NFL Nation: Steve Spagnuolo

ST. LOUIS -- Three former prominent St. Louis Rams coaches found more work this week in some form or another, each under different and intriguing circumstances.

Linehan
Linehan
In Dallas, former Rams head coach Scott Linehan was named the team's play caller. Yes, that's his official title.

In Baltimore, former Rams head coach Steve Spagnuolo was moved from a defensive consultant position to secondary coach.

And of course, former Rams defensive coordinator Gregg Williams was hired by the Rams to be their defensive coordinator. All of that in just a few days time.

For as strange as some of those moves seem on the surface, the only one that doesn't make much sense in my eyes is the Cowboys adding Linehan.

Spagnuolo
Spagnuolo
It's not outrageous that Dallas hired Linehan. He has a long history as an offensive coordinator. Of course, he's not the offensive coordinator. Linehan is walking into a job as the offensive play caller on a staff that already has a coordinator in Bill Callahan and a head coach with offensive background in Jason Garrett.

For now, at least, all three of those coaches figure to be in place next year. It's a strange situation and one that has led to plenty of head scratching. Beyond that, Linehan's track record running offenses is questionable when you look beyond the basic numbers. Linehan's success as a play caller has largely been based on having a strong-armed quarterback and an elite wide receiver.

In Minnesota, Linehan had Daunte Culpepper throwing deep to Randy Moss. In Detroit, it was Matthew Stafford tossing it up to Calvin Johnson. Even in St. Louis, the Rams had Marc Bulger throwing to Torry Holt in the first couple of years of Linehan's tenure.

The Rams' offense in 2006 was by far the best of his tenure with the team but it also functioned at its best when offensive coordinator Greg Olson was handling play calling duties. When Linehan reclaimed those duties, the offense sagged.

[+] EnlargeGregg Williams
AP Photo/Mark HumphreyGregg Williams' return to St. Louis is the strangest hire involving former Rams coaches this week, but it also makes the most sense.
Likewise, Linehan has a history of ignoring the running game. The good news for Linehan in Dallas is he will have a talented quarterback and receiver combo in Tony Romo and Dez Bryant, but it's not like that duo has struggled to produce. The onus will fall on him to find ways to get the most out of the rest of his offense or this verse will be the same as the first.

Meanwhile, the man who replaced Linehan is taking on a much lower profile job with the Ravens. Spagnuolo made his bones in the league as a secondary coach, moving up through the ranks to Giants defensive coordinator after coaching the secondary as part of his tenure in Philadelphia. Like Linehan, Spagnuolo's tenure in St. Louis was not successful and he was unable to right the ship as defensive coordinator in New Orleans in 2012.

Spagnuolo was able to step away this year and now is back in a comfortable spot with Baltimore. His role won't require him to focus on anything but coaching up the secondary, and he should be able to settle back in and do just fine.

We've covered plenty of how Williams fits in with the Rams. It's a natural fit, one that has been more than two years in the making. While the circumstances of Williams' hiring are the strangest of the three moves, it's also the most logical and the one that should make the biggest difference.
METAIRIE, La. -- The first thing I noticed when watching the New Orleans Saints practice was the silence.

There was no messing around and no coaches screaming at players. Instead, the Saints looked like a veteran team that is intensely focused -- more focused than last year, when chaos surrounded the entire season. Maybe even more focused than in 2009, when the Saints eventually won their first Super Bowl championship.

The quiet practices are a firm sign that coach Sean Payton is back in charge and that this team wants to put last season as far in the past as possible. The bounty scandal that led to the season-long suspension of Payton and a disappointing 7-9 record is over, and the Saints want to return to their winning ways.

“Last year was an apparition," quarterback Drew Brees said. “It was a different time with all the situations that had taken place. This year, just knowing that we’ve got everybody here, this is our team. Nobody’s missing. This is the team that can accomplish great things, and there’s a lot of work that needs to be done. Here’s our window of time to bring it together. We know there’s going to be tough times. We know there’s going to be adversity. Build that attitude, build that chemistry, and get ready to make a run at it.”

Payton’s return alone should make a big difference. He’s one of the league’s best coaches and possesses a brilliant offensive mind. After watching his team from a distance last year, Payton had some strong critiques for his players, even the superstars.

Soon after Payton was reinstated, he called tight end Jimmy Graham and told him that a season in which he caught 85 passes but led the league in drops, according to ESPN Stats & Information, wasn’t good enough.

“First, he called me and I didn’t recognize the number so I didn’t pick it up," Graham said. “He was pretty mad because it took like two or three days for me to call him back. The conversation was very serious, talking about his expectations for me and the things that I need to correct from last year and how he’s ready to be back. He’s ready to see my growth even more."

Payton needs to see growth from more than Graham. He’s made it clear that he wants to run the ball more often and that the Saints have to be substantially better on defense.

If the Saints can combine those things with Brees and the passing game, they should be right back in playoff contention.

THREE HOT ISSUES

1. The defensive overhaul. Payton is an offensive guru, but the first order of business upon his reinstatement was to replace defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo with Rob Ryan. Spagnuolo’s defense never caught on in New Orleans, and the Saints finished last season ranked No. 32 in total defense.

The Saints aren’t just switching coordinators. They’re switching schemes. With Payton’s blessing, Ryan is installing a 3-4 scheme. The pass rush now will have to come from the outside linebackers, particularly Junior Galette, Will Smith and Martez Wilson, a trio of guys that previously played defensive end.

The secondary also is going through some major changes. The Saints signed free-agent cornerback Keenan Lewis and drafted safety Kenny Vaccaro in the first round.

The defense will look a lot different because Ryan uses a lot of exotic looks. If the results are different from last season, the Saints will be in good shape.

[+] EnlargeMark Ingram
Derick E. Hingle/US PresswireThere won't be any excuses for Mark Ingram this season, as the Saints plan to keep him involved in their running game.
Ingram’s time? Payton repeatedly has said the Saints need to get back to running the ball more efficiently. They were good in that area in their Super Bowl season but got away from the run last season.

