Patriots

The Gospel According to Scar: Dante Scarnecchia's approach to Patriots offensive line challenges

Patriots

FOXBORO — Dante Scarnecchia wasn't thrilled by the question. Maybe he thought it was a shot at his players. Or, worse, his age.

But when the 71-year-old offensive line coach was asked if it was at all exhausting to try to get four new linemen — none of whom were in town for training camp — caught up on the ins and outs of the Patriots offense, the normally frank-but-congenial Scarnecchia scoffed.

"No," he said quickly. "It's just part of the job. I don't do anything. I just coach. Come in early. Go home late. Just work at your job. It's just part of the process."

That is, in essence, Scarnecchia's coaching philosophy. Put in the time. Work at the details. Don't make excuses. His approach, and the results it has produced, are what get his players to adhere to his words as though they're gospel.

With a position group that is nearly half comprised of names who weren't on the roster a month ago, with backups at center and left tackle, the Patriots need their latest arrivals to worship devoutly at the altar of the man they call "Scar." The health of the team's quarterback, and the outlook on its season, could hinge on their buy-in and execution. 

From the sounds of it, Scarnecchia has already earned the former.

'THESE ARE THE THINGS WE REALLY BELIEVE STRONGLY IN...'

When it comes to offensive line play, Scarnecchia's message might as well be blessed. He's considered around the league to be the best at his job, with a résumé that should eventually put him in the conversation to be enshrined in Canton despite never having started a season with the title of head coach. 

 

Now deep into his fifth decade of coaching, Scarnecchia faces one of his greatest challenges. He lost starting center David Andrews to a pulmonary embolism before the start of the season. Starting left tackle Isaiah Wynn will miss at least eight weeks on injured reserve after suffering a foot injury in Week 2.

Since the end of camp, the Patriots imported a whopping five different offensive linemen — four of whom remain with the team: backup guard Jermaine Eluemunor, backup tackles Korey Cunningham and Caleb Benenoch, and new starting left tackle Marshall Newhouse. It's been on Scarnecchia to get them all to a place where they can fill in capably, protect Tom Brady, and help offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels call the type of game he wants. 

That, of course, is no small task given the Patriots offense might be the most complex in football, built over the course of two decades with Bill Belichick running the sidelines and Brady running the huddle. 

How, then, does Scarnecchia go about getting those new blockers to buy in and get ready? By living out that which he demands of his players, abiding by the rules that helped him win five Super Bowl rings and mold the linemen who won another in 2014 while he was retired. 

Scarnecchia actually laid out his offensive line commandments during a coaching clinic at Notre Dame following the 2013 season, which was recorded and posted to YouTube

He eschewed a Powerpoint presentation that day for an old-fashioned projector and set out to teach the teachers who sought his guidance. Before he started in earnest, he licked fingers on both hands, carefully shuffled some papers, placed one under the projector, looked up to make sure he had it right, then got into it.

"Offensive line playing code," he began. "These are things that we really believe strongly in."

'NO. 1: GOTTA WORK TOGETHER'

After former Bills center Russell Bodine came and went before the start of the regular season, the Patriots continued to try to add to both their interior (suddenly shallow with Andrews out) and their edge (a spot that was lacking through camp) protection.

Eluemunor and Cunningham were the first additions to stick, and to help them along, their new position coach made a point of it to spend as much time with them as he could in the meeting room.

"When I first got here, Korey and I were in there — even on off-days — for a good four, five, six hours with Coach Scarnecchia," Eluemunor said. "Going over plays. Going over schemes. Watching film. Doing everything possible. Then on the field, too. Going out 20, 25 minutes early to work on technique, working on plays."

 

"Scar had us here in the off-days, later in the afternoons, meeting all day," Cunningham said. "Hammering us with the terminology, new plays. He's not just going to give it to you. He's going to give it to you and make sure you know it as well. He's a great teacher. He was in there going over film, putting us on the board. Then when we go on the field, he's hammering us with the technique that he goes by and the team goes that we have to abide by."

"We're gonna be on the field at 11:45 [a.m.] today and all the new guys will be out there at 11:30 to make sure that we are getting them all up to speed relative to the things we do," Scarnecchia said prior to a recent Friday practice. "You gotta coach 'em, man. That's what we're getting paid to do."

While Scarnecchia's "work together" bullet point is the first up in his playing-code list, it's clearly part of his coaching code as well. 

