By Howard Balzer
For Steve Spagnuolo, it’s all about the teaching. Meticulous, detailed, leaving no stone unturned.
But it takes time; there are no quick fixes. Yet, when the players buy in to what he’s saying, the results usually follow. Patience, which few have in the NFL, is key.
It happened in New York with the Giants in 2007 when he took over as defensive coordinator. A slow start ensued, but after allowing 80 points in the first two games, a goal-line stand fueled a win over the Redskins and that began a string of 10 games in the last 14 in which the Giants allowed 17 points or less.
In the playoffs, there were just 65 points allowed in four games, including a shutdown of the vaunted New England Patriots offense in a 17-14 Super Bowl victory.
During that undefeated regular season, the Patriots had averaged 36.8 points, 411.3 yards and scored 67 offensive touchdowns. Quarterback Tom Brady set a league record with 50 touchdown passes (since broken by Peyton Manning with 55 in 2013) and wide receiver Randy Moss set a record that still stands with 23 scoring receptions.
Without Spagnuolo’s defense, the last-minute heroics of Eli Manning and David Tyree might never have happened. The Patriots totaled 274 yards on 69 plays (4.0 average). Brady, who had averaged 8.31 yards per attempt during the season, averaged 5.43 in the game on 28-of-49 passing for 266 yards. There were just 21 sacks during the season, but he was dropped five times in the Super Bowl and hit another nine.
Now, Spagnuolo hopes to score a daily double, and help the Chiefs win the Super Bowl in his first season as coordinator after not coaching anywhere in 2018.
But, as usual, the transition wasn’t easy.
As defensive tackle Damon Harrison told the New York Post when Spagnuolo returned to the Giants in 2015 after leaving following the 2008 season, “Historically, the defense speaks for itself because it’s a Super Bowl-winning defense, championship defense. It was just a matter of getting everyone in the right position and getting everyone to buy in and used to playing with each other. That’s tough when you bring in a new group like we’ve done this offseason. It’s a credit to him in getting guys to buy in and play together.”
The Chiefs switched from a 3-4 scheme to Spagnuolo’s preferred 4-3, and outside linebackers Justin Houston and Dee Ford moved on. Defensive end Frank Clark arrived in a trade and safety Tyrann Mathieu was signed as a free agent. The latter might have been the crucial move, thanks to Mathieu’s energy and leadership.
Head coach Andy Reid said Mathieu has “an innate ability to lead.”
Spagnuolo said, “I am sure glad he is here. It makes my job a lot easier when you can rely on somebody like that. There have been a number of times during the year where I have sat in my office and said, ‘I need to convey some message to these guys somehow, someway.’ Ultimately, what I normally do is I go to him and say, ‘Look, can you steer them a little bit this way.’ Usually, it is ‘I got it coach,’ and we roll. It is good to have that.
“He is out there just balling out. He is great on the sideline. The game is emotional so we can all get a little bit (emotional). Sometimes he is calming me down. Sometimes I am calming him down. I think the other guys really feed off of him. When you have that in a player and a guy they respect, they know at some point he is going to help make a play to help win the game.”
And yes, it took time. In the first 10 games of the season, the Chiefs allowed 148.1 yards rushing per game and 23.9 points. However, in a six-game winning streak to end the regular season, the run defense improved to 95 yards per game and opponents scored a total of 69 points with less than 10 in three games.
“We started feeling it,” Mathieu said of the 24-17 win over the Chargers in Mexico that started the streak. “I remember talking to Frank specifically. Him and Chris Jones specifically. And those guys, the look in their eyes. They were tired of what people were saying about us defensively and it was like they were ready. Ready to just start dominating.
“I think our mentality just changed. Whoever is on the edge, set the edge. If you’re a linebacker, play downhill. If you’re in the secondary, it’s about mindset. You have to want to tackle. We just kept crushing it. And crushing it. And a lot of the huge runs we gave up, wasn’t really knowing the scheme or trusting the scheme.”
For Spagnuolo, it was about teaching the defense the right way. He told the Kansas City Star, “Way back when we installed in the OTAs, I remember putting up play sheets of certain coverages, not all of them, and I told them that as I explained what each person does, everybody should listen, because at some point, most of you will have to play a different spot. I think when you can do that, it gives you flexibility, and maybe it gives the quarterback something to think about.”
Mathieu said of Spagnuolo, “He’s a believer, and I think ultimately he believes in us. I can remember earlier instances in the season where we weren’t necessarily playing well. He continued to be positive. Obviously, he detailed things much more. I think he’s always been about us. He’s always been about the group. I think he has a good feel for putting his guys in good positions and positions that favor their abilities the best.
“The coaches have done a really good job of taking their time with us and hit every detail. That’s why I think a lot of dudes like playing for Spags, because they can see that in him. He didn’t just jump into it. He really took his time with us and really taught us his defense. Once we all put it in our minds we could be good, we haven’t turned the switch back off.”
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