HOUSTON — Martellus Bennett. Chris Hogan. Chris Long. Eric Rowe. Shea McClellin. Kyle Van Noy. Joe Thuney.

All newcomers to the New England Patriots this year. All key components of the team’s run to an NFL-record ninth appearance in the Super Bowl.

But the biggest addition this year wasn’t a player. It was offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia, who returned after a two-year retirement.

Scarnecchia took an offensive line that was one of the NFL’s worst in 2015 – and a major reason the Patriots lost in the AFC championship game – and turned it into one of the team’s strengths. The Patriots will play the Atlanta Falcons in the Super Bowl on Sunday.

Typically, Scarnecchia wants no credit. “I think continuity and great health have been our two biggest things,” he said almost with a shrug earlier this week, noting that the team has had the same starting offensive line since Oct. 16.

But the Patriots know what his impact has been.

mike-lowe in houston“I’ve said this a number of times,” said Josh McDaniels, the offensive coordinator. “He’s as good a coach as I’ll ever be around.

“He has the most guys to coach on every play on our entire staff. He does a tremendous job of being able to communicate to all of those people what their job is and what the expectations are, and how to do it the right way. There’s not one minute at practice when he’s not working with them … He’s always going to have them prepared for everything that can come up in a game.”

Scarnecchia’s return was greeted with much joy by fans. All they had they had to do was rewind the 20-18 loss at Denver in the AFC championship game to realize how poor the line was. Tom Brady was sacked four times, hit another 17.

That followed a season-long trend. Brady was sacked 38 times – an increase of 12 from the 2014 season. The offensive line had been beset by injuries that forced players to shuttle in and out, and often play out of position.

Not only that, but the Patriots’ 2015 running game was pathetic, averaging only 87.8 yards per game – the lowest since Coach Bill Belichick’s first season in Foxborough, when New England averaged 86.8.

So following the Denver loss, Belichick reached out to Scarnecchia to see if he was interested in returning.

Scarnecchia, who was loving his retirement, spoke to his wife Susan. They took 10 days to decide, then he let Belichick know.

“When I came back we talked about a number of ways to come back,” said Scarnecchia. “You want to be a consultant? You want to do this? Do that? And I think I actually surprised them (when he said) if I come back, I want to come back the way I left. I want to coach it. I want to be responsible for it.

“I don’t think you can do it any other way, and I don’t think it’s fair to someone else for you to be in that room if you’re a consultant and watching. I just said I’m going to come back in and do it the way I was doing it before. I had no pretense it was going to be different. I knew it was going to be long and hard. And it has. But it’s been a lot of fun. I mean, I’ve had a lot of fun this year.”

It certainly appears that way.

The Scarnecchia that spoke to the media at Super Bowl Opening Night festivities seemed a lot different – more open, more personal – than the one who tried to hide from the media at previous Super Bowls.

“I thought I was hidden away from the media back here,” said Scarnecchia, located near the rear of the Patriots’ gathering, his name tag flipped backward so nobody could see his name.

“I don’t like talking,” he said with a smile.

His players say he’s sneaky funny in the meeting room though Scarnecchia said, “I don’t know if I’m funny in meetings. I wouldn’t say I’m Shecky Greene up there.”

Behind Scarnecchia’s coaching, the Patriots’ offensive line has thrived. The team gave up only 24 sacks, fifth in the league, and New England averaged 117 rushing yards per game, seventh in the league.

Tackles Nate Solder and Marcus Cannon had two of their best years, and the three young players in the middle – rookie left guard Joe Thuney, second-year center David Andrews and second-year right guard Shaq Mason – have improved steadily and played nearly every play.

They’ve been together for the last 13 games and Scarnecchia insists that’s the difference.

“If you have a left guard and left tackle playing together for 16 games, when (one) says ‘A’, the other guy knows what ‘A’ means, whatever that is,” said Scarnecchia. “It’s just so much easier and that’s been a big factor, the biggest factor easily.”

Maybe, but Scarnecchia’s ability to teach and communicate are vital.

“I can’t quantify (what Scarnecchia’s return meant),” said Solder. “But I can say that I’m very thankful for the way he’s led our group, the things he’s taught the new guys and me as well. I have a lot to learn and we’re all in it together.

“We’re all learning together and we’re all improving as much as we can every week, and I think he’s at the forefront of all of that.”

Cannon came back in the best shape of his life – Scarnecchia said he lost 30 pounds – and has had an exceptional year.

“We are very fortunate to have him back,” said Cannon. “He’s a great coach. Anything he says, we try to take heed of it and try to do it to the best of our ability.”

A notorious early riser, Scarnecchia said the hours are still long and the job isn’t easier.

“It should be easier, wouldn’t you think, after 45 years it would be easier?” he said. “I think what’s really happening now is that we have all these ways to look at our opponents that we never had before. We have access to every game they have played over the last 15 years. I mean, if we wanted to research Dan Quinn, we could do it, and we have, the way they call their defenses.

“So instead of saying it’s just going to be this or that, you always want to make sure so you just stay in there and grind it and grind it and grind it because it’s so big. Every week it’s so big. You really want to do your best work. And really this week we better do our best work.”

Mike Lowe can be contacted at 791-6422 or:

[email protected]

Twitter: MikeLowePPH

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