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Original Issue

SCAR'S TO PROVE IT

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The O-line troops of Dante Scarnecchia—back after a two-year hiatus—have one more game to show how far they've come

FOR AN offensive line, it would be hard to imagine a worse afternoon.

One year ago, against the Broncos in the AFC championship game, the Patriots' running backs gained just 31 yards on 14 carries, even though Denver lightened the box by trotting out five or six defensive backs on all but one of those snaps. When Tom Brady dropped back things were just as bad. He completed just 48.2% of his passes, threw two interceptions and took 16 hits and four sacks. Most embarrassing: Nearly all of that heat came with just four rushers against five O-linemen.

Less than 24 hours after the 20--18 loss, coach Bill Belichick told line coach Dave DeGuglielmo that his contract wouldn't be renewed. He had only one man in mind for a replacement.

Dante Scarnecchia had spent 30 years with the Patriots, the last 15 of them as their offensive line coach, before walking away from the game in January 2014. Two years later, in the week after the Denver loss, he was visiting the Bay Area with his wife, Susan. His phone buzzed. It was Belichick, asking, "Do you have any interest in coming back?"

In truth, Scarnecchia had never truly retired. Belichick continued to use him as a sort of consultant, evaluating O-line draft prospects, and for two years Scarnecchia appeared on college campuses, at the Senior Bowl and at the combine. "Belichick is wearing my ass out," he would joke to friends.

While Scarnecchia made sure to never step on DeGuglielmo's toes, he was often seen heading into the office in the afternoon to watch film. "He was like a consigliere—they relied heavily on him to acquire talent, scout and work out guys," says one team source. "He was getting a little frustrated, though, like, You've got me doing all this [evaluation] work, but you're not coaching them the right way."

Still, returning wasn't an easy decision for Scarnecchia, who relished the extra time he got to spend with Susan and their brood, including two grandchildren. Besides, if anyone had earned a break, it was Coach Scar, who, after arriving in Foxborough in 1982, received paychecks from all four of the franchise's owners, worked for six of the last seven coaches and coaxed Pro Bowl seasons out of 11 players at nine positions.

"You become very used to a very nice lifestyle," Scarnecchia said of his retirement. Then, in his first (and last) press conference since deciding to come back, he added, "I like coaching football. I love coaching football. I didn't retire because I didn't like coaching football. I retired because I got tired of the lifestyle. After two years off, I'm O.K."

Those who've worked with and played for Coach Scar say they knew right away that the Pats' line would rebound in 2016. "You could never beat him to the office—like never," says Texans coach Bill O'Brien, who was an assistant alongside Scarnecchia in New England from '07 to '11. "My parking spot [those years] was right near his and I would put my hand on the hood of his car at 4:30 a.m. I would be like, It's cold; what time did this guy get here? The hours he puts in—that sets the tone for everyone."

A former sergeant in the Marine Corps Reserve, the 68-year-old Scarnecchia arrives early to double-check his film cutups, and when he goes over them with players he's an exquisite teacher, his instructions clear and direct. At a recent coaching clinic in Cincinnati he lectured on pass-blocking, and the technique he described was easy to imagine. "We emphasize having the thumbs up and the fingers out," he said, describing his ideal blocking posture. "If the thumbs go [inward] and the fingers are up it causes the elbows to fly out—and this gives the defender two handles to grab on to. We use the butt of our hands as the primary contact point when we hit the defender. We use the mental picture that we want to hit them with our hands from our chest to his chest."

This season Scarnecchia rebuilt the line with two new starters—rookie third-rounder Joe Thuney at left guard, undrafted David Andrews at center—to go with right guard Shaq Mason and two resuscitated tackles. Nate Solder, on the left, had gone from an 85.1 Pro Football Focus rating (very good) in '13, Scarnecchia's final season, to marks of 73.6 and 65.6 the next two years. And Marcus Cannon went from 72.0 in '13 to 48.3 in '14 and 43.0 in '15, which ended with his being obliterated by linebacker Von Miller in that AFC championship game: 2½ sacks allowed, five hits and one false start. Twelve months later PFF rates Solder as the eighth-best tackle in the NFL (88.0); Cannon is 10th (87.7).

"Attention to detail, consistency—that's what Scar brings," says Dan Koppen, the Patriots' center from 2003 through '12. "Marcus, in the past, would let one bad play turn into two or three, and you can't do that. His [improved] technique, his fundamentals—those are from the practice field, the meeting room, going over things time and time again, [Scarnechhia] building up his confidence. If you're willing to listen and put in the work, Scar can teach you how to play football. He could teach a chair, he's that good."

On Sunday night at Foxborough, Solder and Cannon combined to limit Steelers outside linebackers James Harrison and Bud Dupree to zero sacks, hits or pressures in New England's 36--17 victory. The 6'8" Solder made a key Scarnecchia-inspired adjustment this week in practice, using a deeper knee bend to lower his pad level about three inches against the 6-foot Harrison.

"Dante went through the last time we played them, and I was embarrassed; I didn't play very well and I had to play better," Solder said in the locker room afterward. "It was about using my hands better, it was about staying low, moving my feet and not giving in to his style of play."

With 3:56 left in the third quarter and Pittsburgh hoping for a stop trailing 20--9, Solder blasted Harrison after the snap on second-and-13, then put him to the ground as Brady connected on a 39-yard pass to wide receiver Chris Hogan. A touchdown two plays later put the game out of reach.

When contemplating the impact Scarnecchia's return has had on the O-line, Solder's bypassed the no-nonsense Patriot Way and a huge smile creased his face. "We've improved immensely this season," says Solder. "Myself, I know I've really improved at the things I was struggling with. And I'm glad to have him because he sees those things, he can teach those things and he's so consistently on all that stuff where you see the progression over the course of the season."

And now Coach Scar has one more lesson to go.

"If you're willing to listen and put in the work, Scar can teach you how to play football," says Koppen. "HE COULD TEACH A CHAIR, he's that good."