MIAMI – The NFL hiring cycle was winding down, and Steve Spagnuolo was sitting home in Philadelphia. It was January 2019, the Super Bowl was 11 or 12 days away, and his year off was almost officially over. He still didn’t know what he’d do after a couple opportunities he’d lined up failed to manifest.
Then the text came in.
“Are you still a free agent?”
Andy Reid tacked on a smiley-face emoji for good measure. And as the Chiefs coach hit send, little did either guy know that 12 months later, they’d be here, having finally followed through on a 15-year-old plan, one that wound up helping to lift a storied franchise back to the NFL’s biggest stage for the first time in half a century, which was enough make at least one of the two believe that a divine twist of fate put them here together.
“It’s just one of those things. It’s God’s timing, Albert,” Spagnuolo said to me, in a quiet moment amid the Super Bowl LIV storm. “I mean, certainly had I had an opportunity to take a coordinator job, which almost happened, I probably wouldn’t be here. I would’ve taken that job before Kansas City finished their season last year. But it worked out, I guess, the way it was supposed to when Andy decided to make the change.”
It worked out largely because the work Spagnuolo had lined up for 2019—coming off a 2018 season out of the NFL—didn’t. He’d agreed with two prime candidates to follow them if one or the other got a head coaching job. Neither did. He had a coordinator interview lined up for a Friday in early January 2019. That team chose to hire from within before it happened.
If one of those three situations breaks differently, he says, “I would’ve been gone and this obviously wouldn’t have happened.
Instead, on January 20, 2019, he was on his couch with his wife Maria watching, as the Patriots outlasted the Reid’s Chiefs, 37-31, in overtime in the AFC title game. He felt sick afterward for his friend. “Heartbroken” is the word he uses now.
Soon, he’d be able to do something about that. Because, yes, he was still a free agent.
To understand why this Super Bowl deeply matters to Spagnuolo, you have to dig into the depth of his relationship with Reid. Spagnuolo’s first coaching job was at UMass in the early ’80s, where he got close to a defensive line coach Steve Telander. In 1986, Telander landed a job as outside linebackers coach at UTEP. The next year, the Miners hired a young offensive line coach named Andy Reid.
By then, Spagnuolo was a rising assistant at UConn, and he’d make trips to UTEP to visit and talk ball with Telander. Reid was around a lot during those visits. The two struck up a friendship, one that endured as Reid went to the Packers as an offensive assistant in 1992. During those years, Spagnuolo did two tours in NFL Europe, and he’d swing through Green Bay to evaluate players. So by the time Reid took the Eagles head coaching job in 1999, he had a pretty good idea who Spagnuolo was.
“I think he just remembered the conversations and what I’d done in NFL Europe,” Spagnuolo said. “I was available and there was no contract issue, and it worked out.”
Spagnuolo was hired first as a quality-control coach, then promoted to secondary coach in 2001, and moved to linebackers in 2004. Over that time Reid was pretty clear with his plan: Spags would eventually succeed the legendary Jim Johnson as Philly’s defensive coordinator. At that point, the Eagles were in the title hunt annually, and that sort of succession seemed the kind that’s pretty natural among the league’s elite teams.
But in this case, the timing didn’t work out. Philly’s success meant teams kept knocking on the door to try and pry Spagnuolo for his next step up the ladder, and eventually the division rival Giants were able to poach him. He was hired by New York in 2007, helped the Giants win the Super Bowl that year, and became a head coach in St. Louis in 2009.
He’s bounced around since the Rams fired him after 2011, spending a year with the Saints, two with the Ravens, then three back as the Giants defensive coordinator. When Ben McAdoo got fired there, Spagnuolo wound up with a year out of football. So he used it for professional development—crossing the Delaware River to go to NFL Films every Monday and a lot of Tuesdays, where he’d watch tape with senior producer Greg Cosell.
Since he’s spent most of his career coaching the back seven, he focused a lot of his work on defensive line play. He got a larger view of scheme from across the league. He studied situational defense (third down, red zone). He’d bounce things off Troy Vincent, the NFL’s EVP of football operations and one of his defensive backs from his days working under Reid, and they wound up talking about rules changes a bunch too.
“What was really enlightening was seeing things big-picture,” Spagnuolo said. “When you get in the middle of the season, all you’re worried about is the next team, and you really don’t get to see where the league’s going, where the trends are. Quite frankly, during the season, I couldn’t tell you who’s leading what division. But when you get to see it from the big picture, it helps.”