"If I see a guy that doesn't quite get it," he said during the Notre Dame clinic, "I'm gonna tell him. But I'm not gonna start all over again for one guy. We're gonna go fast. We're gonna coach 'em hard and we're gonna coach 'em on the run. Those guys that I wanna take after, I'll say, 'Look it. . .' 

"I'll take 'em after practice and we'll go over things I think they need to do better. But we're not gonna drag the whole group down because one guy we just got in the program that we just drafted is slow to get it. We're gonna go fast. We're gonna coach 'em hard. We're gonna be very, very demanding of them."

Even on off-days, if that's what's required.

"He could be doing something else," Cunningham said of his Tuesday meetings with Scarnecchia, "but he's there making sure we know what we're doing. That's why he's the greatest coach to do this on the offensive line. You always heard about it. Now you get to play for him. It's an honor."

'NO. 2: GOTTA SEE THE GAME THROUGH ONE SET OF EYES'

"That means," Scarnecchia said during the clinic, "when the 'Will' [linebacker] walks up to the A-gap, how are we gonna block it? Everyone's gotta see the game through one set of eyes and not five different sets of eyes. If that happens, it's chaos."

Getting to that point with new players is particularly challenging. And if there's an injury mid-game — as there was against both the Steelers and Dolphins in Weeks 1 and 2 — getting to that point with a replacement like Cunningham, to have him see things the same way Joe Thuney might, seems like a tall order. 

Even for a player with a decade in the league like Newhouse, it's daunting to try to have his vision synched up with those who've been coached by Scarnecchia for years. 

 

"A lot of the football stuff, conceptually, I get," Newhouse said. "It makes sense to me. It's just a matter of — this is also my eighth new playbook — applying it and doing the little things, the details, about how they want it done. Steps. Hands. All that stuff. For specific plays. Specific situations. It's catching up on all that so you can play fast. 

"So many little things that take reps and take time. I'm extra focused at practice when I'm taking my reps, even when I'm out, I'm watching the guy who's going before me and getting the mental rep. It might be something as simple as standing in the mirror and visualizing plays as best you can and building up those neuropathways."

For Newhouse, relying on Scarnecchia's longtime pupils — students who can relay the teacher's message consistently in the heat of the moment — has been vital as well. Players like Marcus Cannon and Andrews continue to be sounding boards for some of the other newer players with less Scarnecchia experience.

"Marcus is right there in my ear asking me, 'What's the play? What do you got on this guy? What does that tackle have on this play?' Everybody's welcoming with open arms," Cunningham said. "David is just like having another guru, another coach in the room. 

"He gets down there and does some of the teach tapes sometimes. You can see he's a seasoned vet. He knows his stuff. He knows what he's doing. You can just tell he knows every little thing. It's like having another coach out there as well."

"It's all good. I think it's all good," Scarnecchia said of his veteran players serving as teaching assistants. "I think they ask a lot of questions that maybe young guys are afraid to ask. Those guys are invaluable as long as they're spewing the company line, which is how we do things, the way we do things, and all the rest of that. The guys who've been around here know, and they help."

Andrews, who still attends every meeting despite being ineligible to play this season, said he's garnered a new appreciation for Scarnecchia's teaching techniques this year with a different perspective. 

"You really see that and how detail-oriented he is, and how much he puts into it each week," Andrews said. "It's really impressive. He makes sure, for us, there's no stone unturned. That's what makes us go out there and play really confident. We feel so prepared. 

"Whatever they throw at us is nothing we're not prepared for. Maybe we haven't seen it. Maybe it's a new wrinkle. But somewhere, somehow we've been prepared for it. Whether it's the techniques we've learned, or the communication, or just the overall schemes and how we want to run our offense."

 

'NO. 3: GOTTA TRUST THE GUYS AROUND YOU AND YOU GOTTA BUILD THEIR TRUST IN YOU'

It didn't take long for Cunningham to trust that Scarnecchia would do everything he could to get him up to speed quickly. The coach's energy level was striking from Day 1. 

"Blew my mind," Cunningham said. "Blew my mind that he's still out here going at it. He has no stop in him. He's just going, going, going. He's going all practice. Sometimes I wonder how and I say, 'Oh my goodness.' But he's juiced up all practice."

Early in his Patriots tenure, Cunningham remembered seeing Scarnecchia swimming laps in the pool for his morning workout, then getting in some cardio in the weight room later that day.  

