Tom Brady leaving the New England Patriots in free agency naturally stole most of the headlines this offseason, but the departure of long-time offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia was no less notable. Scarnecchia was a staple of the organization, after all: he helped build some of the best offensive lines in franchise and NFL history, and was a part of five championship teams during his combined 34 seasons with the club.
With the 72-year-old calling it a career in February, the team obviously had a massive hole to fill. Instead of handing responsibilities to one coach — like they did when Scarnecchia first retired for two years after the 2013 season — the Patriots turned to two of his former assistants: Cole Popovich and Carmen Bricillo were tasked with leading the offensive line into a new era, without its long-time coach and its long-time quarterback.
Four weeks into the season, however, the line is off to a terrific start. No matter if it is run blocking or pass protecting, the Patriots are among the most efficient team in the NFL in both areas, fielding one of the best overall lines in football. A look at the following graphic, courtesy of ESPN’s Brian Burke, further illustrates this:
As can be seen, the Patriots’ offensive line is a top-10 unit in both run blocking and pass blocking win rate. The unit ranks second behind only the Houston Texans in the first category by winning an 74 percent of its snaps in those scenarios. It is not quite as dominant when it comes to blocking in the passing game, but Popovich’s and Bricillo’s group still ranks ninth with a win rate of 64 percent.
Add it all up and you get arguably one of the five best overall lines in the game — a standing that is even more impressive considering all the turnover the unit had to endure apart from losing Dante Scarnecchia during the offseason.
Starting right tackle Marcus Cannon, for example, decided to opt out of the 2020 season due to concerns about the Coronavirus. The veteran was replaced by Jermaine Eluemunor to start the season, but he himself had to miss one game due to a migraine which led to sixth-round rookie Justin Herron taking over the starting role. Herron is one of two rookies to start a game along the Patriots’ O-line this year, the other being fellow sixth-rounder Michael Onwenu.
Onwenu, who began his career as a rotational right tackle and jumbo tight end, started at left guard in Week 3 and at right guard in Week 4 — helping replace an injured David Andrews and Shaq Mason along the way. While Mason’s absence due to a calf injury is expected to be a comparatively short affair, Andrews was sent to injured reserve for at least three weeks after fracturing a finger on his snapping hand.
Their absences led to quite a bit of shuffling up front. A look at the Patriots’ starting offensive lines so far this season shows this:
- Week 1: LT Isaiah Wynn — LG Joe Thuney — C David Andrews — RG Shaq Mason — RT Jermaine Eluemunor
- Week 2: LT Isaiah Wynn — LG Joe Thuney — C David Andrews — RG Shaq Mason — RT Jermaine Eluemunor
- Week 3: LT Isaiah Wynn — LG Michael Onwenu — C Joe Thuney — RG Shaq Mason — RT Jermaine Eluemunor
- Week 4: LT Isaiah Wynn — LG Joe Thuney — C James Ferentz — RG Michael Onwenu — RT Justin Herron
Despite all this turnover, and only Wynn and Thuney being fixtures up front so far, the Patriots’ blocking has been splendid for most of the season. The players themselves obviously need to be praised for their performances, but the work done by Cole Popovich and Carmen Bricillo should not go unnoticed either: so far, the two are successfully continuing Dante Scarnecchia’s legacy of having the unit play on a constantly high level.