Spagnuolo then added, “I think we all learn a lot when we take a break. If I had to do it over again, Albert, I think would’ve done this after the St. Louis job.”
By contrast, the last 12 months have moved fast, and they started fast too after a slower type of year for Spagnuolo. Soon after Reid sent that text, the defensive coordinator candidate was on a plane to Missouri, where he found he didn’t have to campaign much for a job he really wanted. He actually signed his contract four or five hours after he arrived.
“Yeah, it didn’t feel like an interview,” Spagnuolo said. “I’ll be honest with you, I’m not really sure we talked much about football or scheme. It was more, ‘Here’s where we are with the players, what we’re thinking about doing.’ You’re always asking about who’s got a contract, who doesn’t, what we’ll have. I think we were looking at the depth chart, then we quickly started talking about staff. And it just kind of went from there.”
At that point, he continued, the Chiefs brass had already made decisions to move on from franchise cornerstones Justin Houston, Dee Ford and Eric Berry—and there was capital to spend on rebuilding the defense. GM Brett Veach had been smitten with Frank Clark going back to when the pass-rusher was coming out of Michigan. But Spagnuolo was given input on that one (he loved the idea too) and worked with Veach’s staff from there.
That’s when Texans free-agent safety Tyrann Mathieu came into the picture. “I was enamored with him.” Spagnuolo said. He pulled on connections in Houston, where one staffer told him, “The culture changed the day he walked through the door.” The new DC loved his versatility and saw what he had with the Giants in middle linebacker Antonio Pierce, a guy who could communicate at all three levels of the defense, keep guys on the same page, and bond a group together.
And through all of this lied the other thing, beyond just Reid himself, about Kansas City that felt right. The personnel staff was investing in Spagnuolo’s vision. The building was united.
“Not every team really functions that way,” he said. “That’s what was encouraging about Brett and his staff. They were very open, they were like, ‘Let’s do what’s going to fit what you’re going to do, not the other way around.’ Not, ‘Here are the players we’re going to get and you somehow fit it in.’ That means a great deal to whatever coordinator you’re talking about, offensive or defensive. I give a lot of credit those guys, and Mike [Borgonzi] and Brett, all those guys. They went digging for guys.”
Which put the ball in Spagnuolo’s court. He had to put the pieces together.
In many ways, the job Spagnuolo had in his return to Reid’s side mirrors the one he left Reid’s side for 13 years ago. With both the 2007 Giants and 2019 Chiefs, he was tasked with pumping life back into a unit that lost its way. With both, it took time.
New York took body blows in the first two weeks of 2007, yielding 80 points in those games. In Week 3, a goal-line stand against the Redskins served as a confidence builder. In Week 4, a 12-sack effort against the Eagles showed those Giants how good they could be. It took a while longer until they really hit their stride, but the top-end potential they had showed up again against the 18-0 Patriots in the Super Bowl.
For these Chiefs, that moment—the we’ve got something here moment—came when adversity struck. On Oct. 17, a Thursday night in Denver, Patrick Mahomes dislocated his kneecap and Kansas City was left without its reigning MVP. Faced with a worst-case scenario, Spagnuolo’s defense responded by sacking Joe Flacco eight times and shutting the Broncos out for the final 54 minutes of a 30-6 win.
“I think we felt good about ourselves because we helped the organization win a game when our lead guy got hurt,” Spagnuolo said.
As was the case with the 2007 Giants, some inconsistency followed the defense’s breakout game. But eventually, over time, and behind Clark’s infectious tenacity and Mathieu’s ability to bring guys together, the Chiefs figured it out like the Giants did, and started to string games together. They held the Raiders to nine points, the Patriots to 16, and the Broncos and Bears to three each during a four-week stretch in December.
“Here, it did take a little longer, and I would say there was a stretch there where there was a lot of encouraging—‘Hey, let’s just trust our way to improve, let’s just try to get better, let’s not bail out now,’” Spagnuolo said. “And to their credit, the guys hung in there. We brought in a lot of different guys and you don’t know what you’re gonna get when you’re piecing them all together. But we got a boost of confidence on that Thursday night.
“This game is all about confidence, especially on defense. And when you’re talking about a unit trying to be cohesive, nothing glues you together better than having some good outings and having confidence. We had that happen.”