There really is no reason the Saints shouldn’t be able to get production from the running game. They have a good offensive line and three talented running backs -- Mark Ingram, Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas.

The real wild card is Ingram. Payton and general manager Mickey Loomis used a first-round pick on Ingram in 2011, but he hasn’t produced a lot in his first two years. I think Payton is going to make it a point to give Ingram more carries this season.

A new age of receivers. A few years ago, the Saints had a receiving corps as deep as any in the league, which came in handy because they use so many three- and four-receiver sets. But Robert Meachem and Devery Henderson left over the past two seasons. Joe Morgan, who had been ticketed for the third receiver spot, suffered a season-ending injury in camp.

That leaves starters Marques Colston and Lance Moore as the only sure things. Beyond them, there’s a lot of uncertainty. But the Saints hope veteran Steve Breaston, who was signed this week, and second-year pro Nick Toon, who missed his rookie season with an injury, can fill the void.

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

Any team that has Brees as its quarterback is going to be competitive. With weapons such as Graham, Colston and Sproles, the Saints are going to score plenty of points. It would be difficult for the defense to be any worse than last season.

If the Saints can just put a middle-of-the-pack defense on the field, they can be a dangerous team.

REASON FOR PESSIMISM

Rob Ryan
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsRob Ryan will bring an aggressive new 3-4 attack to New Orleans, but do the Saints have the proper personnel to run it effectively off the bat?
The Saints already have had some tough breaks when it comes to injuries. Defensive end Kenyon Coleman and outside linebacker Victor Butler, who were brought in specifically to fill important roles in Ryan’s defensive scheme, already have suffered season-ending injuries.

Ryan is an aggressive coach, and the 3-4 has had plenty of success around the league in recent years. But I’m not sure Ryan has the personnel to make this defense succeed. It could take another offseason to get this defense fully stocked.

OBSERVATION DECK

One of the brightest spots in training camp has been the play of second-year defensive lineman Akiem Hicks. I saw him make several big plays during my visit. Hicks is going to get his chance to shine in the regular season, and with Coleman out, it looks like he'll be a starter at defensive end.

In another sign that the Saints are serious about running the ball more, Graham has bulked up. The tight end said he now weighs about 270 pounds and that he’s focusing on becoming a better blocker.

The Saints have a history of finding unheralded running backs who end up making a contribution (see Chris Ivory and Travaris Cadet). They might have found another one in Khiry Robinson, an undrafted free agent out of West Texas A&M. Robinson has flashed big-play ability in camp. The Saints have so much depth at running back that it might be tough for him to make the roster, but he could end up on the practice squad.

There was some thought that Jason Smith, a former first-round pick by the St. Louis Rams, could end up as the starting left tackle. But it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen. Charles Brown has been getting virtually all the first-team work. Smith has fallen to third on the depth chart and is working behind rookie Terron Armstead. It’s looking like Smith might not even make the roster.

In recent years, the Saints have brought rookie defensive backs along slowly. Malcolm Jenkins and Patrick Robinson didn’t play significant roles in their first seasons. But I don’t think the Saints are going to be cautious with Vaccaro. Whether it’s at one of the safety spots or as the nickelback, Vaccaro is going to play a lot this season.
METAIRIE, La. -- He is boisterous, daring and, even though he won’t admit it, carrying a huge chip on his shoulder.

Maybe Rob Ryan, complete with his oversized personality, and the New Orleans Saints, an organization that’s carrying a chip of its own, are coming together at the perfect time. If Ryan can instill just a little of himself into the defense, it might be able to stop opponents on occasion -- and that might be enough to get the Saints back into the playoffs, maybe even back to something like the 2009 Super Bowl.

If this union sounds a little like something you’ve heard before, it’s only because you have.

Watch Ryan on the practice field or talk to him for five minutes and you feel almost like you’re watching or listening to Gregg Williams. Forget Bountygate for a minute and think back to when Williams arrived as the defensive coordinator back in 2009.

All of a sudden, players were diving for loose balls in practice even after the whistle had blown. All of a sudden, the New Orleans defense had swagger and produced turnovers at a rapid rate. All of a sudden, the Saints had the only Super Bowl championship in franchise history.

That could happen again. It was easy to see an aggressive attitude from the defense as I watched minicamp practices the past couple of days. You could see innovation with the defense sometimes lining up with six defensive backs and no down linemen.

And you could see and hear the chip on the shoulder from the Saints and from Ryan.

[+] EnlargeRob Ryan
AP Photo/Gerald HerbertNew defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, left, "makes the job fun," one Saints player said. "Everyone buys in."
The Saints have moved beyond Bountygate, but they’re still ticked off that they went 7-9 in 2012. The defense is particularly perturbed after ranking No. 32 last season and turning in one of the worst statistical performances in history.

Then, there’s Ryan’s chip.

“Anybody who has followed me, we were No. 3 in the league for 10 weeks of the season until every single player on the team was hurt and then I got fired,’’ Ryan said. “We should have been No. 1. But that’s OK. I learned (from it).’’

Ryan was talking about last season in Dallas, when he was let go as defensive coordinator. When asked if he had a chip on his shoulder because of it, Ryan said, “Not at all."

Yeah, right. Like Williams and a lot of other successful coaches, Ryan has a big ego. There’s nothing wrong with that. Ego can drive and push a coach and help him bring out the best in his players.

The Saints need to bring out the best in their defense. Everyone knows they have a great offense. Even a middle-of-the-pack defense could put them in Super Bowl contention. But Ryan isn’t shooting for the middle of the pack.

He wants an aggressive defense and he wants it to be one of the best in the league. He wants the defense to take on his personality.

“He doesn’t have to really instill it,’’ middle linebacker Curtis Lofton said. “He just does it by being himself and saying the things he says, like, “We’re going to be a great defense and you guys are great players.’’ As a player, that gives you confidence. When you’re a confident player and your coach believes in you, you want to make him right. That’s how he gets the aggressiveness part.’’

