MIAMI – Steve Spagnuolo has heard from members of his old gang since the Kansas City Chiefs clinched a berth in Super Bowl LIV on Jan. 19.
Tom Coughlin texted him "yesterday or the day before." Michael Strahan told Spagnuolo he would attend one of the Chiefs' practices here this week. Antonio Pierce, with whom he frequently communicates, checked in. "I heard from Osi (Umenyiora) way over in London," Spagnuolo said. "(Justin) Tuck texted me, he said that he was getting all kinds of questions about me."
Spagnuolo, the Chiefs' defensive coordinator, is back in the Super Bowl for the first time since the 2007 season, when he held the same position with the Giants and conceived the game plan that smothered New England's record-setting offense and keyed an epic upset of the Patriots. That Spags has an opportunity to earn another ring is important not only to him, but to the players who admire and respect him from working together on the Giants in 2007-08.
"Being here does bring me back to that, so it's a really good memory," Spagnuolo said at Super Bowl Opening Night, where the players and coaches of the Chiefs and San Francisco 49ers both had hour-long sessions with the nation's media. "That was a special group. This is a special group I'm with right now, but what we did then, nobody expected it and it came out okay. I remember them talking about the 19-0 book that was already written. The boys got all fired up about it. A lot of special things about it."
The Giants won the Super Bowl in Spagnuolo's debut season as coordinator. The long wait to get back to the game prompted him to think not only of the players who helped get him there, but a Hall of Famer who also advanced to the Super Bowl as a rookie – but never returned.
"We all think of Dan Marino, right?" Spagnuolo said. "He went that very first year (1984) and never gets there again. You're so caught up in the first one, you win it, you hope you get back there. I remember saying this to myself, as great as it was in New York in '07, I remember saying to myself, 'I hope that's not the end or the ultimate. I hope there's something better than that.' I don't know if that will be the case or not because that was pretty special, but I'm sure glad to be involved with it again."
Spagnuolo had reason to wonder whether he'd return to the Super Bowl, because since the Giants' 17-14 victory in Arizona, his career has endured more disappointments than celebrations. In 2008, the Giants earned the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs, but lost their postseason opener to Philadelphia. He left to become the head coach of the St. Louis Rams, but his three seasons with the team ended with a 10-38 record. Spagnuolo was hired to be New Orleans Saints' defensive coordinator in 2012. But head coach Sean Payton was suspended for the season by the NFL, the team allowed an NFL-record 7,032 yards and Spagnuolo was dismissed. He then spent two seasons with the Baltimore Ravens.
Spagnuolo returned to the Giants for a second stint as coordinator in 2015. After a difficult first season, his fortified defense helped lead the Giants to a wild card playoff berth the following year. But the team bottomed out in 2017 and when Ben McAdoo was fired, Spagnuolo was named interim head coach for the final four games (he was 1-3). After spending the 2018 season out of football, Spagnuolo was hired to be the Chiefs' coordinator by Andy Reid, who gave him his first NFL job in 1999 and for whom he worked eight years before Coughlin hired him to coach the Giants' defense.
Do all the lean years make this Super Bowl trip particularly sweet for Spagnuolo?
"Sure, it does," he said. "But that's part of any coach's career. I don't know that there's a coach that stays on top the whole time. You're going to have some ups and downs. You pick yourself back up and go again. I've been fortunate that people have believed enough in me. A guy like Andy Reid, to ask me to come and coach his defense, that means a lot to me."
Spagnuolo also believes his work with the Giants, particularly his plan and in-game adjustments against a Patriots team that seemed invincible, still helps him today.
"It did a lot for me individually," he said. "To be honest with you, I'm humbled by that because it's not one person that did that. We had a whole staff and a whole team that won that thing, just like we're involved with now. The assistants that we have here on defense have done a terrific job and kind of keeping this thing together and getting us going from not so good to a little bit better, and hopefully, better than we have been in the past."
This week, Spagnuolo faces a challenge both similar and vastly different to what he faced in Super Bowl XLII. That Patriots were the NFL's most productive offense, setting a then-record with 589 points, shattering the previous mark by 33 points. Tom Brady threw 50 touchdown passes and Randy Moss caught 23 of them. In 2019, San Francisco had the league's fourth-ranked offense. But the Niners bludgeon opponents by running the ball. They were second in the league with an average of 144.1 yards a game. In postseason victories against Minnesota and Green Bay, they ran 89 times for 471 yards and threw only 27 passes – eight in the NFC Championship Game.
"This is very different," Spagnuolo said. "Look, they have found a way to run the football and do it effectively. The thing that scares me the most about that is that when they're running it, if they're getting a chunk of first downs, that means (Kansas City quarterback) Patrick Mahomes is on the bench. We don't want that. If you're on the Chiefs, you don't want that. You want him out there as much as possible. We have to find a way to get them in third downs where we can dictate what goes on, because they're too difficult when they're grinding it out, getting four or five yards a crack. The other thing that people forget is that their explosive passes have really… Jimmy (Garoppolo) will be able to throw the ball down field and get explosive passes."
Spagnuolo has two assistants from the Giants to help deliver his message: David Merritt, a Giants coach for 14 seasons, is the Chiefs' defensive backs coach. Sam Madison, a cornerback on the Super Bowl XLII team, is the cornerbacks coach.
All three of them own Super Bowl rings. The Chiefs haven't advanced this far in 50 years. Spagnuolo didn't wait that long to return to the game, but he does understand how rare this opportunity is. And he will make sure his players understand that, too.
"I've got a couple of things planned for Saturday, just in that regard, I think will be helpful," he said. "We have a couple coaches on the staff that have been through it. Sam Madison was with us and he's coaching now. All of that we'll use. We'll try to pick a little from everybody and hopefully it helps us in the game."
View photos of former Giants defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, who helped the team win Super Bowl XLII.