When the Patriots offense faced the Cardinals last Sunday night in their NFL season opener, they did it with a decidedly green offensive line.
With left tackle Nate Solder inactive because of a hamstring injury suffered in the preseason finale, and right tackle Sebastian Vollmer on the physically unable to perform list with an injured hip, the left tackle was Cameron Fleming, a fourth-round pick in 2014 who played 12 games and started seven last season, while the right tackle was Marcus Cannon, a 2011 fifth-round choice who played 12 games and started eight in 2015.
On the inside there was even less experience, featuring two rookies at guard: third-round pick Joe Thuney on the left side and sixth-round pick Ted Karras on the right. After Bryan Stork was released, David Andrews became the center again. An undrafted free agent last year, he played 14 games and started 11.
Figure it out: the entire starting line played a total of 38 games in 2015 with 26 starts. All except Karras played the entire game against Arizona (71 snaps). Karras played 57 with Shaq Mason, a 2015 fourth-round pick playing the other 14. The other backup was tackle L’Adrian Waddle, picked up on waivers by the Patriots last season and who played nine games with six starts.
So, what the heck does all this have to do with the Pro Football Hall of Fame? Well, the strings on that line were being pulled by Dante Scarnecchia, who came out of a two-year retirement to return and coach the team’s offensive line this season. Scarnecchia is a New England lifer. This is his 31st season as the Patriots line coach and he has survived four head coaching changes. It began in 1982 when Ron Meyer was the head coach. Meyer was fired during the 1984 season and replaced by Raymond Berry, who stayed on through 1989.
Scarnecchia left for two seasons (1989-90) to join Meyer in Indianapolis, but was back in New England in 1991 when Dick MacPherson became the head coach. After McPherson lasted two seasons, it was Bill Parcells for four, Pete Carroll for three, with Bill Belichick arriving in 2000. Each coach knew their life would be a lot easier with Scarnecchia tutoring the line.
When asked following the win against Arizona how much of a difference Scarnecchia made, Belichick said, “I think he is as fine of a coach as anybody that I’ve coached with and I’ve had the opportunity to coach with a lot of them. It’s great to have him back and he does a tremendous job with the individual techniques of the players and also in terms of making them aware of their assignments and adjustments and scheme things that come up, too. Those two components are just huge for the offensive line, not only individually but so that all five guys understand the same thing at the same time because that’s really what makes an offensive line a good line, is that they can all work together and do it cohesively. He does a great job with all of those things.”
If there is the epitome of what a Hall-of-Fame coach looks like, it would be Dante Scarnecchia. However, the reality is that Canton simply does not roll out the welcome mat for assistant coaches. In the mind of this selector, that’s a gaping hole that needs to be addressed.
In recent years, there have been logjams at wide receiver, but the best eventually are enshrined. Sometimes defensive players don’t get their due, but that has become more balanced in recent years.
But assistant coaches? They don’t even come close to being on the dance card. When the Hall of Fame announced the 94 modern-era nominees earlier this week for the class of 2017, of the 11 coaches, there was one assistant: former Redskins defensive coordinator Richie Petitbon. This is his third straight season as a nominee, but it means little. Former Dolphins defensive coordinator Bill Arnsparger’s name has been on the nominee list, but that’s as far as it goes. Since 2004 when the Hall began first reducing the nominee list to 25 semifinalists, no assistant coach has made it that far.
There are many that are worthy. Some have been retired long enough to be eligible for the Seniors Committee. However, there’s such a backlog of quality players in that pool, that assistant coaches don’t make it to that list either.
Still, how many successful head coaches would there be without quality assistants, the guys in the trenches that do the real coaching? It’s not hard to put together an outstanding list of coordinators like Ernie Zampese and Jim Johnson, or other line coaches such as Howard Mudd, Joe Bugel and Jim Hanifan. Would the Hogs have been the Hogs without Bugel? Think of current assistants in addition to Scarnecchia such as Norv Turner or Wade Phillips.
It got to the point where both the Associated Press and the Pro Football Writers of America created awards for assistant coaches in 2014. The AP voters now select an assistant coach of the year. The PFWA started the Dr. Z Award, named after former Sports Illustrated pro football writer Paul Zimmerman, who helped the Hall of Fame selectors recognize the importance of offensive linemen. That award honors assistants with long and distinguished careers.
As Bills head coach Rex Ryan told the AP when that award was announced, “Every head coach is an extension of his staff. That’s the absolute truth. I don’t care how good one man is, he can’t get the job done without an outstanding set of assistant coaches. And this is a way to recognize them. There are a lot of great assistant coaches out there who deserve to be recognized.”
Those awards are nice, but they sure don’t compare to a bust in the hallowed halls of Canton. That bust room would feel a lot more inclusive with an assistant coach or two. Or three. The question is how to make it happen. In truth, it’s difficult to get head coaches in, much less assistants. And when a coach is elected, as Tony Dungy was this year, that takes a spot from a player.
Asked Friday about assistants deserving of more consideration for the Hall of Fame, Belichick said, “Assistant coaches have a huge impact on their football team. I mean they make a tremendous contribution. I don’t think any head coach really could be a good head coach without good assistant coaches. We just don’t do enough coaching. There’s a lot of meeting rooms with a lot of instruction going on in there and the head coach isn’t in very many of those rooms, if any at all. They’re certainly working with the entire team. I’m not saying there isn’t a role for the head coach, but the individual instruction that the position coaches and coordinators give and their guidance and direction and play-calling on the team is obviously paramount. It’s critical.”
He did, however, acknowledge the Hall of Fame could be a difficult nut to crack.
“The Hall of Fame is a tough one,” he said. “I don’t even know what the criteria is for the Hall of Fame. You’ve got guys that have played 15-20 years that aren’t in the Hall of Fame and you’ve got guys that have played four or five that are and vice versa. You’ve got guys that have had great short careers and aren’t, guys that have had ‘OK’ long careers that are. You’ve got guys that haven’t won championships that are. You’ve got guys that have won a lot of championships that aren’t. I mean, I don’t know. What are we basing it on? Assistant football coaches’ Hall of Fame (candidacy) would probably be a worthy discussion, but do you want to (highlight) them relative to the other contributors? I don’t know.”
Still, it seems there could be a way. Some have suggested separating all coaches and having them voted on separately like the recently formed Contributors Committee. The push to do that occurred because so few contributors were being selected because they too were taking a spot from worthy players.
The Hall might be reluctant to continue creating separate categories. But it makes sense, just as some believe special teams players should be treated differently. Punter Ray Guy was a finalist seven times before finally being enshrined in 2014 from the Seniors Committee largely because his election did not affect any other players, except, of course, those other deserving Seniors players that have been forgotten sometimes for decades.
As the Hall of Fame’s profile becomes greater with television shows on NFL Network, a weekly radio show on SiriusXM and construction of the $500 million Hall of Fame Village, the spotlight of scrutiny also begins to shine brighter.
Change doesn’t come overnight. It took several years for the Hall’s board to create the Contributors category. The five-year plan resulted in rotating years where there is either one Seniors nominee and two Contributors or vice versa. Those five years end with the class of 2019, at which time everything will be evaluated going into 2020, the 100th anniversary of the formation of the National Football League.
What better time could there be to make even more sweeping changes that truly honors all those deserving that have been perpetually overlooked.