THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Jackie MacMullan

No scars of failure for veteran coach's offensive line

Email|Print| Text size + By Jackie MacMullan
Globe Columnist / January 31, 2008

GLENDALE, Ariz. - After nearly 63 years, 38 football seasons, 6 Patriots head coaches, and 5 Super Bowls, Dante Scarnecchia still lives in fear of one vision: his quarterback pulverized under a pile of voracious defenders who were supposed to be held up by his offensive line.

The charge of protecting Tom Brady, the reigning MVP with a mild ankle sprain that left him gingerly stepping down from the Super Bowl XLII podium yesterday morning, has been overseen by Scarnecchia since the first day the franchise's feted prince seized control of New England's pigskin dreams. Scar knows without Brady there are no Super Bowl rings, and his responsibility to preserve New England's most precious football asset weighs on him.

His anxiety is heightened by the fact Sunday's opponent, the New York Giants, recorded 53 sacks this season, tops in the NFL. New York leveled Brady only once in the regular-season finale, but Scarnecchia fully expects that Osi Umenyiora, Michael Strahan, and the boys will be gunning for him.

"There isn't a line coach in the world that wouldn't confess to thinking the worst," Scarnecchia said. "You watch the film and you see the defense, and you say, 'This could be bad.' If you don't consider that vision [of the quarterback going down], you shouldn't be here."

The Patriots provided excellent protection for Brady in 2007. He was sacked just 21 times, an economic number that produced three Pro Bowl selections: Matt Light, Logan Mankins, and Dan Koppen.

"We're not terribly big and we're not terribly talented," Scarnecchia said, "but we're very good at seeing the game through the same set of eyes."

They are his eyes, dark and narrow and focused on technique and detail. Nobody has been a Patriots coach longer than Scarnecchia, and after 24 seasons in New England, he can afford to be forthright. He is not afraid of anyone or anything. Job security is an afterthought. He survived a 2-14 season in 1981 the same way he has managed through this 18-0 campaign: with a disarming frankness.

"He's not afraid to yell at you when you play bad," reported Koppen. "He's been in the league a long time. He's never satisfied. He really does try to make us be perfect."

Nobody is immune from Scarnecchia's barbs, not even Brady. As Scar noted wryly yesterday, "You want Tom to stay within the confines of the pocket. He can't run out of sight in three days."

During his Patriots tenure, Scarnecchia has coached everyone from Hall of Famers (John Hannah) and Pro Bowlers (Brian Holloway, Bruce Armstrong) to converted college wrestlers (Stephen Neal).

Neal might be an integral part of the offensive line now, but he came to the Patriots on the defensive side of the ball, and, according to Scarnecchia, was an unmitigated disaster.

"Just terrible," Scarnecchia reported. "He couldn't see the trap coming. He was like a blind dog in a meat house."

A frustrated Bill Belichick handed him over to Scar. The coach worked tirelessly with Neal on technique and timing. He drew from Neal's natural aggressiveness, which was easy to detect on the tapes of his wrestling days. The highlights included the kid's signature move, the Neal Double, in which he ran, full tilt, at his opponent and tackled him in one motion.

"He has all those talents you can't teach," Scar said. "Balance, recoverability. He's tough to knock off his feet."

Scarnecchia earned similar plaudits for his work as a 185-pound offensive lineman for California Western from 1968-70. He termed himself a "watch charm guard," because he said, "I was so small you could fit me on a charm bracelet.

"I played on the line because I wasn't good enough to play anything else. It's the black hole."

Scarnecchia was a head coach for only one stretch - eight games during that miserable '81 season, when Dick MacPherson fell ill and Scar took over on an interim basis. The interim guy was 2-6.

"I really didn't like it," he said. "I had a thousand things to do."

Scarnecchia has coached tight ends and special teams, but he's concentrated on the offensive line since 1999. He has outlasted Ron Meyer, Raymond Berry, MacPherson, Bill Parcells, and Pete Carroll. When Belichick assembled his staff in 2000, Scarnecchia was asked to stay on as both assistant head coach and offensive line coach.

"It's been a really fortunate, unbelievable set of circumstances," Scarnecchia said. "I can't explain it. I don't care to."

Brad Seely does. He's the Patriots' special teams coach, and he spent two seasons with Scarnecchia in Indianapolis when Meyer hired him away from New England in 1989.

"Dante is one of the best teachers I've ever been around," Seely said. "He does a great job of taking any subject and simplifying it so anyone can understand.

"When Ron Meyer hired me with the Colts, he put me in charge of special teams. I didn't know what the heck was going on, but they knew Dante could help me. They knew he'd find a way to make me learn it."

Scarnecchia has lived through the lean years when New England was derided as the Patsies. He survived the drug scandal that exploded in the wake of the '86 Super Bowl loss to the Bears. He has carved out his own piece of success during the championship years, including helping devise a game plan to neutralize an aggressive Carolina Panthers team in Super Bowl XXXVIII, which boasted sackmasters Mike Rucker (12 during the 2003 season) and Julius Peppers (7). Both came up empty in their team's 32-29 loss.

"We knew we had to balance things off, but we didn't know how," Scarnecchia said. "We moved the pocket, and that helped immensely. It got Tom out of the way of a lot of that stuff [Carolina's pressure]. When Tommy gets the ball out in rhythm, he can offset the great skills of a team like Carolina."

Scarnecchia wasn't revealing what he had in mind to protect Brady this time around. He said he never dreamed he'd be working with one of the best professional quarterbacks of all time, or for an NFL team that is now synonymous with excellence.

Truthfully? He always thought he'd be a history teacher and a high school coach.

"I never got to do either," he said, wistfully.

He'll have to settle for his sixth Super Bowl instead.

Jackie MacMullan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at macmullan@globe.com.

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