With Ryan, the Saints are switching from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4 scheme. Much has been made of that, and there were plenty of exotic looks from the defense in minicamp, which should mean there will be even more exotic looks when the regular season gets here. That’s a welcome change from a defense that was bland -- and bad -- under former coordinator Steve Spagnuolo.

Ryan’s doing all sorts of innovative things, like moving Will Smith, Junior Galette and Martez Wilson from defensive end to outside linebacker and putting safeties Malcolm Jenkins, Roman Harper and Kenny Vaccaro on the field at the same time.

But Ryan is doing more than installing a scheme. He’s trying to build a new culture on the defense.

“We’re in the attack business,’’ Ryan said. “We say we’re in charge of discipline.’’

So far, there are plenty of signs the culture is changing.

“The thing I like about Ryan is he’s exactly what he preaches,’’ defensive end Akiem Hicks said. "You have to appreciate that.’’

And what does Ryan preach?

“Hard work,’’ Hicks said. “Hard work and he stays on you.’’

As last season went down the tubes, several players anonymously complained to the local media that Spagnuolo was unwilling to change and wouldn’t listen to input from players. It doesn’t sound like that will be a problem with Ryan.

“Rob makes the job fun,’’ Lofton said. “He finds ways to lighten things up. He’s very aggressive. In his system, everyone’s going to get some burn, so everyone buys in.’’

The Saints have plenty of individual talent on defense, but the production hasn’t been very good since the Super Bowl season. But that change if the defense continues to buy into Ryan.

His personality could give the defense a personality again. If that happens, the Saints could be champions again.
The NFL released dates and times for 2013 exhibition games, pushing back the final entry in our series examining NFC West offseasons. A few thoughts:
  • Rams: The opener at Cleveland carries one big what-if scenario. What if the Browns had succeeded in their efforts to outbid Washington for the second pick in the 2012 draft? The Rams wound up trading that pick to the Redskins for a package that continues replenishing their roster. The Browns, meanwhile, missed out on Robert Griffin III. Later, on Aug. 29, former Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo returns to the Edward Jones Dome as a member of the Baltimore Ravens' staff.
  • 49ers: They face Peyton Manning and Alex Smith in the first two weeks of the preseason. They also have only four days between their third and fourth exhibition games. That could affect playing-time allotments.
  • Seahawks: Manning, who ignored the Seahawks' advances in free agency last offseason, can expect a few postgame questions regarding his thinking. The situation worked out pretty well for all involved, as things turned out.
  • Cardinals: Former coach Ken Whisenhunt, fired after six seasons with the team, visits University of Phoenix Stadium on Aug. 24 as the San Diego Chargers' offensive coordinator.
It’s trendy and fun to debate which NFC South team has the best offense.

Is it Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints or Matt Ryan and the Atlanta Falcons? Heck, you can even look at all the offensive talent Carolina and Tampa Bay have and throw the Panthers and Buccaneers into the conversation.

But trendy and fun will only get you so far. Even in this day and age, you still must play defense once in a while. Especially if you’re a team in the NFC South. The division teams must face each other twice, as well as Seattle’s Russell Wilson, New England’s Tom Brady and San Francisco’s Colin Kaepernick this season.

Maybe the more practical and important debate is: Which team has the best defense in the NFC South? No defense in the division was great last season. To win the division -- or do much of anything else -- this season, some NFC South defense must at least be halfway decent.

So which defense is the best?

I’m not going to even venture a guess right now because there are too many variables that must play out. I can see reasons why any of the four defenses could be the division’s best. I also can see reasons why each couldn’t.

Let’s take a look at the ceiling and the floor for each of the NFC South defenses:

ATLANTA FALCONS

[+] EnlargeUmenyiora-Rodgers
Brad Penner/US PresswireAtlanta will be counting on former Giants star Osi Umenyiora to help upgrade the team's pass rush.
Why they could be the division’s best defense in 2013: Coordinator Mike Nolan is one of the game’s better defensive minds. His defensive system might really take hold in Atlanta in his second season. Outside linebacker Sean Weatherspoon is a budding star and is the centerpiece. The Falcons got a little younger at defensive end by replacing John Abraham with Osi Umenyiora.

Nolan might get a little more creative and use some more 3-4 looks. He also might be able to get more aggressive because he has fresh legs at cornerback after the Falcons drafted Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford. William Moore and Thomas DeCoud are emerging as one of the league’s best safety tandems. There’s enough talent for this defense to be very good.

Why they could be the division’s worst defense in 2013: The Falcons were No. 24 in total defense (No. 21 against the run and No. 23 against the pass) last season. Umenyiora is on the downside of his career, too, and it’s not as if the Falcons have a lot of other proven pass-rushers.

The young cornerbacks could take some lumps early on. Problems covering the tight end were exposed in the playoffs last season, and the rest of the league got to watch.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

Why they could be the division’s best defense in 2013: In terms of pure talent, I think Carolina has the best front seven in the division. The arrival of rookie defensive tackle Star Lotulelei could put the Panthers over the top. Lotulelei is the kind of wide body who’s going to make everyone around him better.

Lotulelei is going to keep blockers off linebackers Luke Kuechly, Jon Beason and Thomas Davis. He also is going to take blocking away from defensive ends Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson, who already were pretty good at getting after the quarterback.

Why they could be the division’s worst defense in 2013: As much as I can see the front seven being very good, I can see the secondary being very bad. Veteran cornerback Chris Gamble is gone, and I don’t see anything close to a true No. 1 cornerback on this roster. The picture isn’t much brighter at safety.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

Why they could be the division’s best defense in 2013: New coordinator Rob Ryan is going to bring swagger and an aggressive attitude. That can only help a unit that ranked No. 32 in total defense last year.

