New England Patriots  

 

Dante Scarnecchia's enduring brilliance integral to Pats dynasty

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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Damien Woody had no idea what he was in for. The Boston College standout was considered a lock to be a first-round pick and -- in his own words -- "was reading his press clippings." So when he made the 45-minute drive from Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, down to Foxborough to meet with the New England Patriots, Woody figured he'd have to answer some questions, maybe spend some time in front of the white board, but generally be stress-free. That was initially reinforced when he met Pats offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia. They exchanged pleasantries. "He couldn't be friendlier," recalled Woody.

Then Scarnecchia had Woody sit down, put a tape into the VCR (they still used those back then) and "it was literally my worst game in college," laughed Woody, recalling his performance against Syracuse. "He went play by play and I sat with him for hours and it seemed like every play took 15 minutes. I literally felt like melting in the chair."

Woody left the meeting convinced there was no way he was going to be a Patriot. But a month or so later, in the 1999 NFL Draft, the Pats called out Woody's name, making him the 17th overall selection.

"When we had our very first conversation after that and he (Scarnecchia) said, 'How did that visit of ours go?' He just wanted to see how I would react. I guess it was better than I thought. We both laughed."

Scarnecchia has been coaching in the NFL since 1982, and other than a brief stint in Indianapolis, he's been a fixture on the Patriots' sideline, lasting through six different head coaches, from Ron Meyer to Raymond Berry, Dick MacPherson, Bill Parcells, Pete Carroll and Bill Belichick. Safe to say those bosses all had different styles and approaches to the game, but Scarnecchia has been a trusted member of each and every one of those coaching staffs.

"I think he's a great coach," Belichick said some 20 years ago when he took over the Patriots job, famously adding: "I would trust him with my career. In fact, I am trusting him with my career."

That trust was so great that Belichick was able to lure Scarnecchia out of a brief two-season retirement earlier this decade, bringing the coach back following the 2015 campaign. That Patriots season had ended with Tom Brady taking a vicious beating during the AFC Championship Game in Denver, a 20-18 New England loss. Belichick believed if anyone could rectify that, it was Scarnecchia, who swears he wasn't looking to get back in the game, dismissing the notion that retirement was boring.

"It wasn't," he smiled. "I was doing good."

I reminded him that, when he left at the end of the 2013 season, he said it was time to hang out with the grandkids.

"I did," he assured me. "And I'm going to do that again."

But there is no timetable on the now-71-year-old's coaching career.

"I like what I'm doing," he said. "I like all aspects of it. I like the meetings. I like the practices. I like the games. I think if it's something you really enjoy doing, the energy, the passion, comes out that way. I really do. I think those are the things that are really important. You've got to let 'em know how you feel about everything."

He does. Don't just take it from me. The players, past and present, will tell you.

"He's honest to a fault," 2007 Pro Bowl center Dan Koppen told me. "He's going to tell you exactly where you are, what you're not doing well, what you are, what's your standing on the team. I think most players appreciate that. There's no messing around. You know where you stand."

"He just wants me to give him as much effort as he's giving me," said Stephen Neal, a starting guard on New England's 2004 title team. "If you don't match that, you'll feel his frustration because he's doing everything he can to make sure you're prepared for what's happening out there."

In his younger years, Scarnecchia ruined many training camp B-rolls with his sharp and sometimes profane tongue. But it never came from a bad place.

"Offensive line coaches are all unique and stuff," said left guard Joe Thuney, entering his fourth NFL season. "You just gotta hear the message of what he's trying to say. He cares so much about the game and his players. You gotta have that in your head (when you're getting yelled at)."

"Sometimes it's tough love," said fifth-year right guard Shaq Mason, "but you can tell it's just because he wants the best for you and from you. He knows what the hell he's talking about. Listen and learn."

Sebastian Vollmer was a surprise second-round draft pick back in 2009. Not that draft guides are the be-all, end-all, but most figured Vollmer was a sixth- or seventh-rounder. The Patriots didn't see it that way, although there certainly were growing pains.

