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Notebook: Steve Spagnuolo reflects on past experience before Super Bowl LVII


PHOENIX – Super Bowl LVII has been subtitled the Andy Reid Bowl, because he has coached the participating teams for each of the last 24 seasons – 1999-2012 for the Philadelphia Eagles and the last 10 for the Kansas City Chiefs. Those two teams will meet Sunday in State Farm Stadium to decide the 2022 NFL Championship.

Though he's not in the headline, Steve Spagnuolo is a big part of the story. This is the Chiefs' defensive coordinator's fifth Super Bowl, and this game neatly ties his Super Bowl story up in terms of his team, coach, opponent and location.

Spagnuolo is in his fourth Super Bowl with Reid, who brought him into the NFL as an Eagles defensive assistant in his debut season as head coach. Spagnuolo spent his first eight NFL seasons with the Eagles, who lost Super Bowl XXXIX to New England. In 2007, Spagnuolo joined Tom Coughlin's staff as the Giants' defensive coordinator. Reid and Spags reunited in Kansas City in 2019. The Chiefs have since advanced to three of the last four Super Bowls, beating San Francisco three years ago before losing to Tampa Bay the following season.

The showdown with the Eagles will be played in the same stadium where on Feb. 3, 2008, the Giants pulled off one of the great upsets in NFL history with a 17-14 victory against the 18-0 New England Patriots. Spagnuolo's defense was magnificent, holding an offense that scored a then NFL-record 589 points to two touchdowns. Now he is trying to devise a scheme to minimize an attack that scored 477 points – the league's second-highest total behind the Chiefs' 496 - before adding 69 in two postseason games.

"It's tying things together, isn't it?" Spagnuolo said in a phone conversation last week. "I'm blessed for that. First, having worked for the Eagles, that's just a great organization as well – they're top of the league. They're right up there with the Giants. Two great organizations. So, I'm fortunate to get my beginning there and go to a Super Bowl and then go to the Giants and in one year, get the experience of that – playing who we played, winning the way we did. Then to be back with Andy, who gave me my start in the NFL. I wouldn't be in the NFL if it wasn't for Andy Reid. And then get to three Super Bowls together and have it in Phoenix this year, I would say that's pretty full circle. I'm blessed to have it all wrapped up together like that." 

Five Super Bowls and all of them working for Reid and Coughlin, two of the very best coaches of their era.

"How fortunate am I to have worked with two Hall of Famers?" Spagnuolo said. "They'll both be in the Hall of Fame – if they're not, something's wrong. It can't get any better for me. Who would've thought a short, white guy from Grafton, Massachusetts, would work for two Hall of Fame head coaches and go to a few Super Bowls and experience a couple of wins? I pinch myself a lot. I consider myself very, very fortunate."

Spagnuolo's two most recent Super Bowl experiences were vastly different. In Super Bowl LIV, his defense shut out the San Francisco 49ers in the fourth quarter and the Chiefs scored 21 unanswered points to rally from a 10-point deficit for a 31-20 victory in Miami.

"We played very well at the end of the game," Spagnuolo said. "The biggest thing that sticks out was I was so happy to have had a part in helping Andy Reid win the Super Bowl. That's what I cherish the most about that one. And when we knew the game was won, the first person I went to was him. I can still remember that hug. In fact, there's a picture of Andy and I together right at the end of that. Because he brought me into the league, what he's meant, who he is, what he's all about – I wanted so badly to have some say, some support in helping him win his first Super Bowl. And it worked out that way."

The following year, Spagnuolo was again tasked with stopping a Tom Brady-led offense in the Super Bowl. His defense was not as successful as the Giants had been in Arizona 13 years earlier. Brady threw three touchdown passes and was sacked just once in a 31-9 Buccaneers victory in Tampa before a pandemic-limited crowd of 24,835.

"With the whole COVID thing, it was different," Spagnuolo said. "We didn't go out before. It was like a regular game. We left on Saturday, got to the hotel on Saturday night, played the game. We lost the game, turned around and came back. It was in Tampa Bay, so it felt like we were playing a road game in Tampa. It didn't have everything that goes with a Super Bowl. It wasn't that unique experience. I'm hoping we can write a different story on this."

Just as he did in Super Bowl XLII vs. the Patriots. That season, Brady had thrown a record 50 touchdown passes (since topped by Peyton Manning and tied by Patrick Mahomes). Randy Moss caught 23 of them, still the highest total ever. New England scored 34 or more points 12 times in 16 games, prompting Spagnuolo to say the Pats had "the greatest offense ever to have been put out there." 

He does not recant that statement now, despite working with Mahomes and the prolific Chiefs for four years. 

"When you look at the way the league is today with the rules and the skillsets the guys have, there's a lot of good offenses out there," Spagnuolo said. "We face a good one in practice every week. What the Patriots did – going undefeated, Tom Brady, Moss, the whole matchup – that was a pretty big challenge. I'm not sure I've had to face that kind of challenge since then. Now, you get into a Super Bowl, and they're all huge challenges. But that was a pretty special thing."

Spagnuolo's Giants defense was up to the test. The unit recorded five sacks of Brady – two by Justin Tuck – and hit him nine times. The Patriots scored just two touchdowns in nine offensive possessions. Moss scored one but was held to five catches for 62 yards.

