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Inside Steve Spagnuolo's mindset before interim head coach debut

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The Giants have an opportunity to impact the Cowboys' playoff chances:

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. –On Nov. 14, 2010, the 6-2 Giants were riding a five-game winning streak when they hosted a Dallas Cowboys team that was 1-7 and had lost five consecutive games. Just two games previously, the Giants had won in Dallas, 41-35.


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But the Cowboys arrived here with newly-hired interim head coach Jason Garrett, and returned home celebrating a 33-20 triumph.

On Sunday, the teams will play their annual NFC East game in MetLife Stadium with their roles reversed from seven years ago. Garrett is still the coach of the 6-6 Cowboys. But now it is the Giants who are struggling at 2-10, and they will play their first game under interim coach Steve Spagnuolo, who replaced Ben McAdoo on Monday. Spags has retained his duties as defensive coordinator.

Thrust back into head coaching on the fly, Spagnuolo would like to have sought counsel this week from … Garrett.

"Jason and I are good friends," Spagnuolo said. "I got a great deal of respect for him. Somebody when I was talking to the Dallas media, whatever day it was this week, somebody had mentioned (and) I had forgotten that Jason (was an interim head coach). I don't remember what the circumstances were, or what the record was. But I think Jason did a pretty good job going through. He had a full half of the season.

"When they mentioned that, I said, 'Geez, Jason is a good friend. I wish I could get on the phone and say, 'What are your suggestions?' But I didn't really think he would give any good suggestions, so I didn't do that. It'll be good to see him and this is just something I've been challenged with, been blessed with, and hopefully it'll be a good thing."

Garrett, a Giants backup quarterback from 2000-03, guided Dallas to a 5-3 record the second half of that season, which convinced Jerry Jones to keep him on the job. His record against the Giants is 8-6.

"It was a collective challenge," Garrett said of replacing Wade Phillips midway through the season. "We had to somehow, someway, process what had happened and then get our sights set on a ballgame that we were going to play in six days. I thought our coaching staff did a really good job and our team did a really good job somehow processing it, and just really getting focused and locked in on what that preparation day was and how important it was to us and we were able to do that the rest of the week. That was really the big challenge and the thing that we focused on."

Photos of Interim Head Coach/Defensive Coordinator Steve Spagnuolo's two stints with the Giants

Spagnuolo faces a similar challenge now. But he is excited for the opportunity and eager to be a head coach for the first time since Jan. 1, 2012, when he coached the final game of his three-year stint as the St. Louis Rams' coach.

"There will probably be some butterflies, but they're always there," Spagnuolo said. "I mean, even when you're calling the defense. That's the fun part of working in the NFL. It's big, it's exciting. I remember growing up before there was ESPN and you could only get Saturday and it was NFL Films that was running highlights of the week, and that was fun to me. I just enjoy that part of it. So a Sunday is always fun when you can be involved in the NFL."

Spagnuolo quickly put his imprint on the team, reinstalling Eli Manning as the starting quarterback, restructuring the practice schedule, and adopting new rules for the players' practice attire. But because he's operating on the fly, Spagnuolo didn't want to oversee a major overhaul.

"In a normal setting, you take the job as head coach, there's some time in there," Spagnuolo said. "It's almost like a buildup. Here, it was a thrust. So, what I tried not to do was to change too much or to try to do too many things. One of the things you do learn when you take (a head coaching job) the first time, you think you're going to charge in there and do everything on your own. You got to rely on a lot of other people, and we're lucky here because we have good people. I feel confident in the assistant coaches, the staff. Obviously, the equipment, training room are familiar with everybody, and everything kind of went smoothly in that regard. That's a credit to all the people in the building, and I appreciate it. So, trying not to stick my hand or foot or face or brain where it really doesn't belong. That's probably the biggest thing."

It's helped that he has a game he's trying to win. His focus is on beating the Cowboys, and more specifically, devising a defensive game plan to stymie Dallas' offense.

The Giants and Cowboys have played many late-season big games in recent years. But with the Giants seeking just their third victory, this matchup lacks the playoff implications of so many other meetings.

"I haven't thought that way," Spagnuolo said. "It's been more about playing this game on Sunday that happens to be Dallas. I think there's a little bit more meaning because it is Dallas. Giants and Dallas. No matter what the record is, and I'm being honest when I say this, one of the goals you're always looking to achieve is that feeling in the locker room when you win a game. There's nothing like that after going through a week of preparation and everybody is, coaches and staff, players. You work a little bit and you peak to that win. That feeling is something that we're chasing right now. That will be really important to us."

If the Giants seek a little additional incentive, they can cripple the Cowboys' postseason hopes by beating them.

"I don't know that we need extra motivation that way," Spagnuolo said. "It's a football game. In some ways, most people that you play in MetLife Stadium has got to be a faceless opponent. We got to go out there and do our job, no matter what. So again, we're trying to find a way to win a football game."

As Jason Garrett can tell him, that's a great play for an interim coach to start.

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