If there is any NFL assistant coach counting the days until training camp starts and players can actually put pads on, it’s Saints defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo.
To say the Grafton native and Springfield College graduate has been thrown into the fire since the end of last season is putting it mildly.
Spagnuolo, 52, was fired as head coach of the Rams after a 2-14 season that left him with a 10-38 mark in three seasons. With no shortage of suitors, he quickly agreed to become the Saints defensive coordinator after Gregg Williams departed to direct the defense for Jeff Fisher, Spagnuolo’s replacement in St. Louis.
Then the bounty scandal rocked the Saints. The head coach who hired Spagnuolo, Sean Payton, was suspended for the entire season, along with middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma. End Will Smith was suspended for the first four games.
“I can’t wait for the season to get here,’’ Spagnuolo said last week. “A lot has happened in the past five months.’’
Spagnuolo seems eager to resuscitate his career, one that had him as the rising coaching star after he revived the Giants defense and directed the Super Bowl XLII upset of the unbeaten Patriots.
Spagnuolo had his pick of head coaching jobs a year later and decided on the downtrodden Rams. After a 1-15 season, St. Louis tied for the NFC West title at 7-9 but lost the season-ending game to the Seahawks to lose the tiebreaker.
Offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur took the head coaching job with the Browns and was replaced by Josh McDaniels. Then the lockout hit and prevented McDaniels from working with quarterback Sam Bradford. And once the season began, the Rams were hit with an avalanche of injuries. According to FootballOutsiders.com, the Rams were the second-most injured team since 2002 (after the ’09 Bills).
Spagnuolo was the scapegoat.
“I do feel like we accomplished a lot,’’ said Spagnuolo. “I know that it’s not going to be reflected in wins and losses, but I’m very proud of the staff and the people that put the thing together to get it to where it is now.
“Last year was obviously a little bit different but I feel like we made great strides from 1-15 to 7-9 and on the verge of going to the playoffs, and had it right where we wanted it.
“We didn’t anticipate a lockout, and you get some great development in a young football team in the offseason, so that was kind of stolen from us. And we did not anticipate the injuries.
“The things we couldn’t control were hard to overcome - the lockout and injuries. Yet when it was all said and done, to be honest, I was proud of the way the players fought through a 2-14 season. That’s not easy.’’
Spagnuolo does not try to hide the fact that he very much desires another shot at being a head coach.
“Yeah, there’s a burn there, I’m not going to lie to you,’’ said Spagnuolo, whose mother lives in Yarmouth. “I think the professional thing to do in this situation is you concentrate all your efforts and all your focus on the job that you have right now.
“I feel lucky I have this job. In this business, you fight every day to keep the job that you have. Now, should the good Lord put another opportunity in front of me to be a head coach, I’m jumping at it, I’m going to run with it. I know that I’ll be better having gone through it.
“I think I’m a better football coach. I know if given the opportunity again, which I hope happens, I will be a 10-times-better head coach because sometimes you learn more from your failures than you do from your success.’’
The Saints were an easy choice for Spagnuolo, who has settled with his wife in downtown New Orleans.
“I felt a draw here,’’ he said. “I had a great deal of respect for the organization and certainly Sean Payton in having coached against him for a number of years. They had won a Super Bowl, they know how to win and how to do it.
“I just felt that there was a foundation here, all things considered, from top to bottom, including ownership and [general manager] Mickey Loomis to the assistant coaches, that you could build on and continue to be successful. I still feel that way.’’
Even with the bounty scandal.
In some ways, it helps to have an outsider in this situation. Spagnuolo basically told the Saints he doesn’t care what happened before - it’s about what happens from now on.
“I think the players have done a great job with that,’’ Spagnuolo said. “They’re using it, a little bit, as a rallying cry, and I think that’s a good thing. It brings guys together. I do not believe they’re looking behind.
“I feel terrible for Sean because I know it would be very difficult for any football coach at any level at any position to have it taken away from them.
“We’re all very passionate about this game. It has to be eating him up inside not to be with this football team, but in the meantime, we’ll carry the flag for him and move on.
“As smooth a transition as it can be - I think it has been that way and I think that’s a credit to the guys that have been here, certainly [interim coach] Joe Vitt.’’
