When he met with reporters on Saturday, Steve Spagnuolo met the expectations of his past success with the New York Giants head on. He said "I'm not a magician," meaning that the porous Giants' defense of 2014 isn't simply going to fix itself because he showed up.
"I believe that any year in this business, in the NFL, it's a different challenge and this one is certainly different than 2007," Spagnuolo said. "There were hurdles. There were hurdles then and there will be hurdles now, but that's a part of coaching. That's what we embrace. That's what we enjoy. That's the challenge of it and if all of us accept it and work together to get over the hump, hopefully we'll build something successful.
"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."
Clearly, Spagnuolo isn't coaching the 2007 Giants' defense. He doesn't have a Hall of Fame defensive end, which he had in Michael Strahan. He doesn't have proven pass rushers in their prime like Osi Umenyiora and Justin Tuck. He doesn't have an in-his-prime middle linebacker like Antonio Pierce. He doesn't have a veteran leader in the secondary like he had with Sam Madison.
So, what does Spagnuolo have to work with as he begins his second tour as Giants' defensive coordinator?
"There's talent there. There are places where we need to fill some holes, but I think every team has that," Spagnuolo said. "That's why you have a draft and you have free agency and we bring guys in to see what you can come up with."
Let's compare what Spagnuolo had to work with in 2007 and 2008 to the personnel he has at his disposal entering the 2015 season.
Then: Barry Cofield and Fred Robbins were the starters for Spagnuolo in both of those seasons, with Cofield being the run plugger and Robbins (5.5 sacks in each season) the pass rusher. Jay Alford was the third tackle, and Giants fans remember what he did to Tom Brady in the 2007 Super Bowl. Plus, the Giants could rotate Justin Tuck or Mathias Kiwanuka, and often both, inside on passing downs.
Now: The Giants have a potential star in Johnathan Hankins and an aging veteran in Cullen Jenkins as likely starters. The Alford role would appear to belong to second-year man Jay Bromley. The Giants also have free-agent signee Kenrick Ellis and possibly Markus Kuhn.
Advantage: The 2007 group. That will change if Bromley is able to step up, if Ellis does his job, if one or two of the guys from the Jenkins, Kuhn, Dominique Hamilton, Carlif Taylor group can become occasional contributors. If the Giants are able to identify a defensive end -- like Robert Ayers -- who could move inside on passing downs.
Then: Strahan, Umenyiora, Tuck and Kiwanuka were the core of the Giants' feared pass rush. Spagnuolo put fear into the hearts of quarterbacks by playing them together on passing downs. This was a historic group.
Now: There is Jason Pierre-Paul, a sometimes great, sometimes average, sometimes non-existent player in his five seasons with the Giants. After that, a lot of maybes. Maybe Robert Ayers will be healthy after tearing a pectoral muscle last season and will duplicate his early-season success, the best football of his six-year career. Maybe the light will finally come on for talented but still enigmatic Damontre Moore. Maybe George Selvie will play like he did for the Dallas Cowboys in 2013, rather than the way he played in 2014. Maybe Kerry Wynn can duplicate the late-season success he had last year as an undrafted free agent. Maybe third-round pick Owamagbe Odighizuwa will make a contribution.
Advantage: Do I really even have to say it? The 2007 group.
Then: Antonio Pierce was the middle linebacker. Kawika Mitchell and Kiwanuka were actually the outside linebackers in the base defense. Kiwanuka, of course, moved to the defensive line in pass-rush situations. Reggie Torbor was a primary backup in 2007. In 2008, Mitchell was replaced by Danny Clark and Kiwanuka moved back to the defensive line, with Chase Blackburn and Bryan Kehl getting starts on the outisde.
Now: Jon Beason is the middle linebacker. At least the Giants hope the oft-injured Beason will be the middle linebacker. If he can get on the field, Beason should be able to reprise the Pierce role. Devon Kennard and J.T. Thomas III are probably the favorites to start at the other two spots, with Jonathan Casillas, Jameel McClain and Mark Herzlich in reserve.
Advantage: The 2007 group, largely because of the uncertainty around Beason. This can be considered a wash if Beason is able to give the Giants a full, productive season. It probably swings in favor of the current group if Kennard does for a full season what he did in 12 games (six starts) as a rookie, with 4.5 sacks and two forced fumbles. Kennard could become the best linebacker the Giants have seen since Jessie Armstead.
Then: Sam Madison, Aaron Ross, Kevin Dockery, Corey Webster. Madison was an aging veteran, but a valuable leader and 15-game starter. Ross was a rookie who started nine games. Dockery was a capable third corrner who started six games. Webster was still an unknown, but had a terrific playoff run and made that NFC Championship Game interception of Brett Favre.
Now: Prince Amukamara and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie are far more talented than anyone the Giants had on the outside during Spagnuolo's first tenure. But, who plays in the slot? Also, do the Giants have enough depth? They have Trumaine McBride, Mike Harris, Chandler Fenner, Jayron Hosley, Chykie Brown and maybe Josh Gordy.
Advantage: I'm giving that to the current group, simply because Amukamara and DRC are far more talented than anyone in the 2007 group.
Then: Gibril Wilson and James Butler were the starters, with R.W. McQuarters and rookie Michael Johnson in reserve. Nothing special here, except that they did their jobs.
Now: So, what does this look like? Right now your probable starters are rookie second-round pick Landon Collins and 2014 fifth-round pick Nat Berhe. Cooper Taylor and free-agent signee Josh Gordy might figure in there somewhere. Fifth-round pick Mykkele Thompson is a free safety candidate. Bennett Jackson, drafted as a cornerback in 2014, is being converted to safety. Right now it's still a great big question mark, although potentially it could work out just fine.
Advantage: The 2007 group. Only because, at this point, we don't know who the 2015 group will be. And it will probably consist of guys we have never seen play important NFL downs before.
Breaking it down this way, it seems obvious that overall there isn't as much proven talent on the defensive roster in 2015 as there was in 2007, and probably 2008 after Strahan retired. There are, however, things to work with. There are a plethora of defensive linemen, including Pierre-Paul, and something good should come out of that. There are two excellent corners to begin building a secondary with. There is an exciting young difference-maker in Kennard. There is a rookie second-round pick in Collins who looks like a steal.
One thing to remember is that it isn't only the personnel that will be different than what we saw in 2007. While Spagnuolo said he was a defense that is both "relentless" and "attacking," the scheme won't be exactly what he ran eight years ago.
"We've got some tweaks. We're not going to venture too far personnel-wise because of what we have and try to change things too much, but the good thing about being in a lot of different places, whether it was St. Louis, New Orleans or Baltimore, is you can pick from other places," Spagnuolo said. "Nobody in this league is sharing information. So when you try to get little tidbits from other coaches, nobody is giving that info, but if you're able over the course of whatever it was, five or six years, to come up with some different things, we'll add those in and hopefully we'll come up with something really good."
There are no guarantees of success, of course. It should, however, be fascinating to watch as Spagnuolo tries to put the pieces together.