Scarnecchia constant anchor in ever-changing offensive line

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Scarnecchia constant anchor in ever-changing offensive line

FOXBORO -- Dante Scarnecchia's gray t-shirt, tucked neatly into his shorts, had turned a few shades darker with sweat. Haunched at the waist, he leaned forward as if he wanted to stick his nose in the middle of a drill between two Patriots offensive linemen almost twice his size, and he coached.

Scarnecchia has been a staple on the Patriots coaching staff for three decades. He has held several titles, from defensive assistant to special teams coach and tight ends coach, and for the last 14 seasons the offensive line has been his responsibility.

During training camp, Scarnecchia's group of Tom-Brady-protectors has been in a constant state of flux, but coach Bill Belichick knows that regardless of the line's moving parts, it's in good hands.

"He's awesome. He's awesome," Belichick said of Scarnecchia. "Dante's a great coach on every level. He's real good with X's and O's. He does a great job with the veteran players. He's brought along and developed many of our young players, rookie players, draft choices, free agents . . . taken guys off the practice squad and built them into starters or contributors on the line. He's invaluable.

"I think not only myself, but a lot of other people on the staff as well, other coaching staff members, rely on him for advice or ask him questions, take advantage of his experience. He's had not only experience on the offensive line, but he's coached special teams, he's coached defense. He's really got a great breadth in his coaching career and experience level as well as great proficiency in the offensive line and how well he's done with that group since I've been here and before that. He does a tremendous job."

The offensive line has been one big chemistry experiment during Patriots training camp because players who were mainstays last season are either hurt, or just not around. Logan Mankins is out injured, as is Sebastian Vollmer. Brian Waters still hasn't reported, and Matt Light is retired. Second-year tackles Nate Solder and Marcus Cannon have received most of the first-team reps, but there's been significant mixing and matching on the interior line. Dan Koppen, who missed all of last season after suffering an injury in Week 1, has been back at center with the first-team offense. His replacement last season, Dan Connolly, has moved back to guard, and presumed backups Robert Gallery and Donald Thomas have both seen time at guard with the first team. Ryan Wendell has also manned spots at both guard and center.

With Scarnecchia in their ears, they all know that they need to be ready -- and ready to play multiple positions on the line -- whenever called upon.

"The key to playing in the league is to be versatile," Thomas said. "To be able to play, in my case, at least both guards, and if my number's called for center I gotta be ready to do that. A lot of guys play guard and tackle or center and guard so there's a lot of moving parts, but guys know how to fill in. We all watch the same film so we all watch each other's mistakes. When you get put in there, you just have to know how to perform at that position."

And if they don't, Scarnecchia, who also holds the title of assistant head coach, will let them know.

"He wants it his way, and it's the right way," Thomas said. "So you can't argue with it. He's gonna stay on top of you, he doesn't care who you are, if you've been with him for eight, ten years, or if it's your first day. He's going to coach you like he wants to coach you and you're gonna give him what he wants.

"He can raise his voice from time to time. But we really listen to him so he hasn't had to flip out that much yet. But he gets on us though . . . He wants it right so you can't be mad at him."

Koppen has spent his entire NFL career being coached by Scarnecchia and said he may not be in his tenth training camp if it wasn't for the 64-year-old.

"He's very demanding," Koppen said. "He's your biggest fan when you do things right, and he'll tell you when you do it wrong. That's what you want from a coach."

Scarnecchia doesn't often do interviews, but he doesn't have to. His players and fellow coaches are quick to praise him, and it's apparent that they trust in him no matter how many revisions his offensive line endures.

"Our offensive line are really well coached, I know that," said offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. "I have great faith in Dante and the job that he's done here, and I appreciate him more and more everyday that i work with him. I have no reservations about the way that those guys will prepare in that meeting room and be ready to go when it's their turn or when they're called upon."

Injury report: Amendola out for Ravens game, Bennett questionable

Injury report: Amendola out for Ravens game, Bennett questionable

Wide receiver Danny Amendola was officially listed as out on the injury report for the Patriots' Monday night home game against the Baltimore Ravens.

Amendola injured his ankle on a punt return against the Los Angeles Rams last Sunday. It will be the first game he's missed this season. The Patriots signed veteran wide receiver and kick returner Griff Whalen during the week.

Tight end Martellus Bennett (ankle, shoulder) is among the Pats listed as questionable, along with special teams ace Matt Slater (foot), who missed the Rams game, safety Jordan Richards (knee), linebacker Elandon Roberts (hamstring) and cornerback Eric Rowe (hamstring).

Whalen, part of Colts' infamous fake punt play, settles in with Patriots

Whalen, part of Colts' infamous fake punt play, settles in with Patriots

FOXBORO – Griff Whalen was at the epicenter of one of the stupidest, funniest, most “did that just happen?!” plays in NFL history.

So indescribable it never even really earned a name, it was the fourth-down gadget play the Colts tried to run against the Patriots on Sunday Night Football in the first meeting between the teams after Indy ran to the principal’s office to start Deflategate. 

Whalen was the center on that play (I tried to call it “Fourth-and-Wrong” but it didn’t take) and the millisecond between him snapping the ball and the three players processing that the ball had indeed been snapped is perhaps my favorite moment of the past several seasons. 

Whalen is a Patriot now, brought in this week in the wake of Danny Amendola’s knee injury presumably to fill Amendola’s role as a punt returner and wideout. The Colts released him last January, the Dolphins picked him up and cut him at the end of training camp and the Chargers had him on their roster from mid-September until releasing him last month after eight games, two catches and 22 yards. He returned kickoffs for San Diego but no punts since 2015.

The primary area of need for the Patriots is on punt returns. Rookie Cyrus Jones’ transition to appearing comfortable remains glacially slow. It was Jones’ muff last week that brought on Amendola in relief. When Amendola hurt his ankle on a late-game return, the Patriots were forced to decide between Jones, wideout Julian Edelman (who doesn’t need extra work) and making a move.

Whalen is a move they made.

The slight and baby-faced Whalen indicated he had fielded some punts in practice, saying it went, “Fine.” Punt returns are something he’s done “since I was a kid.”

His first impression of the team was, "A lot of what I expected to see. A lot of detail. A lot of effort in practice. Good coaching all-around. I am excited to be here. I was excited to come into a good team that I’d gone against a few times. Hopefully come in and help out the team with whatever I can.”

I asked Whalen if he saw much of the commentary or creativity last year’s failed play spawned.

“I wasn’t paying too much attention,” he said. “When it’s during the season guys are pretty locked in on what they’re doing inside the building. But I heard more about it later on afterwards.”

Asked if he’d heard anything about the play since being here, Whalen replied, “I haven’t. Kinda was [expecting it].”

The Patriots will be hoping Whalen remains as productive for them on fourth down this year as he was in 2015.