . I think [Andrews] is probably around an average-sized center in this league. [Technique] is really important. He better have his pads down. Better use his hands well in pass protection or it's going to be hard. That's what we emphasize quite a bit."
Q: Can you combat an aggressive Eagles pass-rush with aggressiveness in protection?
DS: "I never believe that pass-protection is a passive act. I think it's an aggressive act. You set to a certain point. You get to that point. It's usually between the launch point of the quarterback and the guy you're blocking with inside out leverage. When you get to that point, it's you against him. You're going to shoot your hands in there, you keep your face out of it, and you're going to be as aggressive as you possibly can. I don't think it's a passive act."
Shaq Masons punch will ruin your twist. pic.twitter.com/QJBQhb4n1m— Cole Cubelic (@colecubelic) February 1, 2018
Solder has his punch working vs Fowler in the AFC title game. pic.twitter.com/bZSeZB9P4L— Cole Cubelic (@colecubelic) February 1, 2018
Shared TV copy of this but worth another look. Solder sets the punch with authority. pic.twitter.com/ZDA8Q0m36C— Cole Cubelic (@colecubelic) February 1, 2018
Q: Has Solder improved in how he has used his hands in the second half of the season?
DS: "Yes. Yes. I think you have it right."
Q: What allowed the switch to flip for Solder?
DS: "I think the switch just flipped, and I think it flipped for the better. I think we've seen a really good football player. I don't think he's really outspoken or really verbal, but when he says something everybody listens to it. The guy is a really bright guy and he's a really good player. He's a great guy . . . He's a dynamic run-blocker and a really good pass-blocker. I really like him. I like being around him."
Q: Is going up-tempo something that might benefit the Patriots offensive line in that it might prevent the Eagles from being able to tap into their depth on the defensive line?
DS: "We like being an up-tempo team. Sometimes we can. Sometimes we can't. Whether we do it on Sunday we'll see. I think it does help us if you're not used to the tempo. I'm not saying those guys aren't. They have eight defensive linemen they're going to roll them in and out of there. I think that's a tribute to the people that drafted those guys because they're very deep. They've got four tackles. They've got four ends. And every one of them's playing. They spot them around a little bit to get matchups that they want. I think they do a great job of it. They have good players. They have really good players."
BREAKING DOWN THE BOSS
Q: What do you think Belichick was like as an offensive lineman at Wesleyan University in the 1970s?
DS: "He was probably a can of kick-ass. Write that down. I don't know. I hope he was."