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."

NCAA TOURNAMENT: Gonzaga beats Xavier 83-59 to reach first Final Four


NCAA TOURNAMENT: Gonzaga beats Xavier 83-59 to reach first Final Four

SAN JOSE, Calif. - Nigel Williams-Goss scored 23 points while orchestrating Gonzaga's efficient offense, and the Zags finally shook their overrated tag by routing Xavier 83-59 on Saturday to reach the Final Four for the first time.

Gonzaga (36-1) has been dogged by criticism through the years despite winning consistently, in part for playing in a weak conference but also for never making the Final Four.

On the cusp of history, the Zags took it head on with a superb all-around game to give coach Mark Few the one missing piece of his resume.

Gonzaga found the range from the perimeter after struggling the first three NCAA games, making 12 of 24 from 3-point range. The defense, a soft spot in the past, shut down the underdog and 11th-seeded Musketeers (24-14) to win the West Region.

The Zags will face the winner between South Carolina and Florida in next week's Final Four in Arizona.

J.P Macura led the Musketeers with 18 points.

The Musketeers brought their turn-the-page jar of ashes to the NCAA Tournament, where they burned through a string of upsets to reach their third Elite Eight and first since 2008. They beat Maryland, Florida State and took down No. 2 Arizona in the regional semifinals, setting up a matchup of small Jesuit schools seeking their first Final Four.

The Final Four was the only thing missing on Few's resume, which includes 18 straight NCAA Tournaments, eight trips to the Sweet 16 and a third Elite Eight after surviving West Virginia's constant pressure in the regional semifinals.

The Zags struggled to find an offensive rhythm against the Mountaineers - who doesn't? - but had it flowing against Xavier.

Gonzaga came into the Elite Eight hitting 29 percent of its 3-point shots after making 37 percent during the season. The Zags found the range early against Xavier, hitting 8 of 13 from the arc in the first half, mostly against the Musketeers' zone or on kick-outs from center Przemek Karnowski.

Xavier got off to a good start offensively by working the ball around, but hit a dry spell and made 1 of 5 from 3-point range as Gonzaga stretched to lead to 49-39 by halftime.

Halftime did little to slow the Zags, who pushed the lead to 59-42 on 3-pointers by Williams-Goss and Jordan Mathews. Gonzaga kept the machine rolling in the second half, continuing to make shots while its defense prevented the Musketeers from making any kind of run.

Blakely: Despite their spot in East, consistency remains a problem for Celtics

Blakely: Despite their spot in East, consistency remains a problem for Celtics

BOSTON –  Devin Booker went on a scoring binge for the ages against the Boston Celtics on Friday night, the likes of which won’t be seen anytime soon at the TD Garden.

The performance was so great, even the most die-hard Green Teamers had to give the 20-year-old props for dropping 70 points – 70 points! – on the Celtics who still wound up winning, 130-120.

And as Booker continued to pour on the points and the Celtics’ double-digit lead remained just that, a double-digit lead, the narrative of what we witnessed was a lot deeper than just some young kid getting hot.

The Suns are trying lose as many games as they can, while throwing youngsters out there like Booker to play major minutes and predictably make their share of mistakes with the goal being to learn from those miscues and get better.

But the true lesson in what went down Friday night had little to do with Booker’s big night or some Celtics being a little salty about it afterwards.

Lost in all of the hoopla surrounding Booker’s big night was the repeated revelation by Celtics head coach Brad Stevens after the game about his team’s play and their record not being on one accord.

“That’s why, like I’ve said before, I’m surprised at where we are record-wise because we’ve got to play at a higher level for 48 minutes,” Stevens said. “We just don’t do it.”

And Booker’s historic night is the latest example to illustrate Stevens’ point.

Not having Avery Bradley (sickness) was a factor, obviously.

But that’s no excuse for the way they allowed Booker to do anything and everything he wanted to on the floor, allowing a really good shooter to gain confidence to the point where there was literally nothing the Celtics could do to cool him off.

The Celtics looked casual for three-plus quarters defensively against the Suns and still managed to win which says more about Phoenix and its desire to lose as much as possible, than Boston’s ability to find success and overcome a player with a hot hand.

It was another case of Boston getting away from what works while settling into what felt good and easy.

Most of the guys Phoenix played on Friday weren’t players you would consider big-time scoring threats, so the Celtics defensively didn’t play with a defensive edge other than the first six minutes of the game.

In that span, Phoenix didn’t make a single shot from the field while Boston bolted out to a 16-3 lead.

From there, the Celtics didn’t play with the same sense of urgency.

Fortunately for them, they were playing a team that didn’t want to win.

That’s not going to be the case in these remaining games, a mixture of playoff-bound clubs, wannabe playoff-bound crews and a few others with rosters full of players fighting to stay in the league who will use these remaining games essentially as an audition for next season.

If Boston plays like this in any of their remaining games, they’ll most likely lose.

And that’s why Brad Stevens continues to harp on this team not being as good as their record.

Because when you’re in the same class record-wise with teams like Golden State, San Antonio, Cleveland and Houston, there’s a certain expectation of consistency you should play with most nights.

The Warriors and Rockets have explosive scorers; the Spurs play elite-level defense most nights and the Cavs have LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love.

Those factors form the basis of their consistency in terms of winning and overall play.

But the Celtics are very much a wild and unpredictable bunch, able to knock off Cleveland and Golden State, but get blasted by Denver and lose to Philadelphia.

If inconsistent play is a hallmark of this team, their potential for having a great season will be remembered as just that, potential.

Because games like the one they played on Friday against Phoenix on more nights than not, will result in a loss which could put the Celtics very much in the crosshairs for an early playoff exit.