Dante Scarnecchia

Patriots win the turnover battle on the coaching staff, too

Patriots win the turnover battle on the coaching staff, too

FOXBORO -  Josh McDaniels stood on the Patriots practice fields before the start of their first spring workout and spoke about starting from scratch. 

"Every year is a different team," he said. "This is a different team obviously than last year's. But this is 17 years for me, and never once have we had the same group come back and really be the same to start with the next year. We gotta work hard now, create a foundation, learn about these guys that we have that we don't really have a lot of experience with, and start to build that trust all over again."

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But as McDaniels embarked on that process, he had an advantage over most offensive coordinators around the league. It was the same advantage from which Matt Patricia benefited as he began working with the Patriots defense: continuity.

McDaniels and Patricia began the season as two of seven coordinators in the NFL who had held their positions since 2012. It's a jarring statistic when one considers that almost 90 percent (55 of 62, the Texans and 49ers don't have offensive coordinators on staff) of all coordinator jobs have turned over at least once in the past five years. 

The understanding that both Patricia and McDaniels have been around the Patriots much longer than five seasons -- that was when Patricia was officially given the coordinator's title, and it was when McDaniels returned for his second go-round at the job -- only bolsters the point that the continuity the Patriots boast at the top of their coaching tree is unmatched. 

Belichick, McDaniels and Patricia's run as a trio, though, could be wrapping up. Both McDaniels and Patricia are frequently mentioned as two of the top head-coaching candidates in football, and there could be about a dozen jobs open after the season.

If one or both decide to leave, they could be replaced by Belichick with in-house candidates to maintain a level of consistency. Receivers coach Chad O'Shea and linebackers coach Brian Flores have seen play-caller reps in the preseason and would be among the options. But if Patricia and McDaniels walked out the door, a measure of familiarity would leave with them.

"We have a lot of consistency on our entire staff," Belichick said back in July. "I thought that was very helpful this year in a relatively short offseason. Those guys were able to – when I say 'those guys,' the entire staff – were able to get into things pretty quickly. There wasn’t really a [period of] catching new staff members up or bringing them up to speed or going over things.

"Pretty much everybody’s been through everything that we’re doing, both in the offseason and the regular season, our game preparation and so forth. Not that we don’t have a lot of work to do. I’m not saying that. But at least we have a level of experience of all doing it together. So, yeah. It’s good."

That consistency on the staff helped the Patriots make one of their biggest acquisitions of the last few years when they coaxed Dante Scarnecchia out of retirement. If the coaches rooms had been lined with new faces in 2015, he might not have been so willing to return.  

"[We] know what to expect of one another," the 69-year-old offensive line coach said. "They know what to expect of us. I think all of that stuff makes it so much easier. I don't know if I would've ever come back if Josh wouldn't have been [here]. Because Josh was here, that was one of the huge reasons . . . And all the guys on defense. You know all those guys. It's really, it's a good bunch of guys to be around in every respect. You come into the office every day. Egos are checked at the door. Just seems like it's a healthy environment."

It's an unusually healthy one compared to the rest of the league, like an NFL medical marvel that science can't solve - around forever and still going strong. 

Walking through the bowels of Gillette Stadium over the summer, Patricia was asked how he could explain the rare longevity that he and McDaniels have enjoyed as coordinators. 

"What I will say is I do feel very blessed," Patricia said. "Especially working with Josh, Nick Caserio, and Bill, and really my staff, of having that continuity. I think we know we have something special with that and we enjoy it. 

"When you get in those situations, you tend to savor them, and you tend to really appreciate them. It's great. Josh and I have been together a long time, from being together on the same side of the ball to now being able to coordinate our sides. Having that relationship and that background, I mean, I'm very, very lucky."

For the players that McDaniels and Patricia coach, the feeling is mutual. Those who have played elsewhere before coming to the Patriots seem to be particularly thankful to land in a place where the path to success is clear and has been manicured by the same sets of hands for years. 

