Steve Spagnuolo walked through the door for the second time with the Giants last year confident of what a championship defense looks like. After all, he had won it all as the Giants defensive coordinator in 2008 with a bunch that battered Tom Brady in Super Bowl 42.
So, Spagnuolo told the Giants in his interview that in order to re-do that, of course, it would take some time to build this defense. That it was not ready to do anything special. He was quickly shot down. He was told winning now was the only goal and if he did not believe the defense was good enough to do that he should scat. That nobody from ownership to the practice squad was buying his weak appraisal.
OK, Spagnuolo replied.
He took the job and shut up.
The Giants defense would do the talking for him. Sure, it was mangled from the start with end Jason Pierre-Paul's nightmarish Fourth of July fireworks hand injury. More critical pieces fell aside to injury as the season rolled. Veteran players underperformed. Young players made young mistakes. Fourth quarter leads vanished.
And the Giants defense ranked last in the league.
An offense with a mandate to score 30 points a game came close to accomplishing that. But the defense kept allowing more than the offense managed. It was a continuously hideous sight.
Two seasons ago, it was Giants co-owner John Mara who declared the Giants offense was "broken."
Last season, by any measure, the Giants defense was wrecked.
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In the National Football League, you must find personnel fixes under every rock, in every corner. You must create an encompassing plan that gets you healthy fast. You must develop young players. You must balance offense and defense and find the right niche for special teams. In the process, heads roll.
The Giants won Super Bowl 46 in 2011 with Tom Coughlin as head coach and Kevin Gilbride as offensive coordinator and Perry Fewell as defensive coordinator. Since they have gone 9-7, 7-9, 6-10 and 6-10. No playoffs. Star receiver Odell Beckham, Jr., arrived two seasons ago and so did offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo to replace Gilbride. Spagnuolo replaced Fewell last year. McAdoo replaces Coughlin this season.
None of the musical chairs matter unless the Giants do what Spagnuolo said they had to do from the first steps of his re-entry -- build the defense. That is a message resonating throughout the NFL.
The song is still be sung that the NFL is a quarterback-driven league, that you go nowhere without a franchise quarterback, that the passing game is the elixir and that gaining chunks of offensive yardage wins games. It is a ringing hymn. But the Denver Broncos just exhibited what a championship defense looks like in the latest Super Bowl. How pass rushers affect winning. How this part of the NFL's winning equation must rise in stature compared with pure offensive-minded football.
In the recent free agency binge, the two highest-paid players were defensive players (ends Malik Jackson and Olivier Vernon, nearly $171 million combined in total contracts). Four of the top six most costly signings were defensive players. Eight of the top 14 were also.
The Giants paid for the Nos. 2, 4 and 6 players on that list.
In Vernon ($52.5 million guaranteed), cornerback Janoris Jenkins ($28.8 million guaranteed) and defensive tackle Damon Harrison ($24 million guaranteed), the Giants addressed every level of their defense from front to back. They added a middle linebacker (Keenan Robinson), re-signed Pierre-Paul and look to the draft next month for more defensive help.
The Giants and general manager Jerry Reese are adamant on fixing this defense. It has required a tinkering of the Giants philosophy while simultaneously returning to the core of their philosophy. The Giants teams that won two Super Bowl championships under Reese featured fierce pass rushers. It was not built with a powerful combination of free agency and the draft.
But the Giants have never experienced the luxury of nearly $60 million in cap space since Reese became general manager in 2007. His teams have often selected lower in the draft's first round -- the positions his first seven years were at 20, 31, 29, 15, 19, 32 and 19, respectively. In 2014, it was at No. 12, Beckham. In 2015, it was at No. 9, tackle Ereck Flowers.
In April, the Giants pick at No. 10.
It looks like a defensive pick, possibly Clemson defensive end Shaq Lawson.
It looks like Reese and all of the Giants see now what Spagnuolo saw.
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The Giants must fix two more things about this defense.
They must do a better job of developing young players. They have not grown them during the season like successful teams do. Their young players struggle too frequently with the same things, are often tossed to and from and in and out of the lineup and are not properly refined. This must change.
They also need to find linebackers who can be game changers. Their recent philosophy has been that the prime resources go to the defensive front and that linebackers can be average to good. The Giants recent linebackers have not been average or good enough. They need at least one star player among that group. A difference-maker.
Reese knows picking higher in the draft means his teams have failed.
He is not a man who acts in fear or runs scared -- that is not his nature or foundation. He takes the NFL cards that are dealt him and he uses them. This offseason those cards were rare cap space and another high pick.
And a year-old message from Spagnuolo that he and all of the Giants now clearly get.