- Jackie MacMullan, ESPNBoston.com columnist
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INDIANAPOLIS -- Beat the silver truck to work.
It was an informal competition among the New England Patriots offensive linemen, a rare opportunity to pry some bragging rights away from the team's ultracompetitive, uber-prepared line coach, Dante Scarnecchia.
Scar's obsession with detail and skimpy sleeping patterns were legendary, which explains why his silver truck was a permanent fixture at the stadium. When the guys went home, Scarnecchia remained, sometimes as late as 4 in the morning, studying film. When they arrived the next day, he was already there, swimming laps in the pool or training in the weight room, fastidiously conditioning his own body with the same intensity that he challenges his offensive linemen to show.
Logan Mankins decided to beat Scar to work one morning. He pulled into the lot just shy of 6 a.m., but the silver truck was already there, its engine cooled.
"I don't know what time he got there," Mankins said. "Probably hours before me."
Scarnecchia is completing his 30th year in the NFL and is the lone person who has participated in all six of New England's Super Bowls.
The 2011 season will go down as one of his most cherished. In a challenging year in which Pro Bowl center Dan Koppen was lost for the season in early September with a broken ankle, and his replacement, Dan Connolly, briefly was sidelined with foot and groin injuries, and his replacement, Ryan Wendell, was forced to play on one leg against the Philadelphia Eagles because of a calf injury, and fourth-string center (and former practice player) Nick McDonald was thrust into starting duty in early December, Scarnecchia has been the steady, unyielding hand behind the group that protects the Patriots' most valuable asset, quarterback Tom Brady.
"On any other team, losing a guy like Koppen would be a huge problem," former Patriots lineman Stephen Neal said. "And then losing his backup too? For a lot of teams, that would have been it.
"But with Dante, it doesn't matter whether it's a plumber off the street. He's going to teach you and coach you and work you, so when your time comes you're ready."
At various times this season, Scarnecchia has contended with injuries to Sebastian Vollmer and Logan Mankins, relying on a rookie (Nate Solder) to play a significant role, another rookie (Marcus Cannon) to play spot duty during critical junctures of the season, all while working in a veteran (Brian Waters) from a different system. Waters was slated to play about 30 to 40 snaps in the Sept. 12 season opener against the Miami Dolphins so he could become acclimated to his new team, but when Koppen went down, he ended up logging 70 plays.
"We had no choice," Scarnecchia said. "We didn't have anybody else."
The fact the offensive line has been consistent despite the revolving personnel has been a proud moment for the demanding boss, who admits this is one of the most satisfying seasons of his long career.
"I think it has been satisfying in a lot of respects," Scarnecchia said. "Believe me, we're not devoid of talent. But to bring a guy like Brian Waters in, who was on the streets by his own decision, and to integrate him into our system, and to go through four centers, and still have these guys play at a high level throughout . they've really been great.
"Now comes the ultimate test."
The aggressive defensive line of the New York Giants has vowed to pressure Brady and force him out of the pocket in Sunday's Super Bowl XLVI. Many prognosticators have given the Giants' D-line the edge over the Patriots' O-line, a trend that has been duly noted by the players and their position coach.
Scarnecchia has thrived under six Patriots regimes -- the tenures of Ron Meyer, Raymond Berry, Dick MacPherson, Bill Parcells, Pete Carroll and Belichick. The coaches had varying styles, philosophies and approaches, yet Scarnecchia fit seemlessly into each of their visions.
"I don't know how to explain it," he said.
His players do. Neal came to the Patriots as an elite college wrestler with virtually no football experience. He was a major project who struggled with his footwork, technique and responsibilities. Scarnecchia was ruthless in his critique of the newcomer, holding him to the same standards as his Pro Bowl players.
While Scarnecchia's methods are notoriously challenging (what else would you expect from a former sergeant in the Marine Corps Reserve?), it was his dogged investment in Neal's potential that resonated with the young player.
"To be honest, I didn't think anyone would have cared as much as he did," Neal said. "I had such a long way to go."
Neal exhibited the traits Scarnecchia values most: He was smart, tough and athletic. Neal's biggest drawback was his inclination to try to help out his fellow linemen rather than stick to his own assignments.
"He didn't understand initially that if he did his job, just did he was supposed to do, the other guys were going to be fine," Scarnecchia said. "Once we got him out of his little wandering ways, it became an easier proposition."
Scarnecchia's philosophy is predicated on five players viewing their job through one set of eyes. "If they see it differently, then you have chaos," he explained.
Molding the players into one unit is where Scarnecchia sets himself apart. He breeds a fierce loyalty and trust among his charges, so much so that defensive lineman Vince Wilfork claims the offensive line is the most tight-knit group in the locker room.
"And if you're not Scar, you better not say anything to that offensive line," Wilfork said. "Those are his guys. I've seen Bill head over there to say something and have Dante tell him, 'Bill, leave us the hell alone."'
"Scar is going down fighting right beside you,"' Neal added. "Even if you're wrong, he's going to have your back. It doesn't matter whether it's Bill or [former offensive coordinator] Charlie [Weis], he's going to tell them, 'I've got this."'
Scarnecchia bristled when informed his current and former players shared stories of him shooing Belichick away.
"The head coach is the conscience of the program," he insisted. "If he sees things he doesn't think are quite right, everyone's job from that point is to embrace what he wants, lock arms and move on.
"We all fall in line with that, believe me. These aren't just 'my guys.' I've never used those words."
The offensive linemen do -- all the time. They believe in Scarnecchia's vision, which, according to Neal, is turning five men into one powerful force, like five fingers forming to make one fist.
"You can't hit someone properly unless all five fingers make that fist in one perfect motion," Neal said. "Dante makes sure we can deliver one big hit together."
Scarnecchia has experienced some new situations this season. When McDonald was in at center, Waters initiated a silent count, enabling the less experienced McDonald to concentrate on the defense. When Brady was ready to go, Waters tapped McDonald's hip to let the center know it was time to snap the ball.
"We had never done that before," Scarnecchia said. "In fact, I relied totally on Brian's ability to do it because they had used it so much in Kansas City.
"I told him, 'I'm a novice at this. I don't want to know a whole lot about it. You take care of it."'
It might be startling to his linemen that, even after four decades in football, Dante Scarnecchia is still learning.
No wonder that silver truck is a permanent fixture in Foxborough.
Just like its owner.
Jackie MacMullan is a columnist for ESPNBoston.com.