"'I've been in situations where we've had new OCs, new coaches come in, new quarterbacks, and it's not easy getting guys where they need to be," Danny Amendola said. "The biggest thing is having the ability to show film with consistency of the offensive coordinator from past years, and what he wants, and what needs to happen to be successful. That's just what Coach McDaniels offers for us. It's good because there's no gray area. It's pretty black and white: 'This is what you need to do to be successful.' He can put on tape of guys doing it successfully in previous years. The consistency is there, and I know Coach McDaniels loves to be here and everybody loves to play for him.

"I remember when I first met him, he came to St. Louis and we were coming off the lockout. We didn't have any time in OTAs together. We were literally thrown into camp, we had two weeks before our first preseason game, and it was tough. It was tough, man. He was showing us Patriots clips. He was showing Broncos. We didn't know where we stacked up in the room. There were a lot of different variables. 

"That consistency we have now is huge for our offense. Every coach, you can turn to. Chad's been here for about 10 years. [Running backs coach Ivan Fears] has been here for no telling how long...The consistency and the template to just playing good football is here. It might be a lot to grasp at first for a new guy. But once you kind of grasp it, it gets a lot easier. It's there for you."

Despite the Patriots running challenging systems both offensively and defensively, the acclimation process for new additions is made easier by the multiple layers of coaching that dots the locker room. With consistent teaching points from year to year, established players end up becoming valuable sounding boards for their newer teammates.

"When you have stability like that, it's huge because guys know what to expect," David Harris said. "They're familiar with the playbook. Being a new guy coming in, a lot of times I can just ask another player, 'How do I play this?' Or, 'What do I do?' instead of having one-on-one meetings with the position coach or the defensive coordinator. That's a huge benefit, the continuity of the coaches here. They've been successful a long time, and it's working."

Harris knows how the other half lives. In 10 years with the Jets, he played under three head coaches (Eric Mangini, Rex Ryan and Todd Bowles) and four defensive coordinators (Bob Sutton, Mike Pettine, Dennis Thurman and Kacy Rodgers). 

Chris Hogan saw even more regular turnover in his four years in Buffalo. First, he played under coach Chan Gailey and offensive coordinator Curtis Modkins. Then it was Doug Marrone and Nathaniel Hackett. Then Rex Ryan took over and Greg Roman ran the offense. 

Dwayne Allen's run in Indianapolis was similarly turbulent. He played for only one head coach in his five years with the team, Chuck Pagano, but the offense changed hands three times. Bruce Arians, Pep Hamilton and Rob Chudzinski all had cracks at it.

For Allen, New England's single-minded approach offensively was refreshing to step into. When he had questions, there was Rob Gronkowski (seven years in the offense) and James Develin (five) to lean on in meetings. On the field, if Nate Solder (six years in the offense) or Marcus Cannon (six) sensed something was off, they could set Allen straight.

"No matter's who's around me," Allen said in camp, "with the ones and the twos, I'm able to turn to my left and my right and ask a question, and they're able to point me in the right direction."

Hogan remembered feeling the same way going into last season. If he wanted them, there were sources of on-the-field advice everywhere. It was a dynamic that couldn't exist if everyone was under a new boss for the third time in four seasons.

"There's guys that have been doing it," Hogan said in camp. "They got guys that can teach people the offense. It doesn't have to always be Josh. It can be Julian [Edelman], Tom [Brady], Danny, [Matthew] Slater, Gronk. They've got guys that have been in this offense for a while.

"You have to have veteran leadership. It doesn't have to always be Josh. I think that's why people can come in here and be successful, because there are so many guys that can teach the offense, coach it. There's not a lot of turnover here. Players, yeah. But the coaches have been here. They know what they're doing. They know what they want."

As long as Belichick remains the head coach and Brady remains the quarterback, the schematic changes will in all likelihood be minimal even if the coordinators move on. But if the voices change, and if the methods change, it would stand to reason that a degree of uncertainty would follow.

