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Scarnecchia's return, teaching methods key Pats' O-line revival

When the Patriots lost last year's AFC title game to the Denver Broncos, one position group stood out for New England: the offensive line.

Not in a positive way, either, as Tom Brady absorbed four sacks and a game-plan-crushing 17 hits -- many of them brutal.

That beaten up line endured an injury-plagued season that saw New England set a league record with 13 different starting lineups.

It's unfair to blame then-position coach Dave DeGuglielmo for every issue -- New England's line was a M.A.S.H. unit. The Patriots, though, made it a priority after the season to lure back a man who coach Bill Belichick innately admires and trusts: Dante Scarnecchia.

The 68-year-old assistant returned to Foxborough this season to oversee a group that stayed healthy from wire-to-wire and surged down the stretch. Was is Scarnecchia? Was it the football gods smiling again on this blessed franchise? Or was it a little of both?

Speaking with a handful of Patriots linemen, they all gushed over Scarnecchia's even-keeled teaching and demand for pristine play.

"I feel so lucky to have been coached by him," left tackle Nate Solder said Monday night. "He's certainly helped me improve this season as he always has. And as a group, I think we've improved, and we continue to improve, and that's all a tribute to him and our hard work, for sure."

Solder called Scarnecchia an "excellent teacher," explaining: "He can break down the game so we can understand it. He can break it down so that we can play at a higher level. He's consistent, too. You'll see from day one of OTAs all the way to now -- Super Bowl practices -- we'll be doing the same drills because those drills translate. He harps on the same things that really help you improve your game."

Solder knows. He spent four years under Scarnecchia before the coach retired after the 2013 campaign. His return this season paved the way for another fine season by Solder and a transformative year for fellow tackle Marcus Cannon, who nabbed second-team All-Pro honors.

Scarnecchia deserves credit for also zeroing in on Shaq Mason, the second-year guard who took a big step forward in 2016.

"As a player, Scar definitely helps us all out a lot," Mason told me. "He cares deeply about each and every one of us. That's a guy that we actually want to go out there and work hard and put good things out there on display for him because he puts a lot of work into us and it's nice for him to reap what he's put into us on game day."

Said Mason: "He's been around a long time and he's seen it all -- there's nothing he hasn't seen in this game. He teaches us every day and we roll with it and all work together."

In person, Scarnecchia doesn't act like a man ready for retirement. It wasn't a simple choice, though, to return to the grind of NFL coaching.

"I don't know if I was ready to come back when it was time to come back," Scarnecchia said Monday. "I never thought that I would have the opportunity to come back. I wasn't even looking for that. You know, the call was made and my wife and I talked about it for 10 days and we decided to go ahead and do it again."

That came with a wakeup call as Scarnecchia -- often the first guy in the building -- was dropped right back into Belichick's cauldron of endless preparation and hours on the clock.

"In fact, the first day I was back, we went into a personnel meeting at seven in the morning and got out at 7:30 at night. I said, 'Holy ----, what did I do this for?'" Scarnecchia joked. "But that's part of the deal and you just deal with it. I like being out there, I like meeting with them in the classroom, I like being out on the field, I like teaching the game. All that stuff's a lot of fun for me."

Scarnecchia has been hailed as a hero by Patriots fans for returning this line to great heights, but he refused to take credit for it.

"Two things: continuity -- everybody's playing the same position -- and health. Really good health," Scarnecchia said. "We haven't put any guys out there where, before a game, you say, 'I hope they can make it all the way through.' Man, we've got guys that have been out that have really had good health ... they haven't even missed any practices."

Mason also went out of his way to praise Scarnecchia the teacher, describing his meetings as "all coaching -- it's all business."

Well, mostly.

"He can come in with some dry humor and everyone will get it, or he can come with an outright funny joke," Mason said. "We all love him."

Asked about his standup abilities, Scarnecchia quickly asked me: "Who said it?"

"It was Shaq."

"Well, I don't know if I'm funny in meetings," Scarnecchia said. "I wouldn't say like I'm Shecky Greene up there or something. I just think, you know, you got to get your work done and whatever you have to do to get it done, you do, and that's it."

Scarnecchia wasn't doing that work a year ago, but he's back in the fold and made it clear he isn't about to vanish any time soon.

"I'm going to be 69 years old next month," Scarnecchia said. "You know, I like what I'm doing right now and I'm going to continue to do it and see how it all goes."

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