As far as offensive performances go, it was a complete embarrassment.
Against the Broncos in the 2016 AFC Championship Game, Patriots running backs managed just 31 yards on 14 carries (2.2 average), despite the fact that Denver had either six defensive backs (dime package) or five (nickel) on all but one of those snaps. The Broncos were allowing the Patriots to run the ball with that scheme, and they couldn’t do it.
When the Patriots tried to pass, it might have been worse. Tom Brady was sacked four times and hit another 16. Overall, Brady was pressured on 45% of his dropbacks. Blitz-crazy Broncos defensive coordinator Wade Phillips rarely felt the need to send an extra rusher, so nearly all the pressure on Brady came from four rushers against the Patriots’ five offensive linemen.
Needless to say, the Patriots’ offense was a mess. Brady completed just 48% of his passes, threw two interceptions and had a passer rating of 56.4. The Patriots converted 13% of third downs. For an offensive line, it’s hard to have a worse day than the Patriots’ 20–18 loss last year.
Patriots coach Bill Belichick knew something had to change. The next day, line coach Dave DeGuglielmo was informed his contract would not be renewed. Belichick had only one name in mind for a replacement.
A few days later, Dante Scarnecchia was in San Francisco for an event to celebrate the University of Pacific’s history with the Super Bowl, which was days away from being held at Levi’s Stadium. Scarnecchia had retired two years earlier after 30 years with the Patriots, including the final 15 as offensive line coach. Scarnecchia and his wife, Susan, were enjoying another trip during retirement when his cell phone rang. It was Belichick. He explained that DeGuglielmo would not be returning.
“Do you have any interest in coming back?” Belichick asked. Scarnecchia said he needed to think about it.
The truth of the matter is Scarnecchia had never truly left the Patriots. Belichick asked him to evaluate offensive line draft prospects shortly after Scarnecchia’s retirement, and he was spotted on assorted college campuses, at the Senior Bowl and the combine. Scarnecchia was being used so much by Belichick he joked to friends that the Pats head coach was “wearing my ass out, sending me all over the place.”
And while Scarnecchia stayed hidden (he would never step on the toes of DeGuglielmo), he became more involved in consulting on the offensive line and was seen more and more heading into the Patriots’ offices to watch film in the afternoon.
“He was like a consigliere, a consultant and they relied heavily on him to acquire the talent, scout guys and workout guys,” says one Patriots source. “He was getting a little frustrated like, ‘You've got me doing all this work and you're not coaching them the right way.’ It was sort of like (Bill) Parcells, ‘If you want me to shop for the groceries, let me cook the goddamn dinner.’”
The call from Belichick meant the kitchen was open. But it wasn’t a slam dunk decision to return for Scarnecchia, who relished the time with his wife, daughter, son and two grandchildren.
“You become very used to a very nice lifestyle," Scarnecchia said in his only press gathering since his return. "We talked about it, my wife and I, and we decided this would be a good thing on a lot of different levels. And I like coaching football. I love coaching football. I didn't retire because I didn't like coaching football. I retired because I got tired of the lifestyle. Two years off, I'm OK."
If anyone had earned a break, it was Scarnecchia. Now 68 years old, his coaching career started in 1970 at Cal Western, his alma mater, and he reached the NFL in 1982 when Ron Meyer brought Scarnecchia with him to the Patriots from SMU. In 31 years in New England, Scarnecchia received paychecks from all four of the franchise’s owners (Billy Sullivan, Victor Kiam, James Orthwein, and Robert Kraft), and Scarnecchia worked for the last six coaches that lasted more than one season (sorry, Rod Rust): Meyer, Raymond Berry, Dick MacPherson, Bill Parcells, Pete Carroll, and Belichick. He did have a two-year stretch (1989-90) when he coached the line for Meyer and the Colts.
“I hired Guy Morris and that caused Dante to go to Indianapolis,” says Berry, with some regret. “He’s one of the smartest football coaches in the business. The marvel to me is why Dante Scarnecchia was not a head coach at this point. His depth of knowledge about the game, he can match anybody.”
Scarnecchia has coached Pro Bowl players at six different positions: Mosi Tatupu (special teams), Tony Franklin (kicker), Larry Whigham (special teams), Damien Woody (center), Matt Light (tackle), Dan Koppen (center), Logan Mankins (guard), and Brian Waters (guard).
“I think the world of Dante,” said Belichick. “I think he is as fine of a coach as anybody that I’ve coached with and I’ve had the opportunity to coach with a lot of them, certainly. Him and Coach [Nick] Saban are up there pretty high along with a lot of other great coaches.”
Those that have coached with or played for Scarnecchia knew there would be no magic elixir for the Patriots’ offensive line upon his return. The unit was going to improve, and it was going to be through nothing but hard work and his methodic style. When your position coach is the hardest worker in the building, you know there can be no corners cut.
“You could never beat him to the office. Like ever,” says Texans coach Bill O’Brien, a Patriots assistant from 2007-11, including the final three years as offensive coordinator. “Even if you got there at 4:30 in the morning, his car was there. My parking spot was right near his and I would put my hand on his hood. I would be like, ‘It's cold, what time did this guy get here?’ He'd get there at like 3 in the morning. It was incredible. On Tuesdays when he was drawing his blocking sheets, he would pull all-nighters. We're all hard workers, but I don't think I've ever seen a guy work as hard as that guy works. The hours that he puts in, the details, it sets the tone for everyone.”
