Retired offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia’s first season with the Patriots was 18 years before Bill Belichick became head coach and 12 before Robert Kraft bought the team.
After a short stint with the Colts, Scarnecchia returned to New England as special teams and tight ends coach for Dick MacPherson. He then stayed on with Bill Parcells, Pete Carroll, and eventually Belichick, a 34-year run with the organization that even predates the owner.
To replace a Hall of Fame-caliber assistant, Belichick appointed co-offensive line coaches Cole Popovich and Carmen Bricillo to take on Scar’s duties.
Popovich and Bricillo are filling gigantic shoes, while also losing starting right tackle Marcus Cannon to a COVID-19 opt-out and now center David Andrews is on injured reserve.
Despite the coaching and roster turnover, the Patriots’ offensive line is rolling through three games, ranking fifth in Football Outsiders’ adjusted line yards run-blocking metric and second in Pro Football Focus’s pass-blocking efficiency rating.
Although it’s early, and the competition wasn’t great, the emergence of rookie Michael Onwenu and right tackle Jermaine Eluemunor has the line playing better than it did last season.
Unlike Scar’s first retirement in 2014, the Scarnecchia way is still the law for New England’s offensive line, as Popovich and Bricillo are using the legends system this season.
Popovich learned Scarnecchia’s scheme as his protege starting in 2015, while Bricillo worked under Scar in 2019 as an assistant, a great benefit to both of them to learn from the master.
“I think Carm and Cole have done a great job there,” Pats head coach Bill Belichick told CLNS Media. “It’s the biggest position on the team in terms of number of players. We have a lot of different levels of players there – some guys with a lot of playing experience and other guys with not so much.”
“The combination of the number of players and the experience levels and all that, there’s a lot of coaching going on there, and they’ve done an excellent job of working together, managing the needs of the position and mixing in both fundamentals and the scheme adjustments that we have to make in our offensive system. So, they’ve done a really good job there.”
Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels added, “they studied at the foot of the best offensive coach I have been around, and Dante taught them very well. They have also put in a lot of time and effort in themselves.”
Popovich and Bricillo are instilling Scarnecchia’s teachings in their players while focusing on sound fundamentals, which is the norm with Belichick’s staff.
“I think we all learned from Scar, a lot of the players are still here on this offensive line, myself also being under him from a number of years,” Popovich told me.
“There’s definitely a heavy influence from Scar, and I think as long as I’m here, there will be. Why would you change something that isn’t broken? It works. Scar is the best to ever do it, and we were all blessed to learn under him, and we’re going to keep doing the things that have always worked because they’re sound fundamentals and sound schemes,” he added.
In their two wins this season, New England rushed for an average of 233.5 yards with vastly different styles, and currently lead the league in rushing success rate and EPA per rush attempt.
The Patriots unveiled a quarterback-centric rushing attack with Cam Newton in the season-opener against Miami that featured designed QB runs and read-option elements.
Then, they went back to more traditional under-center schemes with the running backs carrying the load, a fullback in the backfield, and a 251 rushing yard performance in the win over Vegas.
The Pats used 17 different run-blocking schemes in the first three weeks, giving them answers to all types of defenses, and are keeping Newton clean on 80 percent of his drop-backs (second-best in NFL).
“We value intelligence and versatility here, and I think our players have shown that every week. They do a great job of digesting gameplans and going out there and executing them,” Popovich said of his diverse rushing attack.
Highest-Graded Offensive Rookies through W3:
1. Michael Onwenu – 87.6
2. Justin Jefferson – 85.3
3. Mekhi Becton – 76.9
4. James Robinson – 76.4
5. Joe Burrow – 76.1 pic.twitter.com/9b3jk2g2vv
— PFF (@PFF) September 29, 2020
The Patriots have four returning starters on the offensive line, but Popovich and Bricillo are developing young players as well. Rookie guard/tackle Michael Onwenu graded out as the top offensive rookie in the entire league through three games, per PFF.
Onwenu, a sixth-round pick out of Michigan, is starring in three different spots with a near-elite 87.6 overall grade on his 120 snaps, including a start at left guard in Week 3.
Really liked the Onwenu pick back in April but he's doing things that are really surprising us all. Look at him move his feet/change direction to pick up the looper on the stunt. The draft narratives gave him no shot at moving this well. #Patriots pic.twitter.com/PE4ucc7WQI
— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) September 29, 2020
The Pats rookie was a sought after run-blocker, but weight concerns and a scheme-specific style turned some teams off in April’s draft. However, he has lost nearly 40 pounds since his final game with the Wolverines, and his already impressive foot speed for a 340-pound lineman is even better now. Plus, he’s still as physical as ever as a run-blocker.
“I’m always trying to pick their brain and try to do stuff the right way and exactly how they want me to do it. I think it’s a good thing having both of them that I can pick from both learning both interior aspects or outside,” Onwenu said of his co-offensive line coaches.
Despite Belichick’s warnings about the difficulties facing this year’s rookies due to the pandemic-shortened preseason, Onwenu is balling, even at right tackle, where he never expected to play. In the pre-draft process, Onwenu was told he’d play either guard or center at the next level.
“The first few days, it was kind of a surprise to me too,” Onwenu said. “But I went out there head on first, so after you kind of look at things in terms of the tackle aspect, all the plays you already know, so I’m just thinking the next guy over from me.
“It wasn’t really that much of a point where I felt confident because I knew all of the stuff in terms of all that, but it was just me playing the other position more so than the person next to me.”
Along with Onwenu’s development, the game, as it so often does, threw another curveball at the Pats new OL coaches when starting center and captain David Andrews was placed on IR.
Due to Onwenu’s breakout, the Patriots moved the rookie to left guard while bumping Joe Thuney to center, where the franchise-tagged left guard filled in exceptionally well for Andrews.
Joe Thuney filled in at Center for the injured David Andrews, and immediately looked like a top tier starter at the position. Thuney has proven to be one of the most versatile, durable offensive lineman in the NFL. #GoPats pic.twitter.com/LhOqubUlwd
— Brad Kelly (@BradKelly17) September 30, 2020
In his first-ever start at center, Thuney didn’t allow a single quarterback pressure while making several excellent run blocks as well. Thuney is excellent regardless of where he plays, but Andrews and the OL coaches helped him prepare for a position switch.
“They’ve been great,” Thuney said of Popovich and Bricillo. “Cole was with Scar since I think ’15 or something, so he’s been hearing everything he had to say, and Carm’s been doing a great job, too. Just trying to hammer home the details, trying to have great technique and always giving great effort. Just kind of falling in the ways it’s been done, and they’ve both been doing a great job.”
With the departures of Tom Brady and Scarnecchia, the Patriots offense could’ve gone to shambles after losing two titans in NFL history in the same offseason.
Lucking into Newton is playing a significant role in the offense’s success. But the fourth-ranked unit by DVOA is leaning on its offensive line for its run-heavy approach with Newton.
The Patriots will need another stellar performance from its offensive line against Chris Jones, Frank Clark, and the Chiefs on Sunday.
New England might be the only team that could lose a Hall of Fame quarterback and position coach and not miss a beat.