MetLife return harkens to new life for Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo

Tammy Ljungblad/

The last time Steve Spagnuolo coached at MetLife Stadium was New Year’s Eve 2017 as the interim head coach and defensive coordinator of the New York Giants. The Giants beat Washington 18-10 that day, and Spagnuolo was one of six candidates to interview for the vacancy.

But the Giants chose Pat Shurmur, who didn’t retain Spagnuolo after he’d gone 1-3 in the interim role he hoped would lead to his second NFL head coaching job after those three grim seasons with the St. Louis Rams.

Other assistant offers came, but not quite the right ones, and Spagnuolo consciously decided to take a year off. The pause after decades on the go was energizing, albeit in part because he stayed immersed in football with frequent visits from his suburban Pennsylvania home to NFL Films in South Jersey.

He’d study tape, compile notes and essentially scout. He was preparing, presumably, for his next job.

Through some 55 weeks out of coaching, though, Spagnuolo turned 59 and came to wonder whether that next job really awaited.

“That thought runs through your mind,” he said in an interview with The Star on Thursday. “It’s always about knowing the right person and did it fall a certain way.”

As it happened, the right person knew him when it fell this certain way: Two days after the Chiefs in January 2019 lost the AFC Championship Game to the Patriots 37-31 when their defense was shredded in overtime, Andy Reid and the Chiefs braintrust fired defensive coordinator Bob Sutton.

As some wondered if Reid was being more nostalgic than pragmatic, he turned to Spagnuolo: a man he first got to know through sheer happenstance in El Paso and Columbia, Missouri, and hired in Philadelphia.

Turned to him at a crucial juncture of Reid’s own career.

If having Patrick Mahomes meant always having a chance, having an inferior defense also meant that a trapdoor could sabotage every opportunity the Chiefs and Reid could have to win a Super Bowl.

Three Super Bowls and two titles later, it’s almost hard to remember how pivotal that choice was as Spagnuolo makes his first return to MetLife Stadium on Sunday when the Chiefs take on the New York Jets.

‘Speed of the leader, speed of the pack’

Entering the game, the man who shepherded Reid’s defenses from Achilles’ heel to an asset that typically has peaked late and when it matters most has fused together a group that has meshed much earlier.

Through three games, the Chiefs are fourth in the NFL in points allowed (13.3 a game) and went the span of two full games — from late in the Detroit opener to late in last week’s game against Chicago — without surrendering a touchdown. As for the game in-between, Jacksonville, Mahomes had it right when he said after the 17-9 win that defense won the game.

Considering seven of the 40 points scored by opponents were on a pick-6 in the opener, the defense itself has given up only 33 points. Since the turn of the century for the Chiefs, that’s second only to the 2006 defense that yielded 32 through the first three games.

That stat figures to be reinforced against the Jets, who are last in the NFL in scoring at 14 points a game after a season-ending injury to star quarterback Aaron Rodgers on the first series of their first game.

Meanwhile, the trend also will be severely challenged as the season goes along: The Chiefs have yet to play a top 10 scoring offense; six of those games await.

So it’s a small sample size, to be sure. But it reflects the continuity, communication and cohesion within an elaborate and imaginative scheme that returned 13 of the 18 players who played 10 or more snaps in the Super Bowl.

“A lot of young guys … played last year, and you can tell they were probably playing faster than their mind was comprehending,” Mahomes said. “And now you can feel they’re very comfortable.”

And that starts with the architect.

“I love the saying that goes, ‘speed of the leader, speed of the pack,” said linebacker Drue Tranquill, signed in the offseason to add depth and versatility. “And it starts with ‘Spags,’ obviously.”

Including setting expectations and tone with what Tranquill called an even-keeled disposition on which to count.

“The in-game adjustments, the halftime adjustments, are brilliant,” Tranquill said. “They’re quick, they’re easy, they’re digestible. … I’ve just loved how smooth the operation is.”

‘I’m not going to let this guy down’

On that side of the ball, anyway, it was anything but smooth by the end of the 2018 season. With sweeping implications.

Coinciding with Spagnuolo’s NFL career in limbo, Reid’s even was at a crossroads of sorts as he pondered Sutton’s replacement.

Even with all the promise portended by Mahomes’ stunning emergence that season, a half-century of playoff misery for the Chiefs had largely continued in the Reid era. For all he had done to reset the franchise, and all he would do since, Reid was 2-5 in the postseason in Kansas City, 12-14 in the postseason overall and conceivably on trajectory to becoming the greatest coach never to win a Super Bowl.

Hiring Spagnuolo days after firing Sutton was a momentous decision that either would help end that trend or confirm it. Either way, the future success of the defense was going to clarify the meaning of Reid’s career itself.

At the mention of that point on Thursday, Spagnuolo laughed and said he hadn’t quite thought of it in such heavy terms at the time.

Still …

“I will tell you this: I do remember vividly feeling (that) … it was all about not letting him down,” he said. “In my mind, every hour I worked, every sacrifice I made, was, ‘I’m not going to let this guy down.’ ”

Reid tends to engender that in people in general. But all the more so when there’s a history to the relationship, a history that compelled Reid to see the answers within Spagnuolo even as a case could be made his career had peaked some years before.

The Mizzou factor

They had met at the University of Texas-El Paso in the late 1980s but not as colleagues, exactly. Spagnuolo, then an assistant coach at the University of Connecticut, often came to visit his former University of Massachusetts contemporary Steve Telander.

He’d do the same when that staff led by Bob Stull, and including current Chiefs special teams coordinator Dave Toub, went to Mizzou in 1989.

Spagnuolo was there often enough, in fact, that Reid has joked he was almost part of the Missouri staff. But they connected over Spagnuolo’s passion for the game, and they stayed in touch when Reid left MU after the 1991 season to start his NFL career as a Green Bay assistant.

He saw enough in him through those meetings that when Reid took over the Eagles in 1999, he hired Spagnuolo — whose only direct NFL experience had been as a player personnel intern with Washington in 1983. He’s grateful to this day that Reid gave him that chance.

In his eight seasons in Philly, he would be profoundly influenced by wily defensive coordinator Jim Johnson — who played football at MU.

After Johnson died in 2009 from cancer, Reid said, “This whole Eagles-Andy Reid regime here that’s taken place wouldn’t have been possible without Jim.”

Reid had been grooming Spagnuolo to become Johnson’s successor, but Spagnuolo was hired away to become the Giants’ defensive coordinator in 2007.

It was his defense that shut down the 18-0 Patriots in Super Bowl XLII, holding them to fewer than half their regular-season average of 36.8 points a game in a 17-14 victory marked by five sacks of Tom Brady.

Next thing you know, Spagnuolo was named head coach of the Rams in 2009. But he went 10-38 in three seasons before being fired and trying to revive his career with stops in New Orleans and Baltimore before heading back to New York in 2015.

Then they converged again at another turning point for each. And now you could say that this whole Chiefs-Andy Reid regime here wouldn’t have been possible without Steve.

Not to mention Patrick … and Brett Veach … and Travis Kelce … and Chris Jones … and many others. But Spagnuolo has been nothing less than vital.

Now, it’s early this season yet, and you can bet there will be ups and downs and times when we’ll all question how good the defense is again.

But as Spagnuolo returns to a milepost of his career this weekend, it bears mention that the optimal outcome came from him not getting what he wanted at the time … and having the presence of mind to step back. And that the reunion helped complete Reid, who is 10-2 in the postseason and has risen to the fourth-winningest coach in NFL history since banking on Spagnuolo.

Because it all fell a certain way with the right person, who sure has made good on not letting Reid down.