"You get here in the morning, and you see he's one of the first people here working out," Cunningham said. "Then when you leave, you see that he's working out again. You say, 'Man we were just on the practice field. You're getting a workout in right here?' It's impressive. Then you see how he coaches with all that energy and it makes us want to work even more . . . He's everywhere. You got a lot of respect for him. You gotta love playing for a coach like that." 

Aside from the work Scarnecchia puts in to earn his players' trust, his blunt approach is equally reassuring. If he's reaming you out on the practice field, difficult as it may be to hear in real time, players understand he's doing it to make them better. And if he commends you, or if he defends you in front of your colleagues, then he means it.

"He's definitely a demanding coach for sure," Andrews said. "But I think there's two sides of him, and I think that's what makes him so special and loved and respected by not only us as players but the whole team. 

"He cares for us. He has our back. He sticks up for us. We're all in it together . . . He includes himself in that. I think that means a lot to you as a player."

'GOTTA DO WHAT'S EXPECTED OF YOU ON EVERY PLAY'

Once Scarnecchia got to this point at the clinic, he stopped numbering the lines of his "code," probably in the name of efficiency. He had a lot to get to, after all. His presentation lasted almost an hour.

Of course the expectations are high when you're playing for Scarnecchia. Cannon found that out quickly as a rookie who wasn't playing in 2011 as he recovered from a bout with non-Hodgkins lymphoma. Sebastian Vollmer, for instance, would get an earful from the coach half his size, and it made Cannon never want to be in a similar spot.

"My first impression when I was younger was, 'Try to do everything not to mess up,' " Cannon explained with a laugh. "That was pretty much it. Try everything I can to make the guy happy. Try not to get noticed. Even if it's good. 

 

"I mean, if it's good, it's good. But try to stay low-key and stay out of his way. Make sure I'm doing everything right like holding the bags or watching the other guys in front of you before you go."

When Andrews began his career in 2015, he'd heard stories of Scarnecchia, but the legendary coach was retired at that point. 

"I actually met Scar during the season at a charity event," Andrews said. "I talked to him then. It was kinda weird because I'd heard a lot of stories about him. I was like, 'Well, he seems really nice.' "

Andrews got a sense for what Scarnecchia was like when he's working the following season. In his first OTA practice out of retirement, Andrews remembered, Scarnecchia let the young center have it. Expectations re-established.

"You mess up once, you better not mess up again," Andrews said. "Unfortunately I've had a few too many days where I've messed up again."

'GOTTA BE CONSISTENTLY GOOD'

Pretty self-explanatory, right? 

But consider Scarnecchia is in his 36th NFL season and his 48th season as a coach. He has bounced around the country from California Western, to Iowa State, to Southern Methodist, to Pacific, to Northern Arizona, back to SMU, up to New England, over to Indianapolis for 1989 and 1990, and back out this way again. 

Consider the consistent discipline required to sit where Scarnecchia sits now, even to be in a position to try to straighten out an offensive line that's tasked with protecting a 42-year-old quarterback while functioning with only 60 percent of last year's Super Bowl-winning group.

Based on his longevity and the results he has produced, Scarnecchia has an argument as among the most consistent employees within the most consistent franchise in sports. 

"Come in early and go home late," he advised the young coaches in the audience at Notre Dame. "And listen. If God wanted you to talk more than listen, he would've given you two mouths and one ear. Listen."

'GOTTA TRAIN YOURSELF TO PLAY WITH GOOD HABITS'

"The hardest thing that any coach that has new guys coming into their system," Scarnecchia told the clinic, "which we do every year — guys from the draft, guys that are free agents, new guys into the program — is educate them on the way we practice. 

"I'm going to tell you all right now, they all hold bags. Every one of them holds bags. There's no sacred cows. Logan Mankins. Nate Solder. Every one of them. They all hold bags. We expect the same out of them that we'd expect out of a rookie. Actually we'd expect more."

Patriots offensive linemen will do a few things at practice, or after, that might be unique to Scarnecchia. For example, they'll align their helmets in a perfectly straight line during cool-down periods following training camp practices. It's a window into the attention to detail required to play that position and the professionalism with which Scarnecchia's players want to attack their jobs. 

 

Holding "the bags," as they're called in New England — when a player is armed with a pad and braces for a block from a teammate — is something else that Scarnecchia pays attention to more than most. 

"We're only as good as the look that the guy on defense gives," said Newhouse, who's now running drills for his eighth team since he was a fifth-round pick of the Packers in 2010. 

"That's everybody that ends up taking a rep as a look-team guy. That's just as important. He harps on all that stuff because that stuff matters. That's the little bitty reps over time, think about compounding toward the end of the year. That stuff all plays a part."