McDaniels is a close friend of Brady's, someone who can pull out a game plan from years ago for Brady to execute after a quick sideline powwow, someone Brady immediately acknowledged after throwing one of the most important touchdowns of his career. Patricia is a coach who has been able to connect with his players on multiple levels, tweaking them to give their best, hugging them when they need it, and all the while maintaining his reputation as the rocket scientist with the beautiful football mind.

Those qualities aren't easily replaced, and if the Patriots are forced to change coordinators this offseason it could take some time to reboot. Change can be hard. And change at the top is something the Patriots have managed to avoid during the latest iteration of their dynasty.

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Keeping Miller off Brady a challenge for improved OT Waddle

Keeping Miller off Brady a challenge for improved OT Waddle

FOXBORO - Von Miller has ruined many a football game for opposing offenses. The Patriots have first-hand experience with that. Just flashback to the AFC title game in the 2015-16 season. The All-Pro defensive end/linebacker tormented Tom Brady, sacking the quarterback 2 1/2 times while also recording a handful of hits on the beleaguered Brady in a 20-18 Denver victory. Miller did that going head-to-head with starting right tackle Marcus Cannon. 

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Fast forward to this weekend. Miller must be salivating at the thought of not only teeing off on Brady but at the very real possibility he’ll be squaring off with backup tackle LaAdrian Waddle. Yes, the same Waddle who played exactly one snap a year ago will be thrown into the lion’s den against the ferocious Miller.

“He’s a great player, a great rusher,” said Waddle. “He’s one of those guys...He’s gonna jump the count if he can. He’s fast off the ball, he can bend that edge, he can bring a little power too. He’s a good, complete rusher and he’s someone we’ll have to take care of to do the things we want to do on offense.”

Said Bill Belichick: “Miller can do it all; he can play the run, he’s a great edge-setter, and he’s a great speed-rusher - good counter move, good speed to power rush. He’s seen double teams and things like that. He knows how to deal with them. He has a good inside spin and has the power to get away from those types of techniques. He’s a good pass rusher and he’s as good a player as there is in the league.”

The idea that Waddle could even put up a fair fight against Miller was far-fetched as recently as this summer when the 26-year old appeared to be a prime candidate to get chopped off the roster. Instead, not only has Waddle survived but he has slipped past Cam Fleming to earn substantial snaps this year: 130 to date. Waddle filled in capably for Cannon when the latter went down in the victory over the L.A. Chargers, fending off the explosive Melvin Ingram, himself an elite pass rusher in the Miller mold.

“I think it’s just more getting that opportunity to get out there," said Waddle when asked of his overall improvement. “I didn’t really get that opportunity to last year - whatever reason that was - whatever, it’s in the past, it’s over with. Now that I’m getting my opportunity, I want to make the most of those, show them I can perform and get the trust of the rest of my teammates and the coaches.”

Belichick has been high on Waddle dating back to August. At the time it surprised those of us who watched the tackle struggle in both camp practices and joint sessions with Jackonsville and Houston. Shows you what we know. 

“Yeah, it started in the offseason,” said Belichick. “He had a really good offseason, good spring and I think he's improved his overall strength, his mobility. He's in good condition. You know, he kind of took a while – when we first got him, I think he was still dealing a little bit with the knee injury from Detroit. And, I don't want to say last year, but it's just over a period of time, between hard work, maybe it's some just physical improvement – I don't know, some combination of the two – but he looks and plays kind of like what we saw in Detroit before the injury.”

Waddle credited offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia for constantly pushing he and the rest of the hogs up front to get after it daily, be it in the meeting room, weight room or on the practice field. Scar stresses opening lanes for the run game and “keeping Tommy clean” said Waddle. That’s a good way to put yourself in the good graces of not just the coaches but the man himself - Brady.

“LA [Waddle] works hard. I’m very confident in him as I am with all our linemen,” said Brady earlier this week.