More importantly, Ryan is going to bring a 3-4 scheme. That’s the defensive system that seems to be having leaguewide success these days. The Saints have some good individual talent on defense with players such as end Cameron Jordan and inside linebacker Curtis Lofton, and rookie safety Kenny Vaccaro should make an immediate impact.

Why they could be the division’s worst defense in 2013: The defense was a mess under coordinator Steve Spagnuolo last season, and I’m not sure simply changing schemes will solve everything. Outside of Vaccaro and cornerback Keenan Lewis, it’s not as if the Saints have added a lot of big-time talent this offseason.

It could take more than one season for Ryan’s defense to really turn the corner.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

Why they could be the division’s best defense in 2013: On paper, I think Tampa Bay might have more talent than any other defense in the division. After ranking No. 32 against the pass last season, the Bucs went out and got cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Johnthan Banks and safety Dashon Goldson. Linebackers Lavonte David and Mason Foster and defensive tackle Gerald McCoy already are very good.

If young defensive ends Adrian Clayborn and Da’Quan Bowers can step up, this could be a solid defense in all areas.

Why they could be the division’s worst defense in 2013: It seems as if the Bucs are pinning a lot of their hopes on Clayborn and Bowers. Both have already dealt with injuries and are not that experienced.

If the pass rush isn’t effective, all those upgrades in the secondary might not matter very much.
Sean Payton John David Mercer/US PresswireSean Payton knows things won't be easy as he resumes head coaching duties.
Those who sat with and listened to Sean Payton speak to the media at the NFL owners meeting in Arizona on Wednesday said the coach of the New Orleans Saints had a new look and a new sound.

They said he appeared more fit (probably a result of a fitness program that culminated with his running a half-marathon) and younger than he has looked in years. They said he looked relaxed and -- in the biggest news flash of all -- sounded almost humble at times.

"It's almost like Year 1," Payton said.

In some ways, it is Year 1 all over again. Payton is back from a season-long suspension stemming from the bounty scandal. It's a good thing he's fit and refreshed because he's facing a challenge almost as big as the one he so successfully took on when he first became the coach of the Saints in 2006.

Back then, the franchise, the city of New Orleans and the entire Gulf region were dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. A young hotshot who had made his name as an assistant with the Cowboys and Giants, Payton energized the Saints, and the team became a rallying point for the entire region.

You know the story of the electric return to the Superdome against the Atlanta Falcons. You know the story of how the Saints made it to the NFC Championship Game in Payton's first season and how they won the first Super Bowl championship in franchise history in his fourth year.

In the process, a die-hard fan base that had endured decades of disappointment came to expect big success on a regular basis.

Then along came the bounty scandal and the Saints traveled back in time. They went back to mediocrity and went 7-9 while putting a historically bad defense on the field.

"We found a way to get to 7-9 and that's where we are right now," Payton said. "Until we get a lot of that corrected, we've got a lot of work to do."

Although he's known around the league for his confidence (some would say arrogance), Payton wasn't beating his chest. He pulled off a miracle in New Orleans once and he knows an encore isn't going to be easy.

"What's dangerous is [saying], 'He's back and they're right back to being the old Saints,'" Payton said. "That’s a dangerous mindset to have. It's not real. We could turn around and win five games if we don't correct some things."

That's a very healthy and smart attitude to have because the Saints aren't the same team he was forced to walk away from just over a year ago. Things didn't work out well for Steve Spagnuolo, the defensive coordinator Payton hand-picked to replace Gregg Williams.

The Saints allowed more yards than any defense in history.

"In fairness to Steve, we never got to coach together," Payton said. "It was a difficult and probably unfair situation for Steve."

Fair or not, Spagnuolo was fired after last season and has been replaced by Rob Ryan, who will switch the base defense from a 4-3 scheme to a 3-4 front. Ryan faces a monumental task. Not only is he taking over a defense that was horrible last season, but he has to find a way to make a new scheme work when the Saints don't have much salary-cap room to bring in guys who will fit in his system.

But there's more than just a defense to fix. Even quarterback Drew Brees had a subpar (by his standards) 2012 season.

"His two greatest allies are a good defense and a decent, good running game," Payton said. "The quarterback's job description is entirely different. He's having to press and do things that his counterpart doesn't have to do. You get one-dimensional where you're not controlling the game."

The Saints have to get back to controlling games and Payton has to get back to controlling the Saints. As he watched his team from a distance last year, Payton said he felt like a parent who had left his child in the hands of a baby sitter.

"When you're away from it and you come back and the swing set is empty and there's dirty diapers in the garbage can that normally would be taken away each day, you wonder, 'How did this happen?' Payton said. "It's not one person's fault. It just happened."

And again, Payton would like to remind you that his mere presence isn't going to solve everything.

"I think the one thing we have to avoid is this perception that we'll be right back in the swing of things," Payton said.

It's true that Payton has to get used to a bunch of new players, and the coaching staff has had some turnover. Payton estimated that the Saints turn over 18 percent of the roster each year. He didn't get to know the new players from last season and he has to get to know the players that have been (and will be) added this year. That's nearly 40 percent of the roster.

"It's not been uncommon to walk the hallways and run into a player you haven't met yet," Payton said. "I'd equate that almost to a coach in the first year."

Maybe that's not such a bad spot to be in. Sure there's a ton of work to be done. But the last time Payton was a first-year coach, he turned a franchise around.

I wouldn't bet against him doing it again.
Some New York Giants fans have been asking, since before the end of the season, whether defensive coordinator Perry Fewell was in danger of being fired. He is not. He's signed through 2013, and near as I can tell his firing was never a consideration for Tom Coughlin and the Giants, who like him very much.

A lot of people like Fewell, in fact. And while Giants fans may be thinking he should be fired, there are people out there who wonder why he can't get himself in position to be hired -- as a head coach. This in the Charlotte Observer, from Panthers coach Ron Rivera, on the trouble with minority coach hiring in the NFL today:
“But it is kind of disheartening because, and I’ll give you a name, (Giants defensive coordinator) Perry Fewell. He’s a great coach and I really think he should have been in the cycle.

