Spagnuolo brings youthful energy, hands-on approach to Chiefs

On the middle field of the Chiefs’ practice complex, a scout-team quarterback took his place under center.

With the Chiefs first-string defense across from him, he hustled up to the line and rapidly snapped the ball.

With the height of a running back and the lithe body of a defensive back, this quarterback didn’t quite resemble the 6-foot-3, 230-pound MVP practicing a field over.

Instead of a helmet, he wore a pencil tucked behind his ear.

Periodically, he removed the pencil from its resting place beside a head of cropped, blonde-gray hair and scribbled down notes on a piece of paper.

After all, this quarterback wasn’t a quarterback at all, but new Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo.

“I can see things in front of me like the quarterback sees,” said the 59-year-old of participating in the team drills. “Of course, I have a little bit of fun. Make myself feel young. I’ve seen a lot of good things.

“Those particular periods during practice are mental. I’m just looking to see how fast they can think. I think if I can keep it going fast, they can think a little faster and hopefully it carries over into the field.”

The hands-on approach is a signature part of Spagnuolo’s coaching style.

Barking calls in his signature New England accent with the dropped Rs and transformed As, Spagnuolo brought energy to the defensive side of the ball during Thursday’s OTA practice, something that often felt lacking in the previous regime.

Not only does he get in the thick of things as the de facto scout-team quarterback, he also never hesitates to pull a player aside for a one-on-one conversation.

“I think if you have a teaching moment, somebody makes a mistake and you have an opportunity to teach them something,” Spagnuolo said, “it just sinks in a little bit more if it’s one-on-one rather than trying to yell over all the music. I’ve kind of always done that.”

Just six practices into OTAs — two open to media — Spagnuolo’s energy and teaching style is obvious to everyone in and around the Chiefs’ facility.

“I’ve always felt like players thrive off the energy from the coaches,” cornerback Rashad Fenton said during rookie minicamp. “So just being able to receive that energy, even if you’re kind of tired, the coaches are always energized so you’ve got to kind of match that energy. It’s a player-coach relationship.”

Because teams can’t practice in pads during OTAs, Spagnuolo is somewhat limited in what he can do with his new team. He’s focusing on fundamentals and measuring success by the players’ ability to execute the little things.

“It doesn’t take a lot of talent to communicate or to call out an under route or get aligned, he said. “Those little things we need to get taken care of otherwise it creates holes and then we have problems.”

Spagnuolo admits that six practices in, the team isn’t as consistent with those fundamentals as he’d like — but that’s part of the process. With new players and new coaches implementing a new system, there’s bound to be some awkwardness as everyone learns how to work together.

But part of the transition is eased by Spagnuolo’s familiarity with many of his assistants.

Spagnuolo previously worked with both defensive line coach Brendan Daly and linebackers coach Matt House in St. Louis, and he coached with special teams coordinator Dave Toub and head coach Andy Reid in Philadelphia. It’s the opposite situation Spagnuolo found himself in when he left the Eagles in 2006 to become the Giants’ defensive coordinator. That time around, Spagnuolo didn’t know any of the coaches on his staff. He ended up winning Super Bowl XLII with that staff, but it was still difficult in the beginning.

“That was a little bit of a challenge because you spend a little bit of time coaching the coaches,” he said. “They were terrific. It worked out really well.

“All the guys that have been here, that I’ve been with before, it’s just a lot easier for them. They know exactly what we’re all looking for. It’s nice to all be on the same page.”

With 101 days until the season opener in Jacksonville, Spagnuolo has plenty to get done throughout the offseason and training camp. The team is in the early stages of forming its identity, but Spagnuolo isn’t ready to define his unit quite yet.

“I could throw out all of the superlatives and you’ve heard them all.” he said. “I’d like to be all of those, but I’m not going to label it right now. Again, this is where we’re at right now. I don’t get too far forward.

“We need to build a rock solid foundation now because I know if we don’t do that, all of those superlatives you’re thinking of right now, they won’t mean anything.”

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Brooke Pryor covers the Kansas City Chiefs for the Kansas City Star, where she works to give readers a deeper understanding of the franchise and the NFL through daily stories, game coverage, and player profiles. She attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and grew up in Winston-Salem, N.C.