Miller will do his best to ruin that Sunday in the Mile High City. We’ll see how Brady feels about Waddle and that o-line once Week 10 is in the books. 


 

Why Scarnecchia believes his O-line is trending positively

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Why Scarnecchia believes his O-line is trending positively

FOXBORO -- The Patriots have done something that very few teams in the modern NFL have been able to do. They've built an offensive line, one that was good enough to win a Super Bowl, and then kept it together.

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To have a starting five make it through almost the entirety of the year, as New England's did in 2016, is rare. But then to have the same five back to make another run? That's a rare luxury.

When the Patriots won the Super Bowl in 2014, they had an entirely new interior of their offensive line starting in Week 1 of the following season. When the Broncos won the Super Bowl in 2015, center Matt Paradis was the only Super Bowl starting lineman on the field for Week 1 of 2016.

The current Patriots line not only has an uncommon level of experience together, but they've avoided many of the pitfalls that have hampered protection schemes across the NFL.

They're not dealing with young players still adjusting to three-point stances. And the lack of practice time that lines have together in the preseason shouldn't bother them as much as other units because they've seen well over 1,000 game-day snaps together.

They speak the same language. They know each other's strengths, weaknesses and tendencies.

Yet the product on the field hasn't translated through the first half of this season. Tom Brady is on pace to absorb more sacks (42) than he's ever taken in his 17 years as a starter.

Dante Scarnecchia met with reporters on Wednesday for the annual bye-week media availability period for Patriots assistants, and he was asked for his assessment of his starting five -- left tackle Nate Solder, left guard Joe Thuney, center David Andrews, right guard Shaq Mason and right tackle Marcus Cannon.

“We should protect our quarterback better than what we have been doing,” Scarnecchia said. “We’re trending in that direction over the last two weeks. We’ve seen some good rushers out there. Guys have done a much better job. Tommy seems to be a little bit more upright than he was in the first six games. Hopefully, we are trending in that direction to where we can really throw up a wall in front of this guy and help him."

But why, Scarnecchia was asked, has there been issues when consistent availability and experience together are two of the defining characteristics of his year's group? 

"For having the same five guys . . . maybe we're not pass-blocking as well as we did last year when you think we should be," Scarnecchia said. "And I think I have to do a better job of coaching them and getting more out of them."

Scarnecchia was brought back into coaching last season for the express purpose of getting his group in order and he did. He's widely renowned as one of the best in the game at his job. So to hear him put the onus on himself was eye-opening. 

"I just think it's usually a result of techniques," he said. "We have to do better at what we're doing and understand what certain things mean as far as -- if a guy's going to blitz on the outside, well that means the guy you're going to block is going to go inside. We can't let those things happen where we're not responding the way we should. 

"It's not for a lack of effort. We're trying to do it right. They're trying to do it right. We've just gotta it done a better than what we're doing. 

Look, we’re eight games into this deal, and no one is satisfied. They’re not. I’m not. Certainly, the head coach isn’t. We're gonna continue to work at it.”

One area where Scarnecchia has been satisfied with his unit's improvement? Short-yardage running situations. 

The Patriots were three-for-four on third and fourth-and-1 conversion opportunities against the Chargers last weekend -- a far cry from their conversion rate in Week 1 against the Chiefs when they failed to convert in two fourth-and-one situations.

"It wasn't very good. It has gotten better," Scarnecchia said. "It needs to continue to be better. We were terrible the first two games. Got better since then. That's an area, situational football, where you have to be really good at." 

The Patriots offensive line has dealt with a handful of injuries -- the latest being an ankle issue that knocked Marcus Cannon from the Chargers game and held him out of Wednesday's practice -- but when healthy, they've proven they can be a championship-caliber unit. So even despite a rocky start, when Scarnecchia says he feels as though they're moving in the right direction both in terms of pass-protection and run-blocking, you're inclined to believe him. 

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