McDaniels scored big with his former boss
When Josh McDaniels returned to the Patriots as offensive coordinator, some mocked the effect he could have and pointed to his ineffectiveness in two seasons as Broncos head coach (5-17 finish after a 6-0 start) and as offensive coordinator of the Rams (32d in points, 31st in total offense, 30th in passing).
Saints defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, McDaniels’s boss his one season in St. Louis, said those critics are flat-out wrong.
“You have to tell people up there, don’t judge Josh, certainly not off of the Denver deal - it happened, it happens to all of us - but definitely not us last year in St. Louis,’’ Spagnuolo said. “It just wasn’t fair to Josh because he’s putting in a new offense and we have a lockout and he doesn’t have a chance to have all the [organized team activities].
Spagnuolo worked with play-callers Andy Reid, Marty Mornhinweg, and Brad Childress with the Eagles, and Kevin Gilbride and Tom Coughlin with the Giants. He said McDaniels was better than all of them.
“He is as good a game-day caller as I’ve ever been around,’’ Spagnuolo said. “I was thoroughly impressed with Josh. He’s so sharp, very smart, knows how to attack a defense, sees things really the way I do, and that’s why I wanted to hire him.
“We lost three of our five offensive linemen, both tackles, the best receiver we had, who was our Wes Welker, in Danny Amendola, and Josh just didn’t have any weapons. I felt bad for him.
“We just didn’t have the weapons.’’
One weapon McDaniels had in St. Louis and has again with the Patriots is receiver Brandon Lloyd.
“I loved him,’’ Spagnuolo said. “I thought he was a tremendous addition to our football team in the middle of the season. Unfortunately for us, the day we traded for him on a Monday, that prior Sunday is when Bradford got hurt.
“They never really got a chance to jell, didn’t have training camp, so it was an injustice, really, to Brandon. But I’m going to tell you what, he is a professional in the way that he works.
“He taught our young guys a lot. I think he’ll be great up there in New England.’’
Jets hope to turn up pressure with a 4-3
Seems the Jets are following the lead of the Patriots.
A year ago, the Patriots went into the season with a 4-3 defensive approach after they filled the roster with many more linemen than linebackers.
Because of injuries and ineffectiveness (Albert Haynesworth and Jermaine Cunningham), the Patriots had to revert back to essentially a 3-4. After restocking the line, especially with edge players, the Patriots will likely be back to a four-man front.
The Jets are already there.
“We’re going to be more 4-3,’’ defensive coordinator Mike Pettine told the New York Daily News.
The impetus is to get more pressure on the quarterback. The fact that most teams, especially the Patriots, now spread the defense with multiple receiving threats is also a big factor.
The pass is such a big part of the game today - especially in the AFC East - that teams play some sort of sub defense with five or six defensive backs on more than 60 percent of the snaps.
As far as personnel, one addition has the Jets thinking 4-3 is the way to go.
First-round pick Quinton Coples has dropped a lot of weight to help his mobility. During the draft process, Coples’s size (6 feet 6 inches, 284 pounds) led some to think he’d be a powerful 3-4 end in the mold of Richard Seymour.
If Coples is more fleet now, the Jets could be thinking he’s more in the mold of Julius Peppers (but not quite the elite athlete).
Also, the Jets have been weak at left outside linebacker for a couple of years. It doesn’t help that Bryan Thomas is coming back from Achilles’ tendon surgery.
New defensive line coach Karl Dunbar had a lot of success with four-man lines with the Vikings.
“When Pettine and I look at our defense, we’re going to try to put our best 11 out there,’’ said coach Rex Ryan. “Then there’s, what can we do effectively? I think now you’re going to have an ideal situation where you’re going to be able to rush the passer with four guys, a straight 4-3 type pass rush, which a lot of teams do. I think we have the ability to do that and also mix in everything else we’ve got.’’
