Patriots

Patriots

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 CBSSports.com  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.