Steve Spagnuolo has lived through the abnormal life cycle of the NFL coaching business. He’s been the Super Bowl-winning defensive coordinator who was one of the most coveted head-coaching candidates. Then, there was that year in Baltimore when he had the makeshift title of senior defensive assistant.
“I never doubted myself,” he says now. “You ask questions, why? Because usually when you go through things like that, there are all different circumstances. There is not one reason.”
Now, back in the same job he held nine years ago, Spagnuolo has once again unlocked success as the Giants’ defensive coordinator. New York’s $200 million free-agent spending spree on three defensive playmakers—NT Damon Harrison, DE Olivier Vernon and CB Janoris Jenkins—turned heads. But the most important offseason move may have been retaining Spagnuolo on new coach Ben McAdoo’s staff.
The move was largely unheralded at the time. After all, the last two defenses that Spagnuolo coordinated, the 2015 Giants and the 2012 Saints, both ranked last in the league in yards allowed and in the bottom three in in points allowed. But the circumstance that doomed last year’s unit was a glaring lack of talent, so much so that team co-owner John Mara said after last season, “We do not have enough championship-caliber players.” Now, with a defense that ranks third in the league in points allowed, the Giants are on their way to the postseason for the first time since 2011.
Spagnuolo deserves credit because there have been plenty of examples in NFL history when free-agent spending sprees didn’t turn anything around. This year’s Jaguars are one example, and everyone remembers the Eagles’ ill-fated “Dream Team” in 2011. Spagnuolo’s creativity distinguished him with the 2007 Giants’ Super Bowl XLII defense, when he devised the “Four Aces” package featuring four pass rushers. He’s mixed and matched this year, too, blending the old parts with the new pieces better than anyone could have imagined.
In the secondary alone, Jenkins, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and rookie Eli Apple have changed roles throughout the year based on injuries, matchups and performance. He’s done the same at linebacker, where there was no big free-agent signing. Two of the Giants’ best defensive performances of the season, a 10-7 win against Dallas in Week 14 and a 17-6 win against Detroit a week later, came after Jason Pierre-Paul had season-ending groin surgery.
“Really, more than anything, some of the new guys came in with an attitude of team unity and molding things together,” Spagnuolo says. “That doesn’t normally happen when you are new, coming from [other teams]. But we had a little bit of a void there. A year ago Jon Beason got hurt, and we kind of lost leadership. So when we came back this year, somebody was going to surface. And it really has been new guys like Damon Harrison and Janoris Jenkins, plus [captain] Jonathan Casillas. Damon Harrison, to me, he’s the glue. He’s the leader and the guy that can straighten things out. I think guys respond to him.
“It’s a credit to the players who were here and have embraced new guys who were getting paid some money. That’s important. And it’s a credit to the guys who came in and accepted roles … they didn’t come storming in.”
But it’s also a big credit to Spagnuolo, who has rewarded the team’s faith in him. It’s not always easy to discern good coaching behind the scenes, but a great example has been Landon Collins. The Giants drafted the former Alabama safety at the top of the second round in 2015; questions about his ball skills caused him to slide that far. But Spagnuolo, from Day 1, was adamant about not putting restrictions on his players. “You can always improve,” he said about Collins then. “Sometimes guys have to take it upon themselves to get better at a skill by putting the time in … So, we’ll push that.”
Both Spagnuolo and safeties coach David Merritt started putting in that work with Collins at his rookie minicamp. Collins’ emergence as a Pro Bowler in 2016 has been a driving force behind the Giants’ success. Last year, he dropped what would have been a game-winning interception in what instead became a close loss to the Patriots. This year, he’s been making those kinds of plays—a game-clinching interception in Week 11 against Chicago, for example. After beating the Lions, Collins praised Spagnuolo for “turning us loose” this season, a reference to the versatile ways in which he’s used Collins, including as a blitzer.
With an offense that hasn’t scored 20 points since November, the Giants will have to count on their defense to go deep into the playoffs. The D, however, has tripped up on its own a few times. In last week’s 24-19 loss in Philadelphia, with Jenkins sidelined by a back injury and Harrison missing some plays with a knee injury, the Giants struggled to contain rookie QB Carson Wentz, who used his legs to evade sacks and scramble for a few first downs. Spagnuolo, though, has seemed to know what tone to hit with his players at critical points in the season. After Pierre-Paul’s injury, he empowered rookie Romeo Okwara to seize a bigger role. After the Giants’ second win over the Cowboys, he emphasized that he did not want that to be their best game—and they followed up with the suffocating win over Detroit.
Perhaps Spagnuolo’s steadiness is best confirmed by the “up and down” career path, as he calls it, that he’s followed over the past few years. He spent three seasons as the Rams’ head coach, compiling a 10-38 record. He was fired following the 2011 season, and then got one year in New Orleans to try to turn the Saints defense around. When he was fired from that coordinator job, he worked his way back up, starting with the senior defensive assistant job in Baltimore, and then another year there as assistant head coach/secondary coach.
“You learn that you’ve gotta keep faith,” Spagnuolo says. “I am a strong man of God, and I relied on that a lot in the down times. My wife was very helpful. And I never lost confidence. I always felt, you just keep doing what you are doing in this profession, and you work your way back up. But I don’t really feel like I have gotten anywhere yet.”
