Steve Spagnuolo's bumpy road back to leading the Giants' defense
If you want to get a good sense of just how enthusiastic Giants fans are about the return of defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, pay a visit to secondary coach Dave Merritt's neighborhood a few miles up Route 3 from the team's training facility.
"Seeing Spags come back here and hearing all my neighbors ," Merritt said Tuesday as the Giants began a three-day minicamp. "I'm in Nutley, which is full of Italians, so everybody feels like they're Spags' cousin. As soon as Spagnuolo came back, it was like the highlight of their life. The energy that has been brought back in the organization and into our defense is a good thing."
Spagnuolo is an immensely popular coach around here, thanks to his brilliant work with the Giants' defense in 2007, when he overcame a rocky start and went on to help the team win its first Super Bowl of the Tom Coughlin era. After leaving the team following the 2008 season, Spagnuolo's career took some unfortunate turns as head coach of the Rams, where he was fired after three seasons, and he lasted only a year with the Saints when Sean Payton served a full-season suspension over his role in the Bountygate scandal.
But after two years in Baltimore, where he reunited with coach John Harbaugh after the two had previously worked as Eagles assistants, Spagnuolo was rehired by Coughlin to replace Perry Fewell. Despite winning a Super Bowl of his own under Coughlin, Fewell's defenses had regressed the last three seasons and a change was clearly needed.
Coughlin's decision to bring back Spagnuolo was a logical choice, although there are no guarantees he can bring his Midas touch to the defense as quickly as the last time. Remember, the Giants had elite talent in 2007 that included future Hall of Fame defensive end Michael Strahan and fellow pass rushers Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora in their prime.
The Giants' defense is now much younger after a years-long purge of established veterans such as Tuck, Umenyiora, Antonio Pierce, Mathias Kiwanuka and Antrel Rolle, and no amount of play-calling magic from Spagnuolo can completely overcome the dearth of talent. The Giants' best pass rusher, Jason Pierre-Paul, is at a contractual impasse after being designated the team's franchise player, and it's anyone's guess when or if he will rejoin the team. Pierre-Paul has yet to sign his tender, meaning the Giants don't have his services -- and Pierre-Paul can't start cashing in on his $14.8-million salary.
There is still plenty of potential here with veteran linebackers Jon Beason, Jameel McClain, cornerbacks Prince Amukamara and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, and promising young linebacker Devon Kennard and defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins. But with inexperience at safety and a relative lack of depth at most positions, Spagnuolo will be hard pressed to repeat his brilliant work from his previous run with the Giants.
But Spagnuolo remains upbeat about what lies ahead, in large part because of the lessons he has learned -- some of them the hard way -- from his difficult journey back to where he produced two memorable seasons in his first experience as a defensive coordinator.
"It doesn't matter what it is -- coaching or life -- you grow more in adversity than you do in good times," he said. "I believe that, especially if you come through it the right ways and use it the right way, I'm better at this position now than I was the first time."
It's very simple, he said.
"When you're in the middle of it, you have two choices. You can be bitter or get better. I made a conscious decision in my mind to get better."
His two years in Baltimore proved invaluable in the recovery process. Working under Harbaugh, Spagnuolo rebounded from a difficult four seasons in St. Louis and then New Orleans by getting back to his roots. In 2013, he served as a consultant to Harbaugh and offered various forms of advice, and in 2014, he was the team's secondary coach and assistant head coach.
He has even taken some elements from Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees' 3-4 defense and incorporated them into his 4-3 system.
"The main focus has been to make sure that the No. 1 goal is that we're better today than yesterday," Spagnuolo said. "If we live by that, we'll be OK."
Spags is back, and all seems right -- at least for now -- with the Giants' defense.
"The energy that has been brought back to our organization and our defense is a good thing," said Merritt, who was with the Giants when Spagnuolo was here the first time. "I'm just happy to be a part of it."
So are his neighbors in Nutley.