Scarnecchia, a former sergeant in the Marine Corps Reserve, arrives early to prepare for the day. He makes sure the film cutups are the right ones for instruction, and every drill has a purpose. He is an exquisite teacher, and his instructions are clear and direct. At a coaching clinic a few years ago, Scarnecchia lectured on pass-blocking techniques, and the mental picture (he’s big on those) was easy to grasp.
“We emphasize having the thumbs up, and the fingers out,” he said. “If the thumbs go down, and the fingers are up, it causes the elbow to fly out. This gives the defender two handles to grab on to. You are never going to be in as strong of a position if you have your elbows pointing out. We use the butt of our hands as the primary contact point when we hit the defender. We use the mental picture that we want to hit them our hands from our chest to his chest.”
One of the coaches in the audience was Rick Trickett, Florida State’s line coach. He often calls Scarnecchia for advice at 5:30 a.m., and Scarnecchia always answers.
“He's one of the most thorough coaches I've ever been around,” says Trickett. “He's going to cover every angle. But he's not going to do it in a complicated way. He understands the game is not a complicated game and I don't think he makes it complicated. But he covers every scenario that may happen to the guys.”
In the team meeting room, Scarnecchia is maniacal about fundamentals and will rip anyone who isn’t measuring up. But there’s a human side as well.
“We’re watching film in the meeting room and he did what does, he critiques it pretty hard and I'm on the receiving end of a lot of that,” says former guard Dan Connolly. “I'm getting chastised pretty good for whatever. About 20 minutes later we have a break, get a cup of coffee and I pass him in the hall and he just starts, ‘Hey man, how's it going? How are Lori and the kids?’ Just like nothing has happened. And I’m still recovering from the ass whupping that I just received in the meeting room and he just completely switches gears to the other side of it. I realized then there's a Coach Scar and there's the real guy. And it just kind of made sense that there could be two sides to what we do.”
Scarnecchia is headstrong and stubborn. He likes things done his way, and doesn’t like to hear any lip about it. That often meant trouble when it came to former left tackle Matt Light, who is cut from the same cloth but mouthy as well.
“Oh, man,” former lineman Damien Woody says. “He and Matt Light had a lot of yelling matches when I was there. And Matt was a young guy at the time but Matt was the type of guy who wasn’t afraid to voice his opinion or whatever. So he and Dante used to get into all the time.
“If he felt like Dante was jumping all on us for no reason, then Matt was like, ‘I’m going to let you know.’ And Dante, you can really get him going really quickly. Him and Matt, they would go at it a lot but at the end of the day, calmer heads would prevail and you just keep them moving. But they’ve had some combustible moments in the past.”
Koppen remembered one blowup between Scarnecchia and Light when the team was installing their empty (no backs, shotgun) series. They were both saying the same thing, but neither wanted to give in.
“They just went back and forth forever on it,” says Koppen, a favorite of Scarnecchia’s due to his intelligence and quiet nature. “I'm sitting in the back like, ‘You’re just seeing it a different way but you're saying the same thing.’ I just kind of laughed in the background. That happened all the time. Two stubborn mules.”
There was a thawing between Light and Scarnecchia, even an appreciation, as Light was finishing what would be his final season in 2011.
“We have (had fights), there’s no doubt about it,” Scarnecchia said at Super Bowl XLVI. “I think there was a point in time where he thought he probably thought he knew more than what he actually knew, which can be dangerous.
“I think that we are truly, the two of us, in a happy place. We really are. And honestly, I’m grateful for that. Very grateful.”
Was that Scarnecchia professing some genuine emotion to one of his players in public?
“He’s all right,” Scarnecchia said, snapping back into his Coach Scar persona. “He’s no box of chocolates.”
This season, Scarnecchia rebuilt the offensive line with three new Day One starters on the interior: third-round pick Joe Thuney at left guard, former undrafted center David Andrews, and Shaq Mason switched from left guard to the right side in his second season. At the two tackle spots, Scarnecchia would need to resuscitate left tackle Nate Solder and right tackle Marcus Cannon, who was obliterated by Broncos linebacker Von Miller in the AFC Championship Game (2.5 sacks, 5 hits, false start).
Solder had an 85.1 rating (very good) by ProFootballFocus.com in Scarnecchia’s final season of ’13. He slipped to 73.6 and 65.6 the next two seasons. Cannon went from 72 in ’13 to 48.3 and 43.0, and his long-term future in New England was very much in doubt.
This season, Solder is rated as the 10th best tackle in the NFL (87.6), and Cannon is 13th (87.2).
“It's attention to detail, consistency and that’s what Scar brings,” says Koppen.
“Marcus, in the past, would let one bad play turn into two or three and you can't do that. I think really working on his technique, his fundamentals, and getting him to do it on a consistent basis, that's just from the practice field, the meeting room, going over things time and time again and just building up his confidence. Scar could teach a chair, he’s that good of a teacher. If you're willing to go in there and listen and put in the work, that man can teach you how to play football.”
When the Patriots had their Week 15 rematch with the Broncos in Denver this season, Patriots running backs had 38 carries for 137 yards (3.6 yards). More importantly, Brady was sacked just twice and hit five times as Cannon allowed Miller only one pressure in the Patriots’ 16–3 victory.
It was a long way from the humiliating performance the Patriots had in the same place less than a year ago. The big difference was the man in charge of the offensive line.
Scarnecchia’s back, thanks to that phone call from Belichick, and so are the Patriots.