“This guy went to the Super Bowl last year and helped design a (heck of a) defense. Sometimes you do sit there and go, ‘Wow, some guys do get overlooked,’ and it’s happened to me, too. Hopefully Perry will have a great opportunity next year."

This is interesting, to be sure, in light of the Rooney Rule's failure to produce a single minority hiring for any of the eight head coaching vacancies this offseason. Two offseasons ago, Fewell got four head coaching interviews. He lost out to Pat Shurmur in Cleveland, John Fox in Denver, Mike Munchak in Tennessee and Rivera himself in Carolina. Last year, when there were seven head coach openings, Fewell got zero interviews. (He was busy coaching the Giants' defense to a Super Bowl title, but still.) This year, also no interviews.

So what happened to Fewell as a head coaching candidate? Why was he a hot name two years ago and not since? He's a 50-year-old coordinator in a high-profile market with a Super Bowl ring and a half-season's worth of head coaching experience picked up in 2009 when he finished out the season as interim head coach following the firing of Dick Jauron. In a league that mandates the interview of at least one minority candidate for every available job, I have to agree with Rivera that it's bizarre that Fewell is 0-for-15 the past two years in even getting called in.

Now, you may sit there and say it's performance-based, this dropoff in Fewell's desirability, and you may be right. As brilliant as the Giants' defense was in last year's playoff and Super Bowl run, it finished 27th in the league in the 2011 regular season in total defense. This year, the Giants dropped to 31st in total defense, allowing more yards in the 2012 regular season than any team but the Saints. It does start to feel silly to sit here and argue that the coordinator for the second-worst defense in the league ought to have been getting head coach interviews.

So that could be it, but the drop from Fewell's January 2011 status as hot candidate to his 2013 status as non-candidate does seem a bit precipitous. Ironically, the Saints' defense this year was coached by Steve Spagnuolo, the last Giants defensive coordinator to win a Super Bowl, who parlayed that success into a job as head coach of the Rams two years later. He was able to strike while the iron was hot. Fewell has not had that chance. And depending on the way the Giants defense performs in 2013, it's possible he might not get it.

 

NFL32: Ryan's impact on Rams 'D'

January, 25, 2013
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Kevin Connors and Chris Mortensen discuss the impact Rob Ryan will have on the Rams' defense; Trent Dilfer breaks down how Joe Flacco is preparing for the Super Bowl; and the NFL32 crew discusses the Saints' firing of defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo.

Steve Spagnuolo out in New Orleans

January, 24, 2013
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It didn’t take New Orleans coach Sean Payton long to make a major move after he was reinstated from a season-long suspension earlier this week.

The team announced Thursday night that defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo has been fired. Secondary coach Ken Flajole also was relieved of his duties.

“I personally want to thank Steve and Ken for their contributions during what was an unprecedented 2012 season,” Payton said in a statement released by the team. “Philosophically we are changing our defense to a 3-4 alignment and right now is the best time to accomplish this transition.”

The moves don’t come as a huge surprise. Although Spagnuolo was Payton’s hand-picked choice a year ago, the defense struggled mightily in the 2012 season. Spagnuolo’s defense allowed more yards than any defense in NFL history.

The switch to the 3-4 will be challenging for whoever is brought in as the new coordinator. The Saints also will have to find some new personnel to fit in the 3-4 scheme. That won’t be easy because the team currently is about $20 million over the expected salary cap.

Mutiny on the Saints?

January, 2, 2013
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Larry Holder has an explosive story in which an unnamed New Orleans player says Steve Spagnuolo should be fired and proceeds to rip the defensive coordinator in multiple ways.

Although players defended Spagnuolo during the season, the player said the team wasn’t on board with the coordinator.

"Trust me all the guys were being politically correct this season when answering questions," the player said. "It's bad."

The Saints allowed more yards than any defense in NFL history and ranked No. 32 in overall defense.

The player was critical of Spagnuolo for not making in-game adjustments and not letting players have input.

"He does have that good-guy persona, but he is a control freak and treats people like crap," the player said. “[Spagnuolo has] no patience and zero personality.’’

I know some people are going to write this off because the source of the quotes was anonymous. But sometimes you have to use anonymous sources to get the truth.

I thought many of New Orleans’ defensive problems were because the Saints didn’t have the personnel to run Spagnuolo’s defense. But reading these quotes makes me wonder if the problem goes way beyond that.

It makes me wonder if Spagnuolo will be retained. The Saints are in a weird spot because coach Sean Payton remains suspended until after the Super Bowl. But general manager Mickey Loomis and interim head coach Joe Vitt could make a move if they feel Spagnuolo was the real problem with the defense.

Wrap-up: Saints 38, Raiders 17

November, 18, 2012
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Thoughts on the New Orleans Saints' 38-17 victory against the Oakland Raiders on Sunday:

What it means: After an 0-4 start, the Saints are now 5-5 and that at least puts them on the fringe of the playoff picture. It still is going to take a pretty miraculous finish for the Saints to get into the postseason. But hey, a month ago, their season appeared to be over. At the very least, the Saints are going to remain relevant for the next few weeks. At best, they’ll make the playoffs and be one of the great turnaround stories in recent history.

Breakthrough moment? Since moving from cornerback in his second season, I’ve always thought Malcolm Jenkins had a chance to become one of the league’s top free safeties. He has all the physical skills and the work ethic. But for reasons I could never quite put my finger on, Jenkins hadn’t recorded an interception since 2010. That changed Sunday in a big way. In the first quarter, Jenkins picked off a pass and returned it 55 yards for a touchdown. Speaking of safeties who haven’t had a lot of interceptions recently, strong safety Roman Harper, who went through the entire 2011 season without an interception, came up with his second interception of the season. Looks like that Steve Spagnuolo defense, in which safeties are supposed to be safeties and not pass-rushers, might be starting to take hold.

