INDIANAPOLIS - All season, the Giants defense seemed like the kind of mess Perry Fewell couldn’t mop up.
There were injuries.
Ends Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora, two of the anchors, were banged up.
There were technical glitches.
Rookies did not get the system, and even veterans were confused.
And for a unit that Fewell worked hard since arriving in New York in 2010, there were performances that were completely embarrassing.
In back-to-back weeks, the Giants let the Saints run up 49 points behind four touchdown passes from Drew Brees, then watched the Packers hang another 38 behind four more TDs from Aaron Rodgers.
Fewell’s breaking point came after the Giants let the Redskins jump to a 17-3 first-half lead in a Week 15 loss. At that point, the Giants were fighting for their lives in the NFC East.
In their last five games, the Giants have 20 sacks and 11 takeaways and have held opposing quarterbacks to a .578 completion percentage and 5.8 yards per attempt. They have allowed just 13.4 points per game since the Redskins loss.
Fewell doesn’t curse - his alternative is, “Jeez, oh Pete!’’ - but he yells.
“He gets after it when he needs to,’’ Umenyiora said.
After that loss, he needed to.
“I thought we didn’t play very good football,’’ Fewell said. “We didn’t play passionate football, and it is a little bit out of character for me, but I just felt like our defense and our people needed to hear how we felt about our play, and I thought we could do something about that, and our guys responded. That’s what you want, you want your team to respond.’’
Mathias Kiwanuka said, “He’s not a screamer, he’s not a cusser, but he was animated and he said some things that were obviously heartfelt, but they were true and they needed to be said. We didn’t have a good performance that week, and he called us out. He holds himself accountable, he holds all of us accountable and that’s basically what he was doing at that point.’’
Since then, the Giants have turned their season around and made a Super Bowl run powered by a rejuvenated defense. A team that couldn’t get within sniffing distance of the quarterback during the regular season has piled up nine sacks in the postseason. They held the Falcons to 2 points in their first playoff win and they beat the Packers and 49ers by grounding Green Bay’s high-powered offense and slugging it out with San Francisco’s defense.
Fewell said the solution was simple.
“Communication,’’ he said. “It sounds simple, but it’s not easy. When your players stop listening, you’re in trouble. The players never stopped listening. They wanted to get it right.’’
Fewell said this was by far his most difficult coaching job. With so many injuries and so many moving parts, trying to get everyone on the same page was a challenge. He also had to massage the egos of veterans such as safety Antrel Rolle, who was unhappy with the way he was being used in Fewell’s system.
“It’s my most challenging coaching job of my 26 years of coaching,’’ Fewell said. “We probably never put in the same lineup in back-to-back weeks for a number of weeks. So you had to be creative, you had to try to find out what these guys could do and how they could do it and I will even admit that sometimes I didn’t know the personnel of our defensive football team because we were so interchangeable.’’
He had been a somewhat hot product for years since his seven-game stint as the Bills’ interim head coach in 2009. He had the choice of coming to New York or joining Lovie Smith in Chicago but chose the Giants because he wanted an opportunity to be the architect of his own defense. Last year, the Giants had the league’s seventh-best defense, and when the coaching carousel started, he interviewed for the Browns and Broncos head jobs.
This year, though, the heat was on. The defense underperformed and Fewell got the blame. He tuned out the scrutiny.
“I didn’t pay it any attention,’’ he said. “I didn’t focus on the criticism, I focused on the team. I focused on helping our team get better. You’re always going to be criticized no matter what you do. So I just blocked out all those distractions.’’
His name wasn’t mentioned for any of the openings this season, but he said even if it was, he likely wouldn’t have been interested.
“I didn’t worry about the job I didn’t have,’’ he said. “I focused on the job I have. Now, for whatever reason, my name wasn’t mentioned this year. So be it.
“I was so focused on helping us win, I probably would have said no. I really wanted this for our team. This team has come through a lot this year. We’ve grown a lot this year. I wasn’t going to be selfish. Sometimes, you have to not look at yourself, you have to think about the team and I thought about the team in this situation. You don’t know if you’ll ever get back here.’’
Kiwanuka said with the way Fewell was able to turn the defense around, he had no doubts teams will come calling again.
“Being able to manage a team that had that many losses early on in the year and getting us to that point has to be recognized,’’ said Fewell. “He had his work cut out for him but he did a good job, not just replacing players but understanding what people’s strengths and weaknesses are and making sure we got people in the right position.’’
But within the organization, he’s respected for figuring out a way to weather the tough stretches.
“He’s done an outstanding job,’’ Umenyiora said. “Things were a little rough. People tried to talk trash, but the whole time we knew he was a very, very good coordinator and he’s done a good job.
“When your back is against the wall, people really find out what type of person you are and he’s come out swinging.’’Julian Benbow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.