EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Back in charge of the New York Giants' defense for the first time in seven years, Steve Spagnuolo realized pretty quickly that he has a lot of work to do.
"We've got to build this thing gradually," Spagnuolo said Saturday in his first public comments since re-joining the Giants as defensive coordinator in January. "You can't do anything until you get all the basics right. So we started from the ground up and began to build it up. We get to a certain point here and we just keep on going. But it's going to take a little while."
The Giants ranked 29th in the NFL in total defense in 2014 with 6,012 yards allowed. The reacted by firing defensive coordinator Perry Fewell and replacing him with Spagnuolo, who was their defensive coordinator in 2007 and 2008 before leaving for unsuccessful stints as Rams head coach and Saints offensive coordinator.
The Giants teams of which Spagnuolo was a part were perhaps the best of the Tom Coughlin era. They won the Super Bowl at the end of that 2007 season, knocking off the undefeated New England Patriots behind Spagnuolo's fearsome pass rush that featured Hall of Famer Michael Strahan, Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora. And they went 12-4 in 2008, securing the top seed in the NFC playoffs before losing their playoff opener to Philadelphia.
Those were great years for the Giants defense, and Spagnuolo has received a healthy amount of praise and opportunity as a result of them. But those who would assume everything's going to be OK now that he's back in his former job are cautioned to temper their expectations.
"This isn't an on-and-off switch where, boom, all of a sudden we're back to 2007 and we pick up where we left off," Spagnuolo said. "It doesn't work that way. It's a different challenge. It's a different year. It's different personnel. I'm not a magician. Things aren't going to happen like they may have happened in a different time. But hopefully, something exciting will happen. At least that's the goal."
Spagnuolo's four-man defensive line appears to have two surefire starters in Jason Pierre-Paul and Johnathan Hankins and a bunch of question marks after that. His starting middle linebacker is Jon Beason, who fits the Antonio Pierce mold of the on-field leader he wants but, as we all know, has a hard time staying healthy. The best safety on the roster is the rookie they just picked in the second round last week, and they still don't know which safety position he'll play or who will play the other one. Spagnuolo doesn't know who his nickel cornerback will be.
"That's one we're trying to feel through, to be honest with you," he said. "As we go through the OTAs, there'll be a number of guys working in and out of there. So I'm not sure I have an answer for that right now. There were some guys who did it a little bit last year and some guys we added."
He named Trumaine McBride, Mike Harris and Josh Gordy as candidates for that role, but it's one of several that still have to be sorted out in the four months between now and the Giants' first game. But Spagnuolo said he's pleased with the way his charges are paying attention in meetings, he's pleased with the way they've responded to his efforts to educate them on the history of the Giants defense, and he believes he has something with which to work.
"When you understand the tradition of defensive football here with the Giants, you embrace it," Spagnuolo said. "When you embrace something, you take a little pride in it. If you've got a little pride in something, you tend to protect it. So let's grow our own tradition and history here. We've been going back and feeding these guys all the greats, and we'll eventually start feeding them great defensive games. We've got a few picked out. And I think we all should embrace that. There should be a passion about it, and that should carry right out here onto the field. That's the goal."