Ingram’s not a bust: For the last season and a half, a lot of fans have been claiming that running back Mark Ingram, a first-round pick in 2011, was a bust. I’ve never thought that was the case. I thought he was just the victim of a very crowded backfield. That backfield still is crowded, but Ingram has had a few good games recently and he’s starting to stand out from the crowd. Sunday might have been his best game yet. He carried 12 times for 67 yards, including a 27-yard touchdown run.

What’s next: The Saints host the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday.

NFC South midseason bests/worsts

November, 7, 2012
11/07/12
2:42
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We rolled out our All-NFC South midseason team Wednesday. Now, it’s time to run through some other bests and worsts from the first half of the season.

Smith
Smith
Best job by a head coach: Atlanta’s Mike Smith is 8-0. You can’t even consider anyone else.

Best job by a general manager: Atlanta’s Thomas Dimitroff. See above explanation.

Worst job by a general manager: Carolina's Marty Hurney. He took the fall after a 1-5 start.

Best signing: Tampa Bay paid dearly for Vincent Jackson. But Josh Freeman finally has a true No. 1 receiver, and it’s paying dividends.

Worst signing: You could make a case for New Orleans defensive tackle Brodrick Bunkley. But I think the fact that the contract extension coach Sean Payton signed more than a year ago was voided by the NFL is a fiasco. Maybe this will get resolved happily. But how can you have a coach, who was supposed to be under contract through 2015, sitting on the verge of possible free agency? (Note: Carolina’s signing of running back Mike Tolbert, when the Panthers already had a crowded backfield, gets honorable mention).

Best non-move: Atlanta fans were screaming for the Falcons to sign free-agent defensive end Mario Williams. Dimitroff didn't listen. Ask Buffalo fans how much Williams has helped the Bills.

Rookie of the Year: This one’s become easy after the past few games. Tampa Bay running back Doug Martin has a chance to become one of the NFL’s best and most complete running backs.

Most Valuable Player: Atlanta’s Matt Ryan is the only name fit to appear here.

Biggest disappointment: You can’t hang all of Carolina’s problems on quarterback Cam Newton. But you can put a lot on him. He hasn’t stepped forward at all after a very promising rookie season. This team has been among the biggest disappointments in the NFL. When that happens, the quarterback has to shoulder some of the blame.

Best trade: I still am stunned that Tampa Bay general manager Mark Dominik was able to get anything more than a week of free cab rides in exchange for troubled cornerback Aqib Talib. Dominik had to give up a seventh-round pick next year along with Talib, but he got New England’s fourth-round pick in 2013.

Best coordinator: It’s a tough call between Atlanta’s Mike Nolan on defense and Dirk Koetter on offense. They’ve both been fantastic. But I’ll give the nod to Koetter, because he made two important discoveries -- the screen pass and the fact that Sam Baker can play left tackle in the NFL.

Worst coordinator: It would be too easy to go with New Orleans’ Steve Spagnuolo. Besides, I don’t think he has the personnel he needs to really make his system work. Instead, I’ll go with Carolina offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski. There’s no question he has personnel to work with, but the results haven’t been there.

Best equipment manager: This time, and this time only, I’m going with Atlanta’s Brian Boigner. We all know that Carolina’s Jackie Miles is the best equipment manager in the history of the NFL, and probably will be a first-ballot selection to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Miles hasn’t lost his fastball. But Boigner really stepped up a few weeks ago, when he and his assistants jumped into overdrive and got the Falcons out of Philadelphia before Hurricane Sandy arrived.

Saints don't need to blow up defense

November, 3, 2012
11/03/12
4:25
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Malcolm Jenkins, Roman Harper, Steve SpagnuoloStacy Revere/Getty ImagesIt is not time for the Saints to give up on Steve Spagnuolo's defense in New Orleans.
It’s so easy to sit back, look at the numbers and say the New Orleans Saints simply need to blow up their defense.

They are the first team in NFL history to allow 400 or more yards in each of its first seven games. The 3,323 yards the Saints have allowed are the most through seven games since the NFL first started tracking total yards in 1933. The Saints also are the only team to allow 24 points in each game this season.

It’s clear Steve Spagnuolo’s defense isn’t working. The Saints should just scrap it and go back to what (dare we say it?) Gregg Williams ran, right?

Wrong. That’s the worst thing the Saints, who host the Philadelphia Eagles on "Monday Night Football," could do for their future. Long before the bounty scandal broke, it became obvious that Williams had to go, and he did, leaving immediately after last season’s playoff loss to San Francisco.

When Sean Payton was making the switch, he realized the Saints needed something they’d never had in his tenure. They needed a consistently good defense.

“Listen, what we always win with around here is complementary offense and complementary defense,’’ said Joe Vitt, who is the interim head coach as Payton serves a season-long suspension. “There have been, quite frankly, a lot of times around here since ’06 that we have struggled some defensively.’’

Yep, the Saints struggled so badly on defense in 2008 that Payton fired close friend Gary Gibbs and replaced him with Williams, even though the two men knew going in that their personalities and egos probably would clash.

For one beautiful season, things clicked. Williams’ defense, while not shutting everyone down, produced a bunch of turnovers and big plays and the Saints won a Super Bowl. The next two seasons, the Saints got bounced in the playoffs because their defense wasn’t producing much.

Payton decided to, once and for all, fix his defense permanently. Hehired Spagnuolo, who came with a proven system.

It’s not working as it should yet, but this is about the long term now, because the Saints aren’t going to the playoffs this season.

“I think with the veteran coaches [like] Chuck Knox, Dick Vermeil, Ted Marchibroda, if you have dramatic changes and you have [radical] changes, that’s when panic sets in,’’ Vitt said. “All of a sudden you’re going to create a scheme that you have not worked on in OTAs, that you have not worked on in training camp, and all of a sudden all of the things that looked good in OTAs and looked good in training camp all of a sudden start to look bad right now. If you put that panic in, the players can smell the house burning before the match is ever lit.’’