That equipped the defense to roll with the punches in the playoffs. An unsightly first 20 minutes against the Texans in the divisional round—the Chiefs fell behind 24-0—didn’t faze Spagnuolo’s group much. They responded by allowing just seven more points over the final 40 minutes. And in the AFC title game, Mathieu had two tackles and Clark had a sack on the final series, a four-and-out to put the Titans away.
Still, Spagnuolo goes into the Super Bowl saying that he doesn’t think, and he doesn’t think his players think, they’ve arrived as a defense. So I asked if he felt the same way going into Super Bowl XLII, before they held a historic Patriots offense to just 14 points. He said he hadn’t thought of it that way.
“I remember this vividly, and I don’t remember if I said it to my wife, I know I didn’t say it to other staff or the players—I felt like if we could keep them under 30, then we would’ve been good,” said Spagnuolo. “Listen, they were 18-0 and they were putting up all kinds of numbers, had Randy Moss, you know what it was. And I just thought if we could keep them under 30, we might have a chance of winning. So they played beyond what I thought.”
The 2019 Chiefs defense has one more chance to do the same.
Spagnuolo knows the task in front of his group this week is different than that one, and it would be rewarding to win it all based on that alone.
“They present a whole different challenge with this running game,” Spagnuolo. “Nothing’s tougher in a game to call than when you can’t stop the run. There are things you can adjust when it’s passing and all that. But a run game when they just come at you like this team does? You just have to bear down and it becomes man against man.”
So there’s that. There’s also what a championship would mean to a guy like Mathieu, who lost a national title game in college and missed a chance to play in Super Bowl 50 when he tore an ACL a month before the Cardinals’ NFC Championship game loss. Or Clark, who landed in Seattle the spring after the Seahawks’ back-to-back Super Bowl trips. And what a championship would mean to the Hunt family and to Kansas City after a half-century wait.
But from the minute we started talking, Spagnuolo made no bones about what he wants most out of this trip: “I’m driven by the fact that I just want to get this one for Andy.”
The good news is, thanks in large part to how Reid’s organization has fit him, he’s been able to deliver on his promise to fix the defense and goes in with a unit capable of getting it done, executing what the two old friends started to map out last January. And it works out, that’s not the only plan that Spagnuolo will final be bringing to completion.
“I’m not gonna lie, when I was an assistant working for (former Eagles DC) Jim Johnson in Philadelphia, I knew at some point Jim would retire. And Andy had already talked with me about replacing Jim,” Spagnuolo said. “I had visions then, especially after we lost the Super Bowl in ’04, of someday being able to do that in that job for Andy. And then I went on my own trek and had the great success in New York, etc., etc.
“But to turn around 12 years later and be able to possibly fulfill that, to me, would mean the world. I’m indebted to Andy. I’m not sure I get the chance to be in this league if it’s not for Andy. So for me to be able to have some hand in him finally reaching the ultimate would, to me, be a blessing from God, number one, and make me feel complete insomuch as I’m able to thank him. That would be the best way for me to thank him.”
Now, it’s just a matter of the right things happening at the right time, one more time, for those two.
SUPER BOWL LIV WATCH LIST
So this week we talked to a bunch of coaches and scouts on which players will be key on Sunday. The results? They’re right here for you:
49ers DE Nick Bosa: Bosa and DeForest Buckner will both be key in their ability to control blockers. It’s tough to be able to generate pressure while playing disciplined enough to contain someone like Mahomes, but these guys can do it. My guess is the Niners dare the Chiefs to run on them and emphasize keeping Mahomes contained and getting him on the ground. Bosa and Buckner will be key to that.
49ers QB Jimmy Garoppolo: If the game is played on third-and-long, that’s advantage: Chiefs. So it’ll be on Garoppolo to manage the game and down-and-distances properly, and make a few plays when the Niners do get into longer-yardage situations. San Francisco doesn’t need him to carry the team, but will probably ask of more from than was asked in either of the team’s first two playoff games.
49ers FB Kyle Juszczyk: The fullback is key to Kyle Shanahan getting defensive personnel on the field that the opponent doesn’t want to put out there. And in this case, with Kansas City, it’ll mean getting more linebackers on to the field. That could make Juszczyk doubly valuable, both as a checkdown option for Garoppolo and a matchup problem for those linebackers.
Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes: This is a game in which Mahomes is going to have to move. So much of San Francisco’s Seattle-rooted scheme is about getting home fast. And there could be opportunities for Mahomes to break contain when Dee Ford is on the field. Ford, as the Chiefs know all too well, has a tendency to get upfield too fast at times, and take himself out of plays. (Another thing to watch here: KC could run jet sweeps and screens early to keep the San Francisco D-line at bay, and to try and wear them out.
Chiefs S Tyrann Mathieu: This one’s not too complicated. The Niners formation and motion opponents to death. Communication within a defense becomes key as a result. The Honey Badger is KC’s top communicator.
Chiefs C Austin Reiter: If there’s a weakness in the Chiefs’ offense, is within the interior of the offensive line. And so I’d expect Niners DC Robert Saleh to find matchups with Buckner and Arik Armstead there. Reiter will be in the middle of all of that, and important in directing traffic as that happens.
49ers CB Richard Sherman: How the Niners use Sherman will be a tell into what their overall game plan is. It’d be tough to play cover-3 all night against the Chiefs’ speed and a quarterback, in Mahomes, who can get the ball into tight windows. So do the Niners feel comfortable manning KC up? Sherman would be key to that. One interesting thing to note on this—the 2016 Falcons played a lot more man against the Patriots than they had at any point that year out of Dan Quinn’s Seattle-style defense. Also on that staff? Current 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan.
Chiefs DE Terrell Suggs: This is one I’m throwing in there because A) He’s got Super Bowl experience (2012 with Baltimore) and B) I had someone point out to me how good he is in these spots. “Give him two weeks to know an opponent,” this person said, “and he’ll be telling the rest of the defense what’s coming.”
POWER RANKINGS BALLOT
1) San Francisco 49ers (15-3): No games last weekend, so they stay number one. I’ve been planning to pick them all along. But I’d be lying if the presence of Mahomes in this game hasn’t gotten me to overthink things a little.
2) Kansas City Chiefs (14-4): So we’ll see—I’ve gone from thinking this was a 10- or 14-point game to it being a field goal either way. Which is probably because you get a lot of time ahead of a Super Bowl to second-guess it.
3) Baltimore Ravens (14-3): I know. I moved the Ravens up from No. 4, even though nothing happened. Thing is, this is going to be part of my final ranking for the season. And if we’re going on the totality of the year, Baltimore’s gotta be pretty high on any list.
4) Tennessee Titans (11-8): Losing defensive coordinator Dean Pees is a blow. Like I said in the MMQB, I’d keep an eye on outside linebackers coach Shane Bowen as a potential replacement. Whatever happens, it’ll only be the start of a pretty interesting offseason in Tennessee, one that could well include a run at Mike Vrabel’s old buddy Tom Brady.
5) Green Bay Packers (14-4): There really is a lot to build on here, when you consider the cornerstones—Aaron Rodgers, Davante Adams, Aaron Jones, David Bakhtiari, Za’Darius Smith, Preston, Jaire Alexander, et al.—in place.
WHAT NO ONE IS TALKING ABOUT
Guys like Reid, Veach, Shanahan and John Lynch deserve all the credit they’re getting for being here. They took different roads, but both teams arrive at Super Bowl LIV with rosters overflowing with talent, put together coherently by people working in lockstep. And that doesn’t happen without those in charge knowing what they’re doing.
What we don’t talk about is the importance of those people putting the right people around them. Spagnuolo’s one example of that, Eric Bienemy is another. Likewise, Shanahan’s got Mike McDaniel, Mike LaFleur and Saleh in leadership positions. Both teams have respected special teams coaches (Dave Toub, Richard Hightower), and deep groups of scouts (with guys like Adam Peters and Mike Borgonzi as the GMs’ top lieutenants.
All of this is to say you should pay plenty of attention to the second wave of hiring.
Which brings us to the challenge in front of the Browns. New coach Kevin Stefanski is still working on assembling his staff, but has run into some roadblocks. And you wonder with ex-GM John Dorsey, assistant GM Eliot Wolf and VP of player personnel Alonzo Highsmith gone—and they take 66 years of scouting experience between them—how new GM Andrew Berry, just 32, is going to fill out the top of his personnel group.
Is he connected enough to find the right guys? Will scouts be leery of going there, given the feeling that the Browns are going all-in on analytics?
Fact is, the challenge in front of this particular Browns reboot is significant. Both Stefanski and Brown are sharp, aggressive and hard-working. But if the Niners and Chiefs have shown us anything, it’s that it takes more than two people who are that way.
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