When Spagnuolo reflects on the signature game of his coaching career, he thinks not of Michael Strahan earning a ring in his final appearance in uniform, the front's relentless pressure or a run defense that held the Patriots to 45 yards and 2.9 yards a carry.

"If I think deeply about it, I think first about how when the game was over, I just searched for Maria – my wife," Spagnuolo said. "That's the first thing you think of when it's over and you've won – all the people who sacrificed like you did and are there with you. I couldn't find her initially. There was like a 10-minute panic of, 'Where's my wife?' You want to celebrate with the people you love the most, and then finally I found her (with help from one of Coughlin's sons). That, to me, is the most special moment. And then like any game, the locker room after a win is what I cherish the most – when you can go into the locker room after a Super Bowl win. There's nothing better than when it's just the guys. There's no extracurricular. It's just you and all the guys you did it with. To me, that was special."

Spagnuolo will need a similar performance from his players on Sunday against an Eagles offense that the Giants and their fans are aware is one of the NFL's best. Philadelphia was third in the NFL in both points and yardage and its collection of standout ballhandlers includes quarterback Jalen Hurts; running backs Miles Sanders, Boston Scott and Kenneth Gainwell; wide receivers Devonta Smith and A.J. Brown; and tight end Dallas Goedert, plus an offensive line that might be the league's finest.

"It's a scary juggernaut of talent in my opinion," Spagnuolo said. "The only chance of slowing down an offense like that is to play really good, complementary unit defense. When you make a mistake in any defense that's called, then they're going to find a way to exploit it. The quarterback is really good at not putting them in a bad play. And with the whole RPO thing, he can decide what's the best thing to do – hand it off, throw it or keep it himself. We have to play faster than them. And they're a really fast football team. The talent's there, it's unique.

"That combined with the fact that we've got three rookies playing in the secondary doesn't make me sleep at night. That's the way it is. We've got to find a way to mix it up and do something good. It'll be a challenge. We're going to need our offense to help us, to be quite honest with you. We've got to jump out and score some points and force Philadelphia into a certain game. But if Philly gets into a groove and they play from ahead, they're really tough."

Spagnuolo hopes to prevent that and add to his collection of football jewelry – he has two Super Bowl rings and two for winning conference championships. Ironically, he keeps them in … Philadelphia.

"We still have a place there because Maria's from there," Spagnuolo said. "We'll always have ties there. Isn't that funny? I still have a home there, and now we're playing them in the Super Bowl. We spend a lot of time in the offseason – it's Philadelphia, and it's the Jersey Shore. That part of the country is always going to be part of me. Wouldn't you know, we played the Patriots in some Super Bowls. And now we're playing the Eagles in some others. So, eastern guy."

Like many players, coaches and executives who have won Super Bowl rings, Spagnuolo seldom wears or even looks at his. 

"Doesn't it amaze you, considering how hard you work for it?" he said. "You cherished it. There will come a point where I wear them. There are people who coach and play in this league that never get to one. So, how blessed are we to have what we have? That's never lost on me. I thank God every day. I don't know how it ever happened. It's all Him, because otherwise I wouldn't be here. I'm certainly glad I am."

Spagnuolo's long-held ambition of becoming an NFL head coach was realized in 2009 with the St. Louis Rams. He was dismissed after three seasons. Following stints with New Orleans and Baltimore, he returned to the Giants as defensive coordinator in 2015. Spagnuolo was the team's interim head coach for the final four games of the 2017 season after Ben McAdoo was fired. The Giants lost the first three of those games before defeating Washington in the season finale, 18-10.

The Giants' lineup that day included three wide receivers who made their NFL starting debuts and other players who had short careers with the team. It was the last game in a forgettable 3-13 season. Just don't tell Spagnuolo it was meaningless.

"One of my most enjoyable and memorable wins in this league will be that last game against Washington," he said. "I know it didn't mean anything to anybody, but we went out there with guys from the street. We had guys injured and guys suspended, and Eli's (Manning) out there battling. Just to win that game. Half the guys, it's hard to even remember who played because it was a little bit different. But I did love what they did that day. I'm just happy I got one win as the head coach of the Giants. I'll never forget that." 

Spagnuolo turned 63 in December and would welcome another opportunity to be a head coach. But he won't be crushed if it doesn't happen.

"Look, I'd like that chance," he said. "We all do. We're prideful guys, so you want a chance to prove you're better than the way you finished. I enjoyed it. As hard as it was in New York that last month, I enjoyed representing the Giants as the head football coach."

This week, his concerns are more immediate – devising a plan to stop the Eagles, celebrating another championship and enjoying another hug with Reid, with whom he first partnered 24 years ago.

"I would say at the core, he has not changed at all," Spagnuolo said. "He's rock solid in everything he does – never wavers, never too high, never too low. He has a tremendous amount of respect for the players who give it right back to him. I don't know of a player or coach that has worked for Andy that hasn't had anything but great things to say about him. He's really, really unique. I love him. I'd do anything for him. And I'm hoping that somehow, some way, we can put together a good enough defensive showing in this game that will help him get a second Super Bowl ring because he's of that caliber. He deserves to be a two-time Super Bowl champion."

View photos of former Giants and current Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo.


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