Patriots offensive line constantly solid despite change


Patriots offensive line constantly solid despite change

Watch a weekend's worth of NFL games and it doesn't take long to find quarterbacks who seems like they're wearing a meat suit in a lion's den.

Constant, unflagging pressure. Knockdowns. Plays that never get started. Plays that shouldn't have been started. And it's not just reserved for the bad teams.

The Eagles (a bad team who ought not be), Green Bay, Chicago, Pittsburgh, all have now or have had in recent seasons offensive lines that leak. Dangerously.

Meanwhile, in New England, the Patriots keep plugging in relative schmoes and protecting the hell out of Tom Brady. The fact Brady is the most efficient passer in NFL history when it comes to avoiding turnovers is largely thanks to him.

But the constant pressure that makes quarterbacks gun-shy and trigger-happy, Brady's been spared from that.

The Patriots entered 2012 with an offensive line dotted with question marks.

Matt Light retired, Logan Mankins was coming back from ACL surgery, Dan Connolly was moving from center to guard because Brian Waters never came back, Ryan Wendell was taking the center position in lieu of veteran Dan Koppen, Sebastian Vollmer had a bad back and Marcus Cannon spent the preseason impersonating a traffic cone.

It was rightly an area of concern. And the Patriots have quietly allayed those concerns week after week by doing work in the trenches.

Second-year tackle Nate Solder has exceeded expectations based on a shaky preseason on Brady's left side. Donald Thomas, who was released by Miami in September 2010, signed by Detroit on November 23 of that year and never played a snap for the Lions, has done a nice job filling in for Mankins. Wendell, an undrafted rookie in 2008, has been way more than serviceable. Nick McDonald was undrafted by the Packers in 2010 but had all of four game appearances entering this year. He's been good filling in for Connolly.

And last week, Cannon started in place of Vollmer and had a terrific game against the Jets.

On Tuesday, Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels saluted the Patriots great offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia for the success of the offensive line.

"I think when you talk about those players and the roles that they play on our team and the contributions that theyve made, I dont think you can talk about them without mentioning Dante because he does an incredible job of preparing all of them as if they're all going to start and play for four quarters," said McDaniels. "He makes sure that they have reps. He makes sure that they understand all the communication and I have an incredible appreciation and respect for him as their coach."

There is a seemingly innate tendency among the media to credit the coach when the player succeeds. Dick Vitale and Billy Packer perfected this hackneyed backscratching move during their years ruining NCAA broadcasts. It's endemic to NFL analysis as well.

But in the case of Scarnecchia, his vaunted reputation -- while not as universally celebrated in league-wide circles (or on telecasts) -- comes from decades of showing would-be scrubs the path to becoming very, very employable in the NFL.

The Patriots current crew is a petri dish filled with those types.

"With Ryan being a starter and playing, I would say, really solidly inside for us all year, he's a smart guy, he's been in our program. I think its a tribute to him and what he's gone through in terms of working his way from the practice squad to learning multiple positions and being on the ready for a number of years now and trying to improve himself all the while," said McDaniels. "And then this year, he really gets his opportunity and I think he's really making the most of it. Hes a smart guy. He can play more than one position in there. Certainly he's just playing center for us this year, but I think the value that he brings in there, the intelligence that he has and his ability to work hand in hand with Tom Brady and our system and get the communication to the other linemen is invaluable.

"With Donald and Nick, I think one of the things that doesnt necessarily get mentioned probably enough is their versatility," McDaniels pointed out. "A lot of those inside players, when you keep them on your roster and you continue to develop them if they're not starters, one of the big things that they need to be able to do for you is play more than one spot, because its hard to take a lineman to the game that cant backup more than one position in there. Theyve all played center at certain times, whether its practice; preseason games they all played center in there, both guard spots on either side where the communication gets flipped around.

"Marcus, heres a young guy thats had an opportunity to learn and practice a ton," said McDaniels. "He got to play a lot in the preseason certainly without Seabass Sebastian Vollmer in there and took a lot of reps that were extremely valuable, I think, to him and then to finally get his opportunity and go in there and really play a full game the other night and hold up the way he did and handle the communication on the road, the silent cadence, all the different variables that go along with playing a road game in New York. Were really pleased with the way he performed, too; we really got a big performance out of him."

These players were just names on a transaction wire before this season. What they do is so impressive because the Patriots change little to compensate when backups enter the game. 

"Theres a tremendous amount of value in that, and then to go in there in big games and really allow us to continue to play the way we try to play, regardless of whos in there, I think that just says a lot for how much confidence we have in them and then their ability to go in there and execute and compete at a high level and not really force us to do less than what we want to do," said McDaniels.

The 64-year-old Scarnecchia has been coaching the offensive line in New England since 1999 and coaching in the NFL since 1980 He is small. Wiry. Intense. With dark, almost-black eyes and an expressive face, his visage quickly runs the spectrum from childlike enthusiasm to supreme agitation.

His rants are profane, his cadence is military. He imposes his will on his offensive linemen. They seem to be imbued with infantryman toughness. He is one of those never-be-another types.

"It begins with his work ethic," McDaniels says when asked why Scarnecchia is so good at his job. "He's usually the first guy in the building. I think the way he works, the way he approaches his job, it kind of demands respect because all he does and all he cares about when hes here is making sure his guys are prepared to do what were asking them to do in the game plan, and he really goes to every length to make sure that happens.

"I think the way they see him work, they immediately appreciate what they have in him as a teacher," McDaniels theorized. "I think he demands that they do it a certain way. He finds a way to communicate with different players in different ways because theyre not all the same, they dont all learn the same way, but he finds a way. And he's obviously had an incredible amount of experience dealing with different players over the course of his long career. He knows the different buttons to push, he pushes his guys extremely hard, but at the same time, I think they have an incredible admiration and respect for him and they know that he's putting them in positions to be successful."

And that, for 20-something kids just out of college in a line of work that's punishing but rewarding, makes them willing students. Communication and technical proficiency.

"I think that goes hand in hand with his understanding of Xs and Os, the techniques that he knows how to teach so well up front and they way that he goes about improving each one of their games individually and all together," said McDaniels. "Thats why you see a collective group of players that can go out there and play together as a unit so well. Its no secret that I have a great appreciation and admiration for him as a coach and a teacher and a friend. I think he does a great job and I think they all respect the heck out of him."