He adds: “The years when you are way up top and they give you all that credit, all that credit is not valid because it takes more than one person. The same thing when you are down. It is not always one person’s fault. There are a lot of reasons for having good stats and bad … and I am not a stat guy. It has always been about players developing. In New Orleans, I didn’t get a chance. You are going to need more than eight months to develop guys, we didn’t [get that], and that’s OK. Now that we have had the chance to do that here, I think it is working out pretty good.”
Spagnuolo says he still gets a text after every game, congratulating him on the job he’s done. The sender is Tom Coughlin, the former Giants coach who hired Spagnuolo in 2007 and hired him again in 2015. Spagnuolo says he is “still hurt” that the performance of the defense contributed to Coughlin’s ouster after 12 seasons on New York’s sideline. “I hurt that it hurt Tom,” he Spagnuolo says. “Because look, I love the guy, and I am loyal to him, and I believe in him, and I was hoping we could do better than we did. But who knows what is in store for him in the future. I am hoping some opportunities come his way.”
Spagnuolo is hoping the same for himself. This season has been redeeming. His defense is back among the NFL’s best. And he hopes the NFL life cycle gives him another shot at being a head coach. “Absolutely. I am hoping that happens,” he says. “We’ll see.”
THE FINE FIFTEEN
1. New England (13-2). LW: 1. The Patriots don’t want a repeat of last year. They’re going to Miami hell-bent on locking up home-field advantage in the playoffs the only certain way, by beating the Dolphins.
2. Dallas (13-2). LW: 2. While Sunday’s injuries to Derek Carr and Marcus Mariota might have given the Cowboys some pause, continuing to play their starters last night even with the NFC’s No. 1 seed locked up was the right move. Otherwise, they’d have a month off until their next meaningful game.
3. Kansas City (11-4). LW: 3. That late Dontari Poe TD was a little shove in the face not only to the defending champion Broncos, but also to Raiders coach Jack Del Rio, who ruffled some feathers earlier this year by saying the Chiefs offense relied on some “gimmicky things.” Derek Carr’s broken fibula opens the door for the Chiefs to take the AFC West title, if they can win at San Diego and Matt McGloin and the Raiders lose at Denver.
4. Pittsburgh (10-5). LW: 6. The win against the Ravens served as an ominous reminder to the AFC that, no matter how much the Steelers offense might look like it’s struggling, it has a 181-pound receiver who can outmuscle two defenders on the goal line.
5. Atlanta (10-5). LW: 7. For a while, the most overlooked team in the NFL was the Chiefs. Now, I’d say it’s Atlanta. But suddenly they are in position to claim the NFC’s No. 2 seed and a first-round bye.
6. Seattle (9-5-1). LW: 5. They’re the most experienced team in the NFC playoff picture, which counts for something. But the offensive line continues to be a huge liability, and there are only so many ways to scheme around that.
7. Green Bay (9-6). LW: 11. Is Aaron Rodgers eligible for Comeback Player of the Year? I kid, but you get the point. Equally impressive has been the play of linebacker Clay Matthews, who is either really feeling better after separating his shoulder last month or has just figured out how to work around it.
8. Giants (10-5). LW: 8. The statistic that concerns me for the Giants’ postseason viability: They are averaging just 83.4 rushing yards per game, fourth-worst in the league.
9. Detroit (9-6). LW: 9. The Lions haven’t won a division title since 1993. It’s down to one game, at home, against the red-hot Packers.
10. Oakland (12-3). LW: 4. The fact that I have the Raiders sliding down six spots after Derek Carr’s broken fibula is perhaps an indicator of the QB’s strong case for MVP. He was the player who had elevated this team. Without him, it’s hard to see the Raiders winning again this season.
11. Baltimore (8-5). LW: 12. It was hard to watch Sunday’s Steelers-Ravens game and not believe that both teams would be tough outs in the postseason. But for the second straight year, and the third time in four years, the Ravens will miss the playoffs.
12. Miami (10-5). LW: 13. The Dolphins have a chance of moving from the No. 6 seed to the No. 5 seed if they beat New England this week, which is a much bigger swing than it might sound like. That’s potentially the difference between playing at Pittsburgh in the first round and playing at Houston.
13. Denver (8-7). LW: 11. The Broncos gambled that their quarterback play would be good enough to make the postseason. It was not quite enough. Now, they have a big offseason decision to make at the position. Cue the Tony Romo rumors.
14. Washington (8-6-1). LW: 16. Whether this year ends with a playoff berth or not, Kirk Cousins has shown enough this season to prove that last year was not a fluke and earn a long-term place in Washington.
15. Buccaneers (8-7). LW: 14. Doug Martin being inactive for a critical Week 16 game raised eyebrows. This young team continues to be plagued by growing pains.
Also receiving consideration:
16. Houston (9-6). LW: 18.
17. Tennessee (8-7). LW: 15.
18. New Orleans (7-8). LW: UR.
19. Indianapolis (7-8). LW: 17.
20. Buffalo (7-8). LW: 19.
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