If asked who the longest running coach (including assistants) of the Patriots was, many would probably answer Bill Belichick due to his long run as head coach since 2000 and serving as defensive coordinator and assistant head coach throughout the Bill Parcels era. But Belichick is the wrong answer. It’s not the secretive Ernie Adams either. Instead, it is a person who has been apart of the Patriots since before Robert Kraft was owner. That man is Dante Scarnecchia. Most recently acting as the teams’ offensive line coach.
He played college football at California Western University in 1966 as an O-Lineman and subsequently started his coaching career as an O-line coach at California Western University (CWU) in 1970. After moving through a few different positions and teams, he returned to CWU in 1980. This led to him following head coach Ron Meyer to the Patriots in 1992 as special teams and tight ends coach. He later joined the Colts, to be with Meyer, from 1989 to 1990 but quickly returned to the Patriots. In 1993 he was promoted to special assistant and was consistently reassigned to defensive assistant, special teams’ coach and then back to special assistant. Essentially, Scarnecchia became the coach that Parcells (and young defensive coordinator Bill Belichick) could rely on to control almost any part of the team. Over the 7-year period from 1993 to 1999 (Parcells and Pete Carroll eras), the Patriots only had 2 losing seasons and reached a Superbowl in 1997 where they lost 35-21 to the Green Bay Packers. This was a hugely successful era for the Patriots at the time, a team that had only made the playoffs 5 times since the NFL merger before 1993, made the playoffs 4 times in the 7-year period. Whilst Scarnecchia was certainly not the sole reason for the success, he was still a major part of it. Parcells left before 1997 season and Pete Carroll was replaced heading into 2000. But Scarnecchia stayed with the patriots.
In 2000, Robert kraft made a then controversial decision to hire the authoritarian former head coach of the Cleveland Brown (and familiar face to the Patriots) Bill Belichick. With that hiring, Scarnecchia was repositioned (again), but this team it was back to what he did best O-Line coach and it came with the added responsibility of being the assistant head coach. Here, Belichick could focus on building the dominant defence full of stars such as Ty Law, Teddy Bruschi and Willie McGinest whilst Scarnecchia could work on protecting then franchise QB Drew Bledsoe. When becoming the O-line coach, Scarnecchia inherited a good but not great O-Line. An ageing Bruce Armstrong at left tackle and young, inexperienced Damien Woody at centre. Entering 2001, the Patriots had boosted the O-Line by signing Mike Compton and drafting Matt Light 17th overall. With a second year, essentially rookie, QB under centre after Bledsoe’s injury (he was outside the pocket at the time so the O-Line can’t be blamed) Scarnecchia also had to deal with Damien Woody’s awful shotgun snap. Scarnecchia and offensive coordinator Charlie Weis sorted out a system where Compton would move to centre (and Woody to guard) whenever Brady was in the shotgun. This, along with the usual issues that come with an inexperienced QB led to 41 sacks. But in the playoffs, the O-Line strengthened and was seen at it’s best in the Superbowl. Brady has a sprained left ankle but was able to stay comfortable in an often-clean pocket; especially on the game winning 53-yard drive to set up Vinatieri’s 48 yard winning field goal. This growth and performance on the biggest stage was all whilst under the guide of Scarnecchia, and the Patriots won their first ever Superbowl.
Two years later, the Patriots drafted Dan Koppen in the 5th round, but he instantly became the starting centre which allowed Woody to move to left guard, a more natural position for him. The effects were seen almost immediately with Brady only being sacked 26, 26, 26, and 21 times in the 4 seasons of 04, 05, 06 and 07. This was also boosted by the addition of Logan Mankins in 2005. 2004 to 2010 also showcased one of Scarnecchia’s best coaching achievements. In 2001 they signed Steve Neal. Neal was a freestyle wrestler who did not play college football. But after 3 years learning from Scarnecchia and veteran guard Mike Compton and Neal was a starter at right guard for the Patriots between 2004 and 2010. Over this team, the Patriots went to 2 Superbowls including winning one and completing the perfect regular season on their way to the other. The Patriots consistently had a strong O-Line, with additions of first round pick Nate Solder, second round pick Sebastian Vollmer and the signing of previous undrafted free agent Dan Connolly (originally signed by the Jaguars). But in 2013, after 29 years with the Patriots, Scarnecchia retired with 3 Superbowl wins. The next year, his teaching was still in effect after holding private workouts with some of the Patriots’ O-lineman. The Pats went on to beat the Seattle Seahawks in Superbowl 49. But the next year, he was missed. In the AFC Championship game against the rival Denver Broncos, Brady was consistently pressured by Von Miller, Dereck Wolfe and DeMarcus Ware. This led to a 2-point winning margin for the Broncos (20-18) which stopped the Patriots from going to Superbowl 50. With that, Scarnecchia was talked out of retirement.
Scarnecchia returned for his third stint with the Patriots. The O-Line rebounded by only conceding 15 sacks and the Patriots went on to win Superbowl 51 against the Atlanta Falcons. Follow that, Brady won NFL MVP for the third time (2007, 2010 and 2017) behind a strong O-Line. Entering 2018 season, the Patriots O-Line was one of the best in the league despite a seemingly low pedigree. Left tackle was first year starter, 6ft 8in Trent Brown. The heaviest player currently in the NFL was acquired (along with the 143rd selection) with just the 95th overall pick from the 49ers. A former 7th round selection, he had been inconsistent but his year with the Patriots was strong and he started all 16 games at one of the most important positions on the roster. At left guard was 2016 third round selection Joe Thuney, the highest draft position of the 5 starters. He is now so valuable to the Patriots, he was franchise tagged for the 2020 season. Undrafted free agent David Andrews played at centre and was one of the best centres in the league. He has recovered from the blood clots in his lungs and will hopefully return to the Patriots starting line up in 2020 after missing the 2019 season. Right guard was Shaq Mason, 5th round pick who recently signed a 5 year $45 million contract. And finally right tackle Marcus Cannon, also a 5th round pick. No player was drafter before the 3rd round with the other 4 starters drafted on day 3 (David Andrews wasn’t drafted at all). Yet all 5 of them turned into stars, either still with the Patriots or got paid by other teams. The Patriots won Superbowl 53 that year. After the 2019 season, Scarnecchia retired (again) but it seems unlikely he will return. At 72 years old, Scarnecchia is apparently doing things in his yard and is keeping busy.
The Patriots are often seen to find talent where no other team does, Julian Edelman, Matthew Slater and Malcolm Butler being recent examples. But the Patriots also find talent in coaches, not just players. This can be seen with Scarnecchia. He coached in 10 of the Patriots 11 Superbowl appearances, winning 5 (and was closely associated with the 6th). He turned late round and undrafted talent into stars (Neal, Andrews and Mason) and utilized top tier talent to the fullest (Light, Mankins and Solder). His coaching has allowed the greatest player of all time (Tom Brady) to stay comfortable in the pocket and lead the Patriots offense for almost 20 years. When asked on Scarnecchia’s retirement, Bill Belichick responded, “It was a privilege to coach with Dante for so long,” and “I knew that long before his initial retirement and throughout a second act of continued excellence. Dante is among the very best assistant coaches ever.” That is high praise from the best coach of all-time. It was this year that one of the true legends of the game retired. May it be a long and happy one for Dante Scarnecchia.