Hazy as this seems now, a decade ago, Steve Spagnuolo was among the most coveted commodities in NFL coaching. So much so that he initially seemed beyond the St. Louis Rams’ price range for their vacant head coaching job.
And this was back when you could still assume that trying to win, elusive as it was, was meaningful to the organization across the state. Back before Stan Kroenke took full ownership and dedicated his energy and resources to his covert and treacherous scheme to return the franchise to Los Angeles — where three years after the maneuvering the Rams are suddenly a Super Bowl team after failing to make the playoffs in their last 11 seasons in St. Louis.
As the defensive coordinator of the New York Giants at the time, Spagnuolo was only a year removed from orchestrating a rare smothering of Tom Brady and the New England Patriots. That Patriots team, you may remember, was 18-0 entering Super Bowl XLII and had led the NFL with 36.8 points a game — including a 38-35 victory over the Giants in their regular-season finale.
But Spagnuolo’s defense in the Super Bowl stifled and swarmed Brady, sacking him five times for 37 yards … a notable contrast from the zero sacks (and scant hurries) the Chiefs were able to generate in their 37-31 loss in the AFC Championship Game last Sunday. Though his resume then was enhanced by a defense that gave up fewer points the next season, that 17-14 win over the Patriots was his crowning achievement.
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So there is some symbolic symmetry in connecting that moment to the Chiefs naming him their defensive coordinator late last week, just days after firing Bob Sutton, putting Spagnuolo in the pivotal position to be the one to get the Chiefs past New England — or not — in the future.
Trouble is, Spagnuolo’s resume is pretty splotchy since that pinnacle.
He went just 10-38 in three seasons with the Rams, his teams outscored 1,171 to 657 in the process. In five different jobs with three different organizations after that, he otherwise achieved little to recommend him beyond coordinating a Giants defensive unit that was second in the league in points allowed in 2016.
After serving as interim coach in the wake of the deposed Ben McAdoo in New York in 2017, he was ushered out with the rest of the staff and didn’t coach in 2018.
Even accounting for circumstances beyond his control (flux in leadership in St. Louis; the “Bountygate” mess in New Orleans; instability in New York), it’s easy to figure that the 59-year-old Spagnuolo’s best days are behind him.
On the surface, this is an unimaginative hire of someone Chiefs coach Andy Reid used to work with — precisely when this team needs a fresh approach.
But let’s look a little deeper at why Reid would make this choice, surely one of the most momentous of his career as he craves a Super Bowl victory for Kansas City and at least in the back of his mind what would be a career-defining distinction.
With more dynamic defense to fortify the mind-boggling potential of an offense led by 23-year-old Patrick Mahomes, the Chiefs are on the verge of special days ahead instead of merely extending their Super Bowl drought to a half-century and counting.
This mattered too much, in other words, for Reid to do make a decision simply because it was easy or safe or predictable. While we see only the outcome of something that moved pretty fast, who’s to say what else was or wasn’t considered before he arrived at this decision?
Ultimately, the choice to hire Spagnuolo runs deeper than Reid’s statement calling Spagnuolo a “bright defensive mind with a lot of coaching experience and success in our league” and noting his teaching skills and “his scheme” — presumably meaning a blitz-heavy 4-3 defense that instantly is more aggressive than Sutton’s more reactive approach and seems well-suited to the Chiefs’ personnel.
It’s about trust and belief in what you know, something Reid is hinging his name and legacy to.
Now, there is a fine line between what’s just familiar and what’s well-suited, and you can quibble over what this hire is. But hindsight will provide the best perspective in the years to come. And no one has to live with this decision more than Reid, who has made many good ones over the years but few that could define him more.
It’s about not just a new energy but what Reid surely has conviction will be synergy.
It’s about an earlier history that means more to Reid, basically, than the last 10 years of Spagnuolo’s history.
It goes back, in fact, to the University of Texas-El Paso in the late 1980s. Spagnuolo, then an assistant coach at the University of Connecticut, often would visit his former University of Massachusetts colleague Steve Telander. there. In the process, he met Reid, then a line coach at UTEP.
By the time Bob Stull brought that staff to Mizzou from 1989-93, Spagnuolo might as well have been an honorary member. Coaching in the World League of American Football in Barcelona in 1992 when the league folded, Spagnuolo moved in with Telander in Columbia and spent what Stull recalled Friday as half a season with the Tigers.
“Like he belonged,” Stull said, laughing and adding, “He was excellent, he was knowledgeable. He worked hard. He listened.”
By then, Reid had moved on to Green Bay. But he left with a strong impression of Spagnuolo from such frequent previous pop-ins that Reid once jokingly called him “part of the staff” — a staff that included Dave Toub, the current special teams coordinator of the Chiefs.
“He’s a gym rat,” Reid told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 2009. “He just wants to talk football, football, football. And I appreciate that. I like those kind of guys. He had the passion for it. …
“That’s where I got to know him. And why I ended up hiring him” on Reid’s first staff in Philadelphia.
Perhaps more to the point now, Reid also knows and appreciates the way Spagnuolo was initiated into the NFL: by diabolical defensive coordinator Jim Johnson, a University of Missouri product himself.
The first words of Johnson’s 2009 obituary by the Associated Press express well what might be surmised to be his influence on the game and Spagnuolo, who frequently has credited Johnson as his mentor after eight years of his tutelage: Johnson “frustrated opponents and confused young quarterbacks with his complex defensive schemes, always looking for a new way to disguise a blitz,” the AP wrote.
After the revered Johnson’s death from cancer, Reid said, “This whole Eagles-Andy Reid regime here that’s taken place wouldn’t have been possible without Jim.”
In fact, Reid’s Eagles never won another playoff game after Johnson’s death. They lost in the wild-card round in 2009 and 2010 and went just 12-20 overall in 2011 and 2012 before Reid was ousted and hired by the Chiefs.
Put another way, after going 10-7 with Johnson in the postseason, Reid is 2-7 in the playoffs since — including 2-5 with the Chiefs.
While doubtful Reid is conscious of anything that specific, surely he knows by now that his defenses that have given up an average of 29 points in those seven losses are the prime issue holding his team back.
Now, though, he’s making a move that at least has some apparent echoes of his relationship with Sutton. The future will tell whether he was blinded by loyalty or nostalgia or saw this more clearly than anyone else at a time the Chiefs literally fell inches short of a Super Bowl.
In the meantime, he’s essentially banking everything on the decision that a man he trusts implicitly, and a Johnson disciple, can fill a void in this city and on his ledger … and reinvigorate a perception of Spagnuolo’s virtues that peaked years ago.