There’s a point in just about every epic tale when our hero is beat up, bloodied, everything looks lost, and they’re down bad all around. The triumph of evil seems inevitable and going on seems like a Herculean task. Then, just when all hope looks gone, the mentor/sensei/wise old man that taught ‘em everything they know from Day 1 pops in to drop some knowledge that usually goes something like...
“Listen up, crotch-stain. Remember your training, and trust your instincts. You can do it! I believe in you! Bye-bye!”
....or, you know, something along those lines. We can’t all be Master Splinter.
So with the daily reports out of training camp vacillating between “DeVante Parker is Mossing grown men out there” and “the defense is eating the offense’s lunch”, seemingly both on the same day most of the time, perspective is needed. We need someone to help see the forest, not the trees, and who better to cut through the BS and tell us what time it is than the semi-retired offensive line guru that predates even Bill Belichick with the New England Patriots?
Karen Guregian of the Boston Herald got an exclusive chat with the man, the myth, the 5-foot-10 legend himself, Dante Scarnecchia, and they got him to give his 2 cents on what we should be looking for at this point in camp, the much-ballyhooed transition in the run game from the gap scheme to the new-hotness outside zone and the *cough* debatable decision to employ Matt Patricia as offensive... whatever he is.
(Note: Karen is up-front in the first line of the article that Scarnecchia hasn’t actually seen any of the Patriots’ padded practices in person. So, as you’ll see, his answers are discussing the team/offense/scheme change/etc in generalities, as opposed to “here’s what I saw”.)
On whether to commence freaking out over what sounds like a bumpy offensive liftoff so far:
“I would say this, in fairness to everyone, I just think this is the wrong time to evaluate it. The pads have come on, but they’re not playing real football yet,” Scarnecchia told the Herald on Monday. “Whenever they play the Giants, we’ll have a better idea where this thing is. Even at that point, it’s not totally fair to say they can’t (do it).
“I think there’s a (three-game) process at hand, where we’ll have a better idea where this thing is going. … What doesn’t look good in training camp early has no bearing on anything.”
This was a mentality that running backs coach Ivan Fears also used to swear by, often far more colorfully: let’s talk about it once the live bullets are flying.
Dante also was asked about whether Bill Belichick has a break-glass-in-case-of-emergency plan in case the offense is looking Jacksonville Jaguars-esque in a few weeks:
“Bill’s never been one to say, ‘we’re going to run this no matter how it looks,’’’ he said. “He won’t do that. I can remember him saying numerous times, ‘we’re going on to something else’.”
Scarnecchia continued: “But in the meantime, you can’t stick your toe in the water and say this is what it’s going to be. You just gotta make the leap, trust the techniques, and trust the guys involved.
“They’re good enough up front, and I’m sure they’re good enough at tight end, and all the rest of it. You can run behind Trent Brown or Isaiah Wynn.”
Now, for you Xs and Os junkies out there, Scarnecchia elaborated a bit on the difference between a quote-unquote Shanahan run game, and what the Patriots have done in the past.
“I can tell you without a doubt, we ran the outside zone play,” said Scarnecchia. “What we didn’t run off that action are the bootlegs off that, which is what you’re seeing from San Francisco, the Rams, all those teams where that came from. And why didn’t we do that?”
The answer is because Tom Brady, as great as he was, wasn’t suited to rolling out and running the bootlegs that the Patriots are now trying to incorporate.
Scarnecchia, McDaniels and Fears didn’t have to squelch the notion. They didn’t have to sway Belichick to stop that in its tracks. It was obvious it wouldn’t work with the personnel involved.
According to the legendary assistant, they actually tried during Brady’s time, even though it didn’t seem like the best option for the GOAT. They practiced the boot actions and ran a few in games. But when Brady was stripped of the ball the first time they tried it, that was pretty much the end of that.
OK, once is a coincidence, and twice is a pattern, and this seems to be something that happened more than a couple times in the early days of Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. Perhaps most notably, in the Do Your Job documentary from the 2014 season, Josh McDaniels was reminiscing about how after a double-pass went horribly wrong in a 2003 Week 16 game against the Jets, the Patriots decreed “nobody except Brady throws the ball”, until, of course, the legendary double-comeback victory over the Baltimore Ravens that postseason.
On some of the zone-run type plays the Patriots have been using over the years, often very successfully:
“I’d say we were as good a team at running the outside zone to the open side, the non-tight end side, as anybody in football,” said Scarnecchia. “And we were good at running it to the tight end side when we had a good enough tight end to block it – Rob Gronkowski. So we ran it.
“We ran it out of two-back sets a lot with Sony Michel (in 2018). … We ran toss-crack, we ran outside zone, we ran the gap runs inside, whatever we felt like we could do, we did.”
Now, for perhaps the biggest question: Can quarterback Mac Jones thrive in an offense like that?
“He did it in college, and I think he’s got a skill set,” said Scarnecchia. “Let me put it this way, does he have the same skill set athletically and speed-wise as (Rams quarterback) Matthew Stafford?”
“Mac Jones, I would suspect, is faster than Tom Brady. I’m not saying more athletic, because I think Tom is a fabulous athlete. But I’m sure they’re going into it thinking he can do those things,” he said. “You bootleg, you come out, you throw the ball, and you try to get it thrown fast.”
You can say Jones is probably more athletic than Tom Brady, Dante. It’s fine.
And finally, on the probable heir apparent to Josh McDaniels at offensive play-caller, Matt Patricia:
“I really don’t know how it’s all going to work. I do think it is a heavy load, but Matt’s a guy that’s used to having heavy loads on Sunday,” said Scar. “I think the rub for me, personally, is being able to know enough to set things up in the passing game, whether they’re on either run-pass down-and-distance situations or total pass situations.
“I think it’s a heavy load to ask of someone. I’m not going to refute that and say it’s not. But there are guys who are very, very capable, and have minds that are so strong they can take things on like that. We can all make this judgment on Matt right now, but we don’t know. He’s been a coordinator. So he knows what it takes.”
A common thread, as you probably noticed, is that Bill Belichick and the offensive staff aren’t just going to keep banging their heads against the wall if a new offensive install and/or the offensive play-calling situation isn’t working. Is this offseason asking a lot from both the players and the staff that’s tasked with teaching them? Yes, it is, but the guys that are being tasked with teaching it aren’t exactly wet-behind-the-ears kids. Their resumes have plenty of success that speaks for itself, even if neither Judge nor Matt P worked out as head coaches in the end.
Either way, we can all agree on one thing: Thursday night’s preseason contest with the New York Giants is going to show us quite a bit on what this team’s been up to all summer. It’s going to be fascinating.