In a season that may ultimately go down as the best performances ever by a pair of future Hall of Famers in head coach Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, it is the offensive line that has allowed Brady to flourish even though he lacks elite weapons around him. The man behind the scenes who makes the Pats' line go, and has for a long time, is veteran offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia.
I worked under nine different offensive line coaches during my seven years in the NFL, and Scarnecchia was the best of them all. That's saying a lot, considering I had the opportunity to play for trench legends like Jim McNally and Joe Bugel. It's even more surprising when you consider the fact that I don't agree with some of the things Scarnecchia believes in schematically and didn't particularly care for his negative reinforcement motivational style.
Yet the only word that comes to mind when I think about Scar (as he is known inside the Patriots' facility) is respect. He is unrelenting in his demand for excellence from his charges, and no group in the league will ever be tougher both mentally and physically. He simply won't allow it.
The Pats' offensive line is not stocked with exceptional individual talents. Left guard Logan Mankins, back in the fold since the Cleveland game after a contract dispute, is probably the only player in the top five in his position. Yet, as a group, there is no unit in the NFL playing any better right now. The Pats' O-line has allowed only 21 sacks this season despite the fact that New England puts the ball in the air early and often every week. The O-line also has helped former undrafted free agents Woodhead and BenJarvus Green-Ellis rush for 5.2 and 4.3 yards per carry, respectively.
But don't just take my word for it.
"He's the best coach I ever had," said one NFL offensive lineman who has suited up for three different teams during his career. "When I was there, it was clear the entire group respected and trusted him. His individual period was by far the toughest I was ever a part of, and I think that helps build the mental toughness it takes to overcome adverse situations."
Ah, yes. Scarnecchia's dreaded individual period. Individual periods are the drills in which position players work solely amongst each other before running plays with the rest of the group on their side of the ball. Scarnecchia's was not fun and by far the hardest I ever had, as well. It was nonstop and left all of us out of breath and fatigued by the time it was over. But man, were we in great shape.
It's not just his individual period. Scarnecchia never lets his players rest once their feet hit the grass. He maximizes every possible minute of time on the practice field. For example, a lot of teams either allow the offensive linemen to rest or have a blitz walk-through with their helmets off during special-team periods. Not Scar. Special-team periods are when the Pats work on the timing of their patented screens, which effectively means it turns into yet another conditioning period for his guys.
Despite the demanding gruff exterior, Scarnecchia does have a softer side. He has been known to invite the offensive line to his beach house over the summer for dinner with their families. Ultimately, he comes across as the military superior who is extremely hard on his troops even though deep down he really cares about them, which makes perfect sense when you consider that he spent time as a sergeant in the United States Marine Corps.
So you can keep talking about Brady, Belichick and even Woodhead, and rightfully so. Just make sure you mention Scarnecchia, as well, even though he would probably just as soon wish that you wouldn't.
From the inbox
Q: This year it seems like there have been so many more injuries than previous years. Even with playoff contending teams like the Patriots, Giants, and especially the Packers. What's it like for an IR player to see his team win and go on without him? And if his team goes on to win the Super Bowl, how do they feel about getting a ring they were not on the field for?
Mark in Greensboro, N.C.
A: The first thing I would tell you is that I am not convinced there are more injuries this year, and I've seen compelling data on both sides of that argument. Plus, I feel like we say the same thing about how many injuries there seem to be every year. As for the IR question, I think that is a very personal question and depends on the player and his situation. There are certainly some guys who were supposed to be key contributors who probably have some mixed emotions if the team does really well without them, especially if their replacements are performing at a high level. Still, there are others who are just happy that the team is having success and are excited about the possibility of getting a ring and being a part of a championship team, even if they weren't actually on the field contributing in the postseason.
Q: English Premier League soccer is the most popular sport here and players can move between teams for very large transfer fees as there is no draft. Players can also move for free if they choose to let their contracts run out and their salary at their new club will be considerably higher as no transfer fee will have been paid. What is to stop the likes of Peyton Manning moving to another team when his contract runs out?
Jason in Dublin, Ireland
A: It's somewhat similar here in the NFL. Instead of a monetary transfer fee, however, players are typically traded for either other players or future draft choices out of college football. As for guys like Manning, the biggest difference between the NFL and EPL, or even the NBA and MLB for that matter, is that NFL teams have a franchise tag that allows them to keep their premier player (or one of their premier players, anyway) even after his contract has run out.
Q: You played with many teams, including the Patriots. I am a huge Pats fan and was wondering what you think of the assessment that for all Tom Brady's success he is simply a "game manager." That is all he does and that is all anyone I hear say. Is that true? Do you think that it detracts from his Hall candidacy?
Mathew in Champaign, Ill.
A: I think it's laughable, and I can guarantee you'll never hear that from anyone who actually played or coached in New England with Brady. They know better. He is by far the best QB I ever played with, and in fact I truly believe that if he wins a fourth Super Bowl ring with this year's team, a strong argument could be made that he is the greatest quarterback of all time.
Q: Quick point about all the helmet-to-helmet discussions. The problem is the helmet. As it's become more protective, players have learned to use it as a weapon and look for the big hit instead of the fundamental tackle. Watch older game video and you'll see a lot more wrap-up tackles. Look at the tackling in Rugby or Australian Rules Football too. Tacklers don't lead with their head because they can't. Curious what you opinion is.
Andrew in Buffalo, N.Y.
A: There's certainly some truth to what you are saying, and I don't necessarily disagree, but the one thing I never hear mentioned is that players are not really taught to shoulder tackle as much these days. They are taught to hit ball carriers face-up right in the middle of their chests because there are concerns that if you try to use a shoulder you are, in effect, picking a side to some extent, and there is a greater chance of missing the tackle.
Q: Are penalties taken into account during contract negotiations? In particular, holding calls against offensive linemen. If so, are the ones where they are clearly called against the wrong player adjusted (i.e. the ref calls the wrong number)?
JR in Milton, Ontario, Canada
A: Penalties are definitely taken into account, especially if the number is significant. It is most notable for defensive backs and offensive linemen because of the nature of those positions. Penalties can be adjusted in the official game or team stats if the referees on the field got it wrong.
Ross Tucker, who played on the offensive line for five teams in his seven-year NFL career, writes regularly for ESPN.com.