Leave the panic up to the fans. The Saints have to keep their eye on the ball and work through this or else they'll never get back to being the powerhouse they've been in recent years.

Sure, Spagnuolo can make a few minor tweaks. But the best thing he can do right now is to implement his system fully. The Saints already have decided rookie DT Akiem Hicks is a better fit than veteran Brodrick Bunkley

If safety Roman Harper can’t handle the coverage duties of Spagnuolo’s scheme, maybe it’s time to find out whether Isa Abdul-Quddus can. If Will Smith and Cameron Jordan can’t generate a consistent pass rush up front, maybe it’s time to figure out whether Junior Galette and Martez Wilson can.

Even if the younger guys do show they fit in Spagnuolo’s system, that’s not going to change everything overnight. The Saints faced salary-cap issues and a lack of draft picks in the offseason, and that’s why they weren’t able to stock Spagnuolo’s cupboard with the players he needed.

They’re going to face similar restrictions in the next offseason, but general manager Mickey Loomis is smart enough to work around that. It’s best to use the rest of this season to find out which guys do fit Spagnuolo’s system.

Then, fill the remaining holes in the offseason.

This may seem like a lost season for the Saints. But Payton’s coming back next season and, if he has the kind of defense he’s always dreamed of, the Saints could be better than ever.

NFC South: Land of confusion

November, 1, 2012
11/01/12
1:00
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Cam NewtonAnthony J. Causi/Icon SMIAt 1-6 Cam Newton and the Panthers have had a disastrous start to the season.
Back in the good old days, namely 2008 through 2011, the NFC South was the NFL’s most stable division.

At times, it even bordered on boring and predictable. The New Orleans Saints and Atlanta Falcons would go out and win a bunch of games. The Carolina Panthers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers had some ups and downs, but at least the Panthers won 12 games in 2008 and the Bucs were a pleasant surprise when they went 10-6 in 2010.

Even when the Panthers collapsed in 2010, you knew it was because owner Jerry Richardson was preparing his franchise for the labor lockout and, all the while, the Panthers had veteran general manager Marty Hurney around to keep sanity and be the voice of reason. In a somewhat similar way, the Bucs leaned on general manager Mark Dominik as they went through major changes after last season.

But it’s looking like 2012 will be remembered as the season of chaos in the NFC South. It’s like someone sent a memo saying, “Hey, let’s see who can generate the most turmoil." The memo somehow didn’t get to Falcons’ headquarters in Flowery Branch, Ga. (a town as quaint and peaceful as its name suggests), but the other three NFC South teams have taken it to heart.

The Falcons are going to win the division, but it looks like the real battle is for the title of “most dysfunctional team."

Let’s take a closer look at that race:

New Orleans Saints: This team has lived the biggest soap opera in NFL history since March 2. That’s the day the NFL announced its investigation of the alleged bounty program.

You know the story from there. Coach Sean Payton drew a season-long suspension, general manager Mickey Loomis got eight games and assistant head coach Joe Vitt got six games. Linebacker Jonathan Vilma got a season-long suspension and defensive end Will Smith got four games, but those suspensions are tied up in the appeals process and the legal system and I’m starting to think we might not see a final resolution this season.

Oh, and let’s not forget quarterback Drew Brees’ tumultuous negotiations before finally getting a new contract in July.

But the true gauge on this drama has been the first seven games. The Saints, a team with plenty of talent and veteran leadership, have fallen apart. They are 2-5 and their defense is on pace to shatter all sorts of records for futility.

For the longest time, it was hard to question any personnel move Loomis and Payton made. Now, it’s easy. Was signing defensive tackle Brodrick Bunkley to a five-year deal that averages $4.5 million a season really a good idea? Shouldn’t the Saints have acquired some pass-rushers for coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, since that’s what his system is based on? Why did the Saints keep running backs Chris Ivory and Travaris Cadet on the roster when they’re barely using them?

Dysfunction rating: 100 percent. Maybe things will turn around when Payton returns and after Loomis has had a full offseason to massage the salary cap and tweak the roster. But, with a defense that can’t stop anyone and an offense that’s not the machine it once was, I see only more trouble for the Saints this season.

Carolina Panthers: Hurney got fired after a 1-5 start and the Panthers now have extended their record to 1-6. Coach Ron Rivera probably has about as much chance of keeping his job as John Fox did in 2010.

Quarterback Cam Newton isn’t doing well on the field, and the results of his postgame news conferences have been even more disastrous.

What’s most stunning about this is that the whole world thought the Panthers were a team on the rise after going 6-10 in the first season for Newton and Rivera. I’m still trying to figure out how the Panthers have spun into chaos so quickly and in such spectacular fashion.

Dysfunction rating: 100 percent: With Hurney gone, different people who work in Bank of America Stadium give you different answers about who’s in charge. At the moment, this team is a rudderless ship.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: They’re 3-4 and there have been some signs coach Greg Schiano has this team headed in the right direction. But there still is a lot of work to be done.

That’s because predecessor Raheem Morris let things get so out of control last year that the Bucs were every bit as dysfunctional (or maybe even more so) as the Saints and Panthers are now. Schiano has cleaned out some of the problems (Tanard Jackson and Kellen Winslow), and he seems to be reconstructing quarterback Josh Freeman’s confidence.

But the Bucs haven’t completely turned the corner into a sea of tranquility. Schiano has a hardline, old-school, or whatever you want to call it, approach. Players seem to be tolerating it, and that’s easy to do when there are positive signs. But, if the Bucs regress at all, players could turn on Schiano the way Tom Coughlin did.

The Bucs are coming off a huge win at Minnesota, but they lost All-Pro guard Carl Nicks to a season-ending injury earlier this week. It seems every time the Bucs start to take a step forward, something pulls them back.

Dysfunction rating: 35 percent. There’s been a lot of change here and most of it seems to be for the better, but at least a couple of players seem to need attention deficit disorder medication to focus in on what’s happening in Tampa Bay.

