EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – The path to overcoming great loss is sometimes long, both in time and distance. That may not be from the best of Ralph Waldo Emerson, but it's a pretty good assessment of how the 7-1 New York Giants have marched on this season despite two profound losses.
The losses of defensive ends Michael Strahan – who retired in June – and Osi Umenyiora – a Pro Bowler who is out for the season with a knee injury – were supposed to be the 1-2 punch that put New York's defense of a Super Bowl title on life support. Yet the Giants are second in the league in sacks with 30 so far, fueled by the play of ends Justin Tuck and Mathias Kiwanuka, two bright, talented men who had to patiently wait their turn for greatness.
While waiting, the pair learned from the instruction of defensive line coach Mike Waufle, a former Marine who can quote Emerson as easily as he can talk about what kind of handwork to use against a left guard trying an influence block.
"He's a great coach who has worked with a lot of great players and understands the kind of things that help us," said Kiwanuka, who has made the transition back to end after a season at linebacker. "We work hard on technique, and he understands matchups better than anyone. He will [scout] the offensive lineman, then match your strengths with his weaknesses for advice and potential moves."
On a weekly basis, Kiwanuka and his linemates have consistently gotten the better of those matchups. Kiwanuka, a first-round pick in 2006 who ended '07 on injured reserve, has six sacks in eight games after having 8½ in his first two seasons.
"For me, it was a lot more helpful," Kiwanuka said of Waufle's teachings. "We spent a lot of time after practice talking about my technique and what I have to do. At first, I thought (going back to end) was like riding a bike, but the more the season has gone, the more comfortable I've gotten and I've realized how much work you have to put in to be that comfortable."
Waufle is in his 30th year of coaching with all but three of them spent working on the defensive line. While he has never really aspired to be more than a defensive line coach, he wants deeply to be the best at it.
Waufle is part warrior, part Renaissance man, and the approach of his players is reflective of that unique blend. In Tuck, Waufle has helped create a player equally adept at pass rushing from inside or outside.
Tuck had a breakout season in 2007 with 10 sacks after having only one in his first two seasons combined. Tuck sat the bench or dealt with injuries in 2005 and 2006 after being a third-round pick from Notre Dame.
This season, Tuck has already posted 8½ sacks in the first eight games this season. That included 2½ in the victory over Dallas on Sunday. One of those against Dallas came after Tuck moved inside. At 6-foot-5, 274 pounds, he has powerful shoulders and legs which enable him to overpower linemen if he can get even a little edge to one side.
"I'm not giving away the secrets, if that's what you're asking," Tuck said when asked about Waufle's teaching. "What he's talking about is a lot more detailed than I think most coaches do. That's what (Strahan) always said, and you kind of figure it out as you listen … if you listen close, really pay attention, there's a lot there to figure out. It's deep."
Three decades and thousands of miles of driving deep. While on family vacations, Waufle turned a lot of the trips into business opportunities – particularly before he joined the NFL with the Raiders in 1998. He would stop at an NFL training camp or a college or a high school all-star camp, meeting with coaches and players to pick their brains. Before he'd even gotten to the NFL, Waufle had interviewed the likes of Merlin Olsen, Woody Hayes, Howie Long, Lyle Alzado, Bob Golic, Bruce Smith, Reggie White and Marv Levy.
"When I was getting my master's, I went and asked my adviser what I needed to do to be the best. He said, 'Go observe the best,' and I've always done that – searched people out to get information," Waufle said.
The result is a Franklin Planner full of information that Waufle guards as if it were the Holy Grail.
"I don't even like too much of it getting into the game plan. I want that stuff kept in that (defensive line) room," he said. "The idea was to come up with a system that worked both against the run and against the pass. You don't want to be just one thing as a player because that allows you to be attacked. What I found in talking to all these people was that there wasn't any one system that they all had. It was something that had to be open for change and developed.
"What I've come up with is something that has to be constantly changed and adjusted. As coaches, a lot of us are afraid to change what we do, but you can't get stuck in that. You have to constantly be refining, defining and working the system."
As a result, Waufle has plenty of notes, ideas and other tidbits about how men like Tuck and Kiwanuka should do battle. Interspersed were studies done with boxers and even a martial arts master.
"Waufle has ideas coming at you all the time, making you think about what you're going to do and when," said Renaldo Wynn, a 12-year veteran backup and former first-round pick. "It's the best system I've ever seen. If you're here for a while, you see why it works so well."
Waufle has never stopped searching for ideas, whether the search is fruitful or not.
- Mike Waufle