During the 2012 season, Steve Spagnuolo had the misfortune of coaching a New Orleans Saints defense that ranks as the worst statistical defense in NFL history, surrendering a league-record 7,042 yards. At its current pace, the Spagnuolo-coached 2015 New York Giants defense is ranked last in the league and would end up the second-worst defense of all time, on pace to surrender 6,851 yards.
Does that make Spagnuolo the worst defensive coordinator of all time? Of course not. This is the same guy who built an aggressive, quarterback-crunching defense that helped the Giants win the 2007 Super Bowl. It means that Spagnuolo, as he indicated way back when he first met the media in the spring, is not a miracle worker.
"This isn't a on and off switch where, boom, all of a sudden we're back to 2007 and we pick up where we left off. It doesn't work that way," Spagnuolo said during his first meeting with the media back in May. "I'm not a magician. No coaches are magicians."
Without doubt, I have questioned some of Spagnuolo's decision-making this season. Listen to the most recent "Big Blue Chat" podcast for an expanded version of my thoughts on the topic of the Giants' defensive scheme. I will give you the short version. Where is the aggressive Spagnuolo? The blitz-happy Spagnuolo? The creative guy who could come up with unique, difficult to block ways to create mismatches and pressure on quarterbacks? The Giants don't generate much pressure, and rarely seem to sell out in an effort to do so.
That said, the truth is that Spagnuolo is between a rock and a hard place with the defensive personnel he has. There are no truly dynamic pass rusher Yes, I know, there is Damontre Moore, but even he is more a secondary guy, a player who uses his athleticism to run down quarterbacks flushed out of the pocket by other players. Aside from possibly Devon Kennard, there are no dynamic blitzers, so I get why in some cases you wouldn't bother blitzing. Why send extra guys who won't get there and leave an already-awful secondary short-handed?
Spagnuolo didn't choose most of these players. This, for the most part, is what he was handed when he walked in the door. On Sunday, Drew Brees and the Saints exposed all of the flaws we knew were there but other mediocre quarterbacks had been unable to take full advantage of.
With all of that long-winded preamble out of the way, let's use today's "Five things I think I think" to give five reasons why I believe the Giants are in this defensive mess.
Injuries to key players
You know the list. Defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul, cornerback Prince Amukamara, linebackers Jon Beason and J.T. Thomas III. Toss in rookie Owamagbe Odighizuwa, too. For that matter, add Nat Berhe, Bennett Jackson and Mykkele Thompson, the trio of young safeties who were placed on IR before the regular season even started.
Failed draft picks
The last Pro Bowl defensive player the Giants drafted was Pierre-Paul, their first-round pick in 2010. Since then, more failures than successes. Here are all of the defensive players the Giants have drafted since 2011.
2011 -- Rd 1 (19th) Amukamara; Rd. 2 (52) DT Marvin Austin; Rd. 6 (185) LB Greg Jones; Rd. 6 (198) S Tyler Sash; Rd. 6 (202) -- LB Jacquian Williams
Only Amukamara remains in the league. The Giants are still paying for the Austin flop, having twice used early picks since then on defensive tackles in an effort to correct that mistake.
2012 -- Rd. 3 (94) CB Jayron Hosley; Rd. 7 (239) DT Markus Kuhn)
Do we really have to talk about either of those players?
2013 -- Rd. 2 (49) DT Johnathan Hankins; Rd. 3 (81) Damontre Moore; Rd. 5 (152) S Cooper Taylor
Hankins is, of course, an excellent player. How much better off would the Giants be if Moore had become the player the Giants hoped for, instead of leaving us to argue incessantly over who's fault it is that he hasn't? As for Taylor, he barely played and is out of the league already.
2014 -- Rd. 3 (74) DT Jay Bromley; Rd. 5 (152) S Nat Berhe; Rd. 5 (174) LB Devon Kennard; Rd. 6 (187) DB Bennett Jackson
We know how good Kennard could be. Too early to judge the rest.
2015 -- Rd. 2 (33) S Landon Collins; Rd. 3 (74) DE Owamagbe Odighizuwa; Rd. 5 (144) S Mykkele Thompson
Getting Collins was a master stroke, even though he is still learning and sometimes struggling. Odighizuwa has been limited by injuries and Thompson is gone for the year.
Lack of attention to linebacker
Yes, "Beezer Brigade," I remember you. The Giants were fortunate to come across Kennard in the fifth round a year ago and he should be a solid player for a long time. The question with him is health. Other than that, though, this is still a rag-tag collection of guys to be be great, journeymen and guys who are still trying to figure out how to play in the league. Other than Kennard there isn't a real play-maker in the bunch, and that's a big reason why the Giants don't generate pressure or -- apparently -- play the run very well.
I do understand the idea that linebackers are mostly specialized, one- and two-down players, which makes it difficult to spend high draft picks on them. The result of not doing so, however, means your defense is devoid of play makers in the middle of the field.
Lack of secondary depth
While the focus in the secondary has been on the safety situation, many analysts -- myself included -- have been saying for months that the lack of proven, veteran depth at the cornerback spot was a major issue. With Amukamara out and Trumaine McBride in and out of the lineup due to a groin issue, that concern has been proven correct. Jayron Hosley and Trevin Wade, the Giants' chosen backups, have shown in recent weeks that they simply are not up to the task. Hosley and Wade were awful on Sunday, giving up a combined 11 completions in 11 targets. To make matters worse, both guys are atrocious tacklers. Losing Walter Thurmond to the Philadelphia Eagles in free agency was tough to swallow, but understandable because of the $3.25 million contract Philly gave the oft-injured Thurmond. Letting Zack Bowman go was also understandable. What really isn't understandable is not adding at least one proven veteran corner to the roster to replace them.
As for safety, Brandon Meriweather has done a good job for the most part, but he and Collins have a redundant skill set. Neither is a free safety. Craig Dahl is the backup. The Giants went through several guys during the summer, and are fortunate to have Collins and Meriweather, but they really didn't handle the safety position well. They don't have a free safety on the roster, and that hurts. I know some of you are going to want to re-visit the 2014 to release Will Hill. All I will say there is the Giants did what they had to do, not what they wanted to do.
Free agency mis-steps
This is really about quality veteran players the Giants let get away. Antrel Rolle, Justin Tuck, Thurmond and, if you want to visit the way-back machine, even Chris Canty. Maybe even others I can't think of right now. You have to understand the business side of the NFL, and the reality that the salary cap means you must make difficult choices at times. Especially in regards to telling respected veteran players who have served you well that you won't pay them what they think they are worth.
The Giants lost talented players when they let Rolle, Tuck and Canty leave. They also lost a lot of leadership. I actually understood each decision as, based on the business side of how the NFL works, each move made sense. Perhaps less problematic than letting any of those players, including Thurmond, leave is that none has really been adequately replaced.
I have thought all along that the Giants needed only to play adequately on defense to be a good team this season. Despite the stats, badly skewed by the awful game Sunday in New Orleans, they have done that for a good chunk of the season. Really all the Giants can do right now is hope they get healthy, and hope that the return of those missing pieces on defense is enough.
The mess that the Giants currently have on defense wasn't created overnight, and it wasn't created simply by JPP's July 4 fireworks accident. It is an accumulation of decisions made over the past several years. If Spagnuolo can fix it over the next eight games, maybe we will end up thinking he is a magician after all.