Atlanta Falcons: They’re the only undefeated team in the league, and it’s largely because of the tone of stability set by coach Mike Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff. When fans called for major moves in free agency, Smith and Dimitroff simply re-signed their own guys.

Running back Michael Turner and defensive end John Abraham each have had an off-field legal issue this season. That’s unfortunate, but not uncommon in the NFL.

Those events caused only minor distractions, and that’s because the Falcons have such strong leadership from the very top and because winning can take attention off everything else.

Dysfunction rating: 5 percent. That number can be knocked down to zero if the Falcons receive the memo, coming soon to Flowery Branch, that says, “Win a playoff game," and then they go out and make it happen.

NFC South: Land of confusion

November, 1, 2012
11/01/12
12:20
PM ET
RyanDrew Hallowell/Getty ImagesMatt Ryan and the Falcons are the only undefeated team left in the NFL.
Back in the good old days, namely 2008 through 2011, the NFC South was the NFL’s most stable division.

At times, it even bordered on boring and predictable. The New Orleans Saints and Atlanta Falcons would go out and win a bunch of games. The Carolina Panthers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers had some ups and downs, but at least the Panthers won 12 games in 2008 and the Bucs were a pleasant surprise went they went 10-6 in 2010.

Even when the Panthers collapsed in 2010, you knew it was because owner Jerry Richardson was preparing his franchise for the labor lockout and, all the while, the Panthers had veteran general manager Marty Hurney around to keep sanity and be the voice of reason. In a somewhat similar way, the Bucs leaned on general manager Mark Dominik as they went through major changes after last season.

But it’s looking like 2012 will be remembered as the season of chaos in the NFC South. It’s like someone sent a memo saying, “Hey, let’s see who can generate the most turmoil." The memo somehow didn’t get to Falcons’ headquarters in Flowery Branch, Ga. (a town as quaint and peaceful as its name suggests), but the other three NFC South teams have taken it to heart.

The Falcons are going to win the division, but it looks like the real battle is for the title of “most dysfunctional team."

Let’s take a closer look at that race:

New Orleans Saints: Since March 2, this team has lived the biggest soap opera in NFL history. That’s the day the NFL announced its investigation of the alleged bounty program.

You know the story from there. Coach Sean Payton drew a season-long suspension, general manager Mickey Loomis got eight games and assistant head coach Joe Vitt got six games. Linebacker Jonathan Vilma got a season-long suspension and defensive end Will Smith got four games, but those suspensions are tied up in the appeals process and the legal system and I’m starting to think we might not see a final resolution this season.

Oh, and let’s not forget quarterback Drew Brees’ tumultuous negotiations before finally getting a new contract in July.

But the true gauge on this drama has been the first seven games. The Saints, a team with plenty of talent and veteran leadership, have fallen apart. They are 2-5 and their defense is on pace to shatter all sorts of records for futility.

For the longest time, it was hard to question any personnel move Loomis and Payton made. Now, it’s easy. Was signing defensive tackle Brodrick Bunkley to a five-year deal that averages $4.5 million a season really a good idea? Shouldn’t the Saints have acquired some pass-rushers for coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, since that’s what his system is based on? Why did the Saints keep running backs Chris Ivory and Travaris Cadet on the roster when they’re barely using them?

Dysfunction rating: 100 percent. Maybe things will turn around when Payton returns and after Loomis has had a full offseason to massage the salary cap and tweak the roster. But, with a defense that can’t stop anyone and an offense that’s not the machine it once was, I see only more trouble for the Saints this season.

Carolina Panthers: Hurney got fired after a 1-5 start and the Panthers now have extended their record to 1-6. Coach Ron Rivera probably has about as much chance of keeping his job as John Fox did in 2010.

Quarterback Cam Newton isn’t doing well on the field and the results of his postgame news conferences have been even more disastrous.

What’s most stunning about this is that the whole world thought the Panthers were a team on the rise after going 6-10 in the first season for Newton and Rivera. I’m still trying to figure out how the Panthers have spun into chaos so quickly and in such spectacular fashion.

Dysfunction rating: 100 percent: With Hurney gone, different people who work in Bank of America Stadium give you different answers about who’s in charge. At the moment, this team is a rudderless ship.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: They’re 3-4 and there have been some signs coach Greg Schiano has this team headed in the right direction. But there still is a lot of work to be done.

That’s because predecessor Raheem Morris let things get so out of control last year that the Bucs were every bit as dysfunctional (or maybe even more so) as the Saints and Panthers are now. Schiano has cleaned out some of the problems (Tanard Jackson and Kellen Winslow) and he seems to be reconstructing quarterback Josh Freeman’s confidence.

But the Bucs haven’t completely turned the corner into a sea of tranquility. Schiano has a hardline, old-school, or whatever you want to call it, approach. Players seem to be tolerating it and that’s easy to do when there are positive signs. But, if the Bucs regress at all, players could cool on Schiano the way Tom Coughlin did.

The Bucs are coming off a huge win at Minnesota, but they lost All-Pro guard Carl Nicks to a season-ending injury earlier this week. It seems every time the Bucs start to take a step forward, something pulls them back.

Dysfunction rating: 35 percent. There’s been a lot of change here and most of it seems to be for the better, but at least a couple of players seem to need Attention Deficit Disorder medication to focus in on what’s happening in Tampa Bay.

Atlanta Falcons: They’re the only undefeated team in the league and it’s largely because of the tone of stability set by coach Mike Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff. When fans called for major moves in free agency, Smith and Dimitroff simply re-signed their own guys.

Running back Michael Turner and defensive end John Abraham each have had an off-field legal issue this season. That’s unfortunate, but not uncommon in the NFL.

Those events caused only minor distractions and that’s because the Falcons have such strong leadership from the very top and because winning can take attention off everything else.

Dysfunction rating: 5 percent. That number can be knocked down to zero if the Falcons receive the memo, coming soon to Flowery Branch, that says, “Win a playoff game," and then they go out and make it happen.

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