Former Patriots O-Line coach Dante Scarnecchia on Cam Newton’s impact: ‘They can beat anybody’

Whenever Dante Scarnecchia has tuned into a Patriots game recently, he’s come away with a smile.

Even in retirement, the Patriots legendary coach and former offensive line guru still keeps tabs on the team. Catching up with him Tuesday afternoon, he couldn’t have sounded happier with how things were proceeding four games into the season.

And why not?

The offensive line, Scar’s primary focus during three-plus decades with the team, has been a strength, no matter how much juggling his successors — Cole Popovich and Carmen Bricillo — have been forced to do given injuries to starters David Andrews and Shaq Mason.

The running game, backed by the line, is also near the top of the league, averaging roughly 180 yards per game and 5.1 yards per carry.

And, having a mobile quarterback has opened up a world of new possibilities for offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels in terms of generating offense.

Scarnecchia has enjoyed watching the transition, and believes the Patriots will be a team to be reckoned with thanks to Cam Newton, and the evolution of the offense.

More to the point, if Newton can stay healthy, Scarnecchia says the rest of the league better watch out.

“To Cam’s credit and his skillset, it seems to be that he’s being very wise not trying to run through defenders, sliding when you gotta slide and getting out of bounds when you have to get out of bounds,” said Scarnecchia. “I think it’s an important part of the equation, because they need him, and he’s got to stay out there. If he does, they can beat anybody.”

Wow. That’s a pretty strong assessment coming from a man who has never been one to arbitrarily toss out bouquets or overstate a case.

Scarnecchia has always been a straight shooter, telling it like it is. And after watching the first four games, he can’t help but see the potential and the possibilities for his former team.

“I think the quarterback has helped a great deal with his mobility, and the way they’re running the ball is unbelievable,” boasted Scar. “Averaging 180 yards a game is extraordinary. They’ve done a great job. They’re certainly a very capable team.”

Naturally, with the offense, everything starts up front. Whether protecting Newton, or opening holes for the backs, the play of the offensive line has been key.

Scarnecchia praised Popovich and Bricillo for being able to adapt and come up with solutions for the losses of Andrews (broken thumb), Mason (calf), and Marcus Cannon (opt-out) at the start of the season.

Thus far, the juggling act has worked.

“I just think (adapting) is a big part of the job. To their credit, they’ve kept it going,” Scarnecchia said of the duo who have replaced him. “You’ve got two choices when you’re faced with things like losing David, or having Marcus (Cannon) opt out.

“You can sit there and wring your hands up, and say, ‘Woe is me,’ or you can start solving problems, and they’ve chosen to solve problems,” he went on. “I think that’s one trait you absolutely have to have in this profession. You can’t let the lows, and what amounts to disappointment dwell. You just gotta fix things and keep going. And they’ve clearly done that.”

Part of the problem-solving has been inserting rookie Michael Onwenu to fill-in at both guard positions. It’s also been sliding Joe Thuney over to center, as well as utilizing James Ferentz. Having rookie Justin Herron fill in for Jermaine Eluemenor at times at right tackle has been another move to keep things afloat.

Was Scarnecchia surprised by any of the moves?

Hardly.

“Those guys have done a good job. And, there’s no surprise about Joe playing center,” Scarnecchia said of Thuney. “We always thought that would be a possibility.”

In hindsight, having Thuney move over to center might have been a better option last season when Andrews was lost for the year. Backup lineman Ted Karras did a decent job, but Thuney might have been a more effective choice in terms of the run game.

A year later, Popovich and Bricillo haven’t been afraid to move Thuney. They also have better depth across the line, given how well the rookies have played. Scarnecchia also has a pretty good beat on the youngsters, given he evaluated more than 50 prospects for the Patriots prior to officially retiring.

So he knows all about sixth-round draft picks Onwenu (Michigan) and Justin Herron (Wake Forest).

With respect to the former, Scar loved what he saw of Big Mike on tape.

“I never met the kid. Because everything was shut down, you couldn’t go out to see (prospects). But I think (Popovich and Bricillo) were able to visit with him personally, on the very last day the building was open,” Scarnecchia said of Onwenu. “I know they liked him, and I liked him, too. So it was nice to see him get drafted by the team. That was a great choice. It’s worked out good. He’s a really good player.”

Retirement, the second time around, has also worked out well for Scarnecchia, who is enjoying his grandkids and the golf course. Asked about having perfect timing, given all that’s gone on with COVID-19 — with Newton, Stephon Gilmore, Byron Cowart and Bill Murray testing positive — Scarnecchia acknowledged it wouldn’t have been much fun coaching in this type of environment.

“The decision was an easy decision for me. I’m glad I made it. I was glad then, and I’m glad now that I made it,” he said. “This is a tough environment the players are working in, and playing in. I think it would be a tough challenge.”

Scarnecchia revealed that his 97-year-old mother had COVID-19 during the spring, but had miraculously recovered.

“We took her to the hospital, and thought that was it, she ain’t coming out,” said Scarnecchia. “But four days later, she came out. It was really amazing.”

Even though he acknowledged the games have been tougher to watch without the fan element involved, Scarnecchia has clearly taken pleasure out of the performance of the offense.

During the call, he constantly raved about Newton and the team’s ability to run the football behind the offensive line.

“They’re hitting on a lot of cylinders running the football and doing a great job passing it, too,” he said. “They have a good team. It’s all good, I’m pleased.”

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