"I remember, as a rookie, I was trying to emulate Matt Light," Vollmer recalled. "[Scarnecchia] was like, 'What are you doing?' I said, 'I watched [Light]. I'm just trying to do it that way.' He said, 'No. You need to find your own style.' "

Koppen recalls a lowlight -- but teachable moment -- for him a couple of seasons into his 11-year career during an in-stadium training camp practice for season-ticket holders.

"Apparently I wasn't giving him the effort he was expecting. Boy, did I learn that pretty quickly that there's no days off. I got an ass-chewing. It wasn't in private. It was in front of all my teammates, all my linemen. He'd do it to me, to Matt Light, to Shaq. There are no sacred cows. And he would say he's not one, either."

That may be one of the reasons Scarnecchia will join the linemen as they condition during practice, or have to run a penalty lap for a mistake or even hop on the team's training hill post-practice for sprints. That, and the fact that the former Marine is in ridiculous shape, known for doing crunches in the back of a meeting when the Patriots' defense is being discussed.

"When you see that," said Mason of Scarnecchia running hills, "you have no choice but to fall in line and keep pushing."

Neal is probably Scarnecchia's greatest success story, a four-time All-American wrestler at Cal State Bakersfield who hadn't played a snap of college football. He had to be built from the ground up -- and, in Neal's mind, Scarnecchia was the only one capable of such a task.

"Absolutely," Neal told me. "If I had come in under these new rules (limiting contact and eliminating two-a-days), there's no way he would have been able to teach me how to play. I needed to learn everything. I mean everything. Wrestling is one-on-one. You don't have to worry about the big picture. It's one-on-one and I'm trying to dominate you. Football is 11-on-11. I had to see the game the same way everyone else was. But he (Scarnecchia) was great at it, always putting us in good position. He had us prepared out there. He had me prepared."

"Think about that," marveled Woody, who won two Super Bowls in New England. "You don't play football in college and you go on to do pretty well in the NFL. That's remarkable. You have to give a lot of credit to Stephen Neal, obviously, but a lot of it has to do with coaching."

The German-born Vollmer was also raw, not playing football until he was a 14-year-old. He was later recruited to play tight end collegiately, signing on with the University of Houston. He eventually moved to left tackle and started 25 straight games for the Cougars, but even that didn't earn him an invite to the NFL Scouting Combine. Still, the 6-foot-8, 320-pounder emerged quickly in New England.

"I needed to learn how to play the game and he was the greatest person I could ask for," said Vollmer, who spent his entire eight-year career in New England. "He would push you really, really hard, but I went from the eighth or ninth tackle on the depth chart to ending up starting and, I think a year after that, I was an All-Pro (second-team in 2010). No doubt, it was his coaching for sure."

Scarnecchia will resort to a number of methods, including putting in what Koppen refers to as the "fuzzy film," showing his group tape from an earlier era, be it of the player in his younger days or of one of the game's greats. "Shoot, you had to pay attention," Koppen said. "There was always a point to what he'd put up there for us."

But what he's really known for is drilling his players with the same teaching points. "Over and over and over again," Koppen stressed.

"He leaves no stone unturned," Mason noted. "Scar goes over everything multiple times."

Why?

"Sometimes guys that have seemingly done this over and over and over again for a long time can get into funks and they start stepping the wrong way, don't quite do things the right way," Scarnecchia said to me. "I notice this about a lot of them. They have a tendency to improve and a tendency to flatten out and you gotta get off that plateau and get them to a higher level. I think that's what it's all about."

Fans of the Patriots long ago adopted an "In Scar We Trust" motto. That theory will be tested again, with a new left tackle (Isaiah Wynn) and the very real possibility that center and two-time captain David Andrews will miss a good portion -- if not all -- of the season due to a blood clot in his lungs. Should followers of the team be worried?

"I don't think there is a better offensive line coach," said Vollmer when I asked. "I don't think there's a coach that will get more out of a group. There is no doubt in my mind. He can make it work. He will make it work."

Follow Mike Giardi on Twitter @MikeGiardi.

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