It's safe to say that the first season for current New Orleans Saints defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo did not go well. The former New York Giants defensive coordinator and St. Louis Rams head coach, who replaced Gregg Williams as the man in charge of New Orleans' defense in January of 2012, oversaw a unit that set an NFL record for the most yards allowed in a single season with 6,799, breaking the old mark of 6,793 set by the 1981 Baltimore Colts.
Not all of it was Spagnuolo's fault -- the Saints had age and injury issues, and the specter of the suspensions that never actually happened in the bounty case weighed heavily on linebacker Jonathan Vilma, defensive end Will Smith, and their teammates. But the decline in defensive efficiency was precipitous enough to leave people wondering about Spagnuolo's fate when Sean Payton gets back in the building after the Super Bowl.
Once Payton is back on board, he'll have to go through a unique process when vetting his coaches and deciding who he wants to keep. One condition of his yearlong suspension is that he cannot have contact with the team, and that's been the case but for a couple of exceptions -- he was allowed to watch Drew Brees break Johnny Unitas' record for consecutive games with a touchdown pass, and he was allowed to negotiate and agree upon a new five-year extension.
But when Payton reviews and deduces how things went while he was away, he'll apparently will have some interesting discussions with his defenders when the subject of Spagnuolo comes up. Larry Holder of NOLA.com recently spoke with one current Saints defensive player who chose to remain anonymous, and who put Spagnuolo on full blast.
"Trust me, all the guys were being politically correct this season when answering questions [about] Spagnuolo," the player told Holder. "To give up what we gave up can't be all talent. Look at where his units [have] been ranked before. I think one top 10?"
Spagnuolo's star started to rise when the Giants defense he coached in 2007 manhandled Tom Brady and the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLII. He got the Rams' head coaching job in 2009, and put together a 10-38 record in three seasons with a team that was rebuilding from nothing. His defenses finished 31st, 19th and 21st in Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted efficiency metrics in those three seasons, though the drafts put together by Spagnuolo and former general manager Billy Devaney did set things up for current head coach Jeff Fisher, whose Rams defense ranked seventh in those same stats in 2012.
According to the Saints player Holder spoke to, the problems with Spagnuolo go beyond scheme to communication and attitude.
"Players have no say in anything. It was [a] complete opposite from before where it was a simple [defense] that players had lot of control and say. We couldn't suggest [expletive] ... Nothing ever changed. It was his way only.
"Don't even get me started on lack [of] ability to adjust during games. Bad, bad, bad."
The player also said that every position group became frustrated with Spagnuolo, and that his style was part of the issue.
"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. [He] has a way of pissing players and our defensive coaches off with how he says and does things. [I] think it's even harder after having Gregg [Williams], who guys enjoyed."
The unfortunate part of the anonymous quote system is that we don't know whether this player has an axe to grind. But there's no question that New Orleans' defense degraded significantly on Spagnoulo's watch, and if he has alienated a lot of people in the process, it would be tough for him to meet the defense halfway and ask everyone to adjust to the ways he does things.
Sean Payton will have a long list of things to address upon his return, and it sounds as if the defensive coordinator position should rise right to the top.