Giants’ Fewell holds back on predictions
The last time we saw the Giants defense, it was shutting out Tom Brady and the Patriots offense for the final quarter and a half to win the Super Bowl. That was a unit that took a lot of injury hits at linebacker and in the secondary. What about this upcoming season? “I said a year ago before we sustained all the injuries that we’d have a really good defense, and I said after all the injuries that we would not be a great defense but we would be a good defense,’’ said defensive coordinator Perry Fewell. “Those guys will decide how well we can be, or how good we can be. I found this out about our New York Giant football players, that if they take a stand and they’re mentally into it - and I’ll use the term, if they’re ‘all in’ - we can be whatever we want to be. So I’m not going to come out and say we can be this or we can be that. I’m going to leave that up to the players, because self-motivation or their motivation to be champions again will determine where we want to go.’’ Chase Blackburn, signed late in the season, will start camp at middle linebacker. The Giants are hoping that their two top picks in 2011, cornerback Prince Amukamara and tackle Marvin Austin, can have more impact after having none as rookies. Fewell said the team has big plans for cornerback Terrell Thomas, who missed all of last season after ACL surgery.
1. When NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith showed up at Patriots camp last Wednesday as part of the union’s surprise visits to make sure teams are heeding the non-contact rules, Smith and Robert Kraft sneaked away to the office of the owner for about 20 minutes. The two grew close during the labor negotiations. Don’t be surprised if Kraft was trying to mend some fences between the NFL and the NFLPA. The relationship is very strained right now and not good for the game in a variety of areas.
2. Kraft’s comment in regards to Rob Gronkowski’s contract - “with what’s going to happen in the next few years with the cap, you have to have a core group of players that you can plan around as the foundation of your team’’ - is probably not good news for Wes Welker. If the team is so worried about a tight cap, it would be a surprise if it ponies up the $18 million-$20 million guaranteed that Welker is seeking. Despite our feelings on the subject, 31-year-old slot receivers aren’t likely considered core players to the Patriots.
3. Bengals owner Mike Brown, notoriously one of the cheapest in the league (their skeleton scouting staff is a joke), bought 110 state-of-the-art iPads to serve as playbook/film players, according to the Cincinnati Enquirer. No, that’s not a joke.
4. The Jets have bragged that Tim Tebow has been one of the top lifters in the offseason program. Who wants a quarterback to be king of the weight room? Being bulked up is part of Tebow’s problem throwing the ball. He might as well just get it over with and become an H-back already.
5. Eagles receiver DeSean Jackson started a rap label and dropped $25,000 at a Los Angeles launch party. In his office that is still inside the Eagles’ NovaCare facility, former team president Joe Banner is having a good laugh. Jackson received his $47 million extension, in good measure, because Banner had his contract power usurped. Banner never would have done that deal.
Giants general manager Jerry Reese, the man responsible for the Patriots being able to claim injured tight end Jake Ballard, said there’s “absolutely not’’ any hard feelings toward New England. “There is no reason for us to have hard feelings about it,’’ Reese told Sirius XM NFL Radio. “When you put a guy on the wire, he’s free game for anybody. There are no hard feelings for us. They think that they can salvage the situation, so we will see what happens, but again, we only wish the best for Jake.’’ Reese has been second-guessed plenty in his tenure, and he has come out looking very good each time. He knows what he’s doing. Ballard is a good football player, but he’s at best a No. 2 tight end, likely a No. 3. If you can’t replace a guy like that, your team is in trouble . . . The Jets are still waiting for safety LaRon Landry (Achilles’ tendon) to be ready, and he might not be until after training camp starts. “When you look at his history, he hasn’t been full speed in a lot of the training camps every day, and watching him, I hope that he can get to that point,’’ said coach Rex Ryan. “We’ll just have to wait and see, see how it plays out.’’ This is exactly why the Patriots passed on him. They don’t need a safety trying to learn a new system in August . . . Three cheers for the NFL making the “all-22’’ coaches film available for the first time through its Game Rewind program at NFL.com. It’s the exact film the coaches use - it shows all 22 players on the field, and specific end zone shots of line play - to evaluate their players. The secondary, long given a free pass because television shows only the lines, will be in the crosshairs now. Brandon Meriweather is lucky this wasn’t available when he was on the Patriots . . . Steve Gregory, one of the Patriots’ free agent additions at safety, had good things to say about his former Chargers teammate and Gardner native Jacques Cesaire. “He’s a great friend and was a great teammate,’’ Gregory said. “It was a lot of fun to be out there with him. He was just a great locker room guy to be around. Always had a smile on his face, always had a way of cheering guys up.’’
Greg A. Bedard can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @gregabedard. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.