Scarnecchia seemed to allow himself a quick smile when asked how his newest players were holding up as bag-holders.

"They're working at it," he said. "I think the most important thing when you're teaching technique is the guys that hold the bag and give the proper looks. It's unacceptable if they don't. It's absolutely unacceptable. And we let them know about it."

'GOTTA GIVE GREAT EFFORT ON EVERY PLAY'

Patriots newcomers don't get the benefit of seeing where and how Scarnecchia initially lays the groundwork for the type of effort he requires of his players. That happens in the spring. 

No pads. No way to work on full-speed blocking. No matter to Scarnecchia. 

Those short-and-t-shirt sessions are, as the coach told the Notre Dame clinic in 2014, "like the practices from hell."

"We're going to go at a high rate of speed," he said. "We're not going to stand around and have meetings on the field. We are going to practice technique, effort and conditioning. And we're going fast."

Scarnecchia added: "You want the hardest part of practice to be the first 20 or 30 minutes of practice. That is when you're doing your drill work with your offensive linemen. For them that's the hardest part of practice because we're going to go at the highest tempo we can possibly go at. With nothing left unturned. We're going to be very demanding and we're going to go as hard as we can."

While players like Eluemunor, Cunningham, Benenoch and Newhouse missed that portion of the Patriots calendar, they've still discovered relatively quickly the kind of energy they're expected to expend on the fields behind Gillette Stadium. 

"You have to put everything you got into it," said Eluemunor, who acknowledged to have lost weight since his arrival. "You give him everything you got, he'll give you everything he has. If you try to slack and take the easy way out, he's not going to take that. He's either going to kick you off the field or he's gonna get on you. You want to go as hard as you can, 100 percent, give him everything you have, which I've learned.

 

"As a player I've gotten a lot better over the last three weeks. I've gotten a lot better. I feel like I came here a certain way and that person's gone. I'm like a totally new person now, physically and mentally. That's thanks to Coach Scar and thanks to the strength coaches and the environment, too. Being with Scar helped big time in developing as a player." 

'GOTTA PLAY YOUR VERY BEST FOOTBALL WHEN IT COUNTS THE MOST'

Think about Andrews' block against the Rams to help spring Sony Michel at the goal line for Super Bowl LIII's only touchdown in February. Think about Cannon leading the way on the crack-toss play that won the Patriots Super Bowl LI in overtime. 

The new quartet of Patriots offensive linemen are a long way from ever having to think about themselves in those moments and how they might perform. But their most important football of the year might be at hand. 

That's relevant to Newhouse, in particular. If and when Wynn returns, Newhouse will likely be relegated to the swing tackle role again. Though injuries can happen at any time, this stretch might qualify as "when it counts most" for Newhouse's tenure even though it's still only September.

Part of the reason Scarnecchia has been so pleased with Newhouse in the early going is that the veteran's football IQ allows him to get closer to his best than most others given minimal transition time.

"That's really important," Scarnecchia said when asked about Newhouse's ability to adapt quickly. "We don't have a lot of time, and this guy really grasped our system very fast . . . They don't have to be the smartest guy in the room, but if they can't grasp your system or they don't understand how things work, it's hard to play. They can't play. Not here they can't."

'I KNEW EXACTLY WHAT I WANTED TO DO WITH MY LIFE'

The Patriots are facing down a difficult challenge at a position group that could derail their season should injuries continue to mount. Yet the popular refrain among team supporters is a familiar one: "In Dante we trust."

The reasons why are obvious. Scarnecchia has a methodology that works, and he practices what he preaches. It's an approach that's helped him turn unknowns into starters and champions, gifted pupils into millionaires (many, many times over).

Want players to give great effort? Show up early and go home late. 

 

Want players to see things through one set of eyes? Give them a perspective worth understanding.

Want players to work together? Work with them.

"I've been very, very blessed to do what I always wanted to do since I was a kid — I'm not kidding you," Scarnecchia said during the Notre Dame clinic. "When I was 12, 14 years old I knew exactly what I wanted to do with my life. My dream was to be a football coach . . . 

"I can honestly tell you that there hasn't been one day that I wished I'd have done something else with my life. Not one day."

The Patriots must feel just as fortunate. Since making those comments, Scarnecchia has won two more Super Bowls with two different left tackles, which just so happens to be the position he's tasked with solving yet again in 2019. 

In Dante they trust. And why shouldn't they?

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