ATLANTA — The two most important members of the New England Patriots dynasty, in some order, are Tom Brady and Bill Belichick.
Who’s third? It could be Randy Moss, Rob Gronkowski, Wes Welker, Vince Wilfork or some other great player. It also might be the small, white-haired 70-year-old who most football fans could never recognize.
That would be Dante Scarnecchia, who Tom Brady recently called “greatest offensive line coach in the history of the NFL.”
Scarnecchia never pushed for an offensive coordinator job or more. He hasn’t jumped to other teams despite being with New England for almost four decades. He never even thought growing up that he’d be coaching in professional football. He just enjoys coaching the Patriots’ offensive line, and he does it well. The Patriots haven’t allowed a sack in the playoffs, despite facing some elite pass rushers from the Chargers and Chiefs, and Brady has rarely even been touched. Scarnecchia took a line that lost left tackle Nate Solder in the offseason, then first-round pick Isaiah Wynn to a torn Achilles in the preseason, and turned it into one of the major reasons the Patriots are in Super Bowl LIII.
Of course, Scarnecchia doesn’t like the attention, or Brady’s notion that he’s the greatest offensive line coach ever.
“I don’t think of myself in those terms,” Scarnecchia said. “Look, this is a game that is a very humbling game. If you coach offensive line in this league, you’re going to get humbled many times. You don’t ever think you’ve got it, you don’t ever think you know everything or have all the answers. My mind will never work that way, because I’ve been humbled too many times.”
Even if he won’t say it, the résumé is pretty good. It’s why the Patriots coaxed him out of a quick retirement, for reasons he can’t adequately explain.
Dante Scarnecchia came out of retirement to help Pats
Scarnecchia liked being retired, as short as it was. After the 2013 season, in his late 60s, he retired. Then the Patriots line slipped. Brady was battered in an AFC championship game loss to Von Miller and the Broncos at the end of the 2015 season. Dave DeGuglielmo, Scarnecchia’s replacement, was fired.
Scarnecchia said he stepped away because he was “done.” He spent time with his grandchildren. He traveled.
“I liked being retired. I’m going to tell you the honest-to-God truth, I did,” Scarnecchia said. “I really enjoyed it.”
But he was never too far away. When Belichick asked him a year into retirement to help scout some draft prospects, Scarnecchia did it. That rookie class ended up producing guard Shaq Mason, a fourth-round pick, and undrafted center David Andrews. Andrews and Mason are among the best at their positions in the NFL.
Then Scarnecchia said Belichick asked him if he’d like to come back full time.
“I didn’t jump at it, thinking ‘Yeah, I want to come back,'” Scarnecchia said. “I talked it over with my wife, that was really important to the two of us, and just decided we would come back. That was pretty much it.”
That’s it? Did he at least miss the game?
“I wouldn’t tell you that I did,” Scarnecchia said. “[Belichick] asked, we talked, and I said, ‘Let’s go back and see what it’s like.'”
That’s it. The Patriots are grateful. Scarnecchia has developed a line whose left tackle Trent Brown, was a seventh-round pick by the 49ers and traded before this season, third- and fourth-round picks at guard, an undrafted center and a fifth-round pick, Marcus Cannon, at right tackle. That group, without a first- or second-round pick or some pricy free agent, rarely lets Brady get hit and helped New England finish fifth in the NFL with 2,037 rushing yards.
A ton of credit should go to Scarnecchia, who is happy enough in his return that he has already committed to another season.
“It has been a great three years,” Scarnecchia said.
Scarnecchia’s style resonates with players
Scarnecchia’s style is blunt. That plays well in the Patriots’ Do Your Job culture.
“He’s a great influence,” Cannon said. “He’s our leader. He calls the shots. He’s the best coach I’ve ever had.
“He’s honest, and to the point. It’s either good or it’s not good. There’s no, it wasn’t good but I’m going to pat you on the back and hopefully it will be better. No.”
He isn’t unnecessarily harsh, however. That’s why players speak so highly about him.
“He cares about each and every one of us,” Mason said. “You want to play for a guy like that.”
Scarnecchia isn’t the biggest name in the organization, or even close, but everyone seems to respect him.
“Dante does a great job with the offensive line,” Belichick said. “He’s a very good teacher, a very good fundamental teacher. He helps each individual player, but Dante’s greatest strength is his ability to get the entire line — that sometimes includes tight ends, fullbacks, running backs and quarterbacks — to think together and to see things consistently in the same manner so we can operate as a team.”
Scarnecchia is a bit of an anomaly. He has coached in the NFL since 1982 (after 12 seasons coaching in college), and aside from a two-year stint with the Colts in 1989-90, he has stayed in New England. He never became an offensive coordinator, and was never talked about as a head-coaching candidate despite being one of the best assistants in the game. That’s rare.
“I think you have to want to seek out those opportunities and I never have,” Scarnecchia said. “I never wanted to say I wanted to be a coordinator or any of that. I’m happy doing what I’ve done.”
The Patriots are just fine with that. Their dynasty wouldn’t be the same without him.
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