Life has been something of a whirlwind for David Merritt ’94 since the New York Giants beat the New England Patriots to win the Super Bowl earlier this month.
Merritt, a former linebacker at NC State, is an assistant coach for the Giants, with responsibility for the defensive secondary. So it was his guys — the cornerbacks and safeties — who were on the line when Patriots quarterback Tom Brady tossed a last-ditch “Hail Mary” pass into the end zone as the final seconds of the game ticked away. When the ball hit the ground, incomplete, and the Giants’ victory was assured, Merritt hugged one of the other coaches working with him in the press box and then made his way to the field to find his wife, Yolanda Merritt ’94, and their children.
It was Merritt’s second Super Bowl championship with the Giants, both of them against the Patriots. Merritt said the latest one was the sweetest because of how the Giants rallied from a 7-7 record to win the final two games of the regular season just to get into the playoffs.
“We got healthy at the right time,” Merritt says. “And the guys started trusting one another. They were determined not to lose the games. Sometimes it may not be your ability. It may be that you were more persistent than the other guy.”
Since that win, Merritt says there has been little time to catch his breath. The coaches were given 10 days off, but Merritt was back at work on Tuesday. He was getting ready to return to Indianapolis this week for the college scouting combine and has already been assigned a list of free-agent players to study and grade. “Our next season started today at 7:30 a.m.,” he says.
But Merritt took some time on Tuesday to talk about the Super Bowl and his career in coaching. Merritt got into coaching, first at the college level, after playing in the NFL for a few years. He says that two of his coaches at NC State, defensive coordinator Buddy Green ’76 and linebackers coach Ken Pettus, served as role models when he became a coach.
“I really liked the fact that Dick Sheridan and his staff treated us like men,” Merritt says. “At the same time, they were like father figures to us. You have to reach these young men with more than x’s and o’s.”
Merritt worked his way up to the NFL, initially as a coach for the New York Jets. After three years there, he joined the Giants in 2004. Merritt says there is little difference in his approach to coaching college players and professionals.
“The teaching I was doing back then is the same teaching I’m doing today in the pros,” he says. “You have to start from ground one.”
Merritt spent most of his years coaching linebacker, a position he was familiar with from his playing days. But in 2006, Giants Head Coach Tom Coughlin approached him about coaching the team’s defensive backs and safeties. “I had always told my wife I would never coach defensive backs,” Merritt says. “I don’t want anyone to see me when I screw these players up.”
Merritt told Coughlin that he wasn’t familiar with defensive backs, but Coughlin was persistent. “He said, ‘I know a good coach when I see one,'” Merritt recalls. “That was it. From that point on, I started finding every defensive back coach I knew, and conducted my own interviews. I learned as much as I could from film study and from talking to former NFL players.”
The Giants appreciate Merritt’s ability to get the most of his players, whether they be long-time stars or rookie free agents simply trying to land a spot on the roster. “I make sure that I teach them the basics,” he says. “Once you teach them the fundamentals, you can make a free agent or a high-draft pick look like he’s been playing for years.”
Merrill says the Giants approached the Super Bowl much like they would any other game. But he acknowledged being nervous about preparing his defensive backs to go up against Tom Brady and his talented receivers and tight ends. He says he still gets nervous watching tape of the game, even knowing the final result.
“It’s a nerve-wracking challenge,” he says. “You look at Tom Brady and you know what he can do with a football in his hands. He understands coverages and he can get the ball out of his hand.”
But Merritt told his players before the game that the only player who could defeat them in the Super Bowl was themselves. “You guys are prepared, you know what you’re doing, so I expect you to go out and execute,” he says he told them.
And as for that Hail Mary? Merritt says they practice defending that play every week during the season, but that one of his players made a mistake by not blocking out Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski, who was almost able to grab the ball before it hit the ground. But Merritt says he can use video of that when his players return in the fall.
“It’s a tremendous learning tool,” he says, “one that I will probably use for the rest of my career.”