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Steve Spagnuolo is Andy Reid’s secret weapon

The two men have known each other for a long time — and in 2019, their partnership paid off.

Denver Broncos v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by David Eulitt/Getty Images

As NFL Network’s Mike Garafalo pointed out during Saturday’s “Inside Training Camp Live” telecast, Kansas City Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo quietly achieved a milestone that no one noticed back in February: becoming the first NFL offensive or defensive coordinator to win a Super Bowl with two different teams.

Garafalo said that he mentioned this factoid to an NFL coach — who told him, “By the way, if he were an offensive coach, you’d be asking, ‘Not if... but when is he going to get a second chance as a head coach?’”

Spagnuolo’s defense certainly got off to a slow start in 2019, but as Jay Winmore noted in the outstanding FanPost that we published over the weekend, it steamrolled opponents when it mattered most: in the final stretch of the regular season and in the key moments of every postseason game.

When the Chiefs hired Spagnuolo during the 2019 offseason, we knew that he had done something quite similar with the New York Giants in 2007, making his defense become white hot through the postseason, driving the team to an improbable victory against an undefeated offensive juggernaut — the New England Patriots — in Super Bowl XLII.

Plenty of people noticed that both as a coordinator and head coach, Spagnuolo’s record had been pretty spotty since then. But hardly anyone noticed that Spagnuolo had managed that miraculous 2007 season in his first year with the Giants. And as it turned out, he did it again in Kansas City.

NFL: FEB 02 Super Bowl LIV - Chiefs v 49ers Photo by Rich Graessle/PPI/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Maybe it was it because he’d taken a year off from coaching — coming to it in a fresh way — just as he had when he became a first-time defensive coordinator in 2007. But even after his second Super Bowl championship, Spagnuolo remained as relaxed and open with reporters on Monday as he was when he first arrived in Kansas City a year and a half ago, letting a question about the difficulty of picking a final roster during a coronavirus pandemic slide right off his back.

“I think the way coach Reid constructed the training camp was really good; you know, we do things fast [and] I’m always trying to test them mentally — even in walkthroughs,” said Spagnuolo. “I try to make them go fast; you’ve got to find out who can think. When the bullets are flying, is someone going to stick their head in the sand and go to sleep on us? We certainly don’t want those guys.”

Now 60, Spagnuolo — like his current head coach Andy Reid — talked like a man who has been there and done... you know... that.

“Sometimes, as coaches, we get so wrapped up in the scheme and getting ready to play an opponent that we forget about the personnel,” Spagnuolo said. “Well, we don’t forget about it, but that kind of gets lost and then we’ve got to re-program ourselves and look at who’s what.

“But I’m hoping — and feel confident — that we’ll pick the right guys. We’re very fortunate in the fact that we have some guys returning from last year — so that gives us a little bit of a comfort level — but we’ll see how it all shakes out.”

Spagnuolo was willing to grant that since he’ll be missing cornerback Bashaud Breeland and defensive tackle Mike Pennel to open the season, he’ll need some help from his untested young players — something he’s not generally inclined to do.

“We need a lot of guys to step up and play for us early — that maybe weren’t involved in this system a year ago,” he acknowledged, “but having great communicators in Anthony Hitchens, Tyrann Mathieu, Daniel Sorenson and Ben Niemann, I think [that] helps anybody that’s in the system now that was not in it last year.”

Los Angeles Chargers v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by David Eulitt/Getty Images

He said the advice he has been giving his young players is pretty simple.

“The first thing I have said is, ‘Follow the guys that were here,’” he explained. “The guys who were around a year ago have gone through it. I think the player-to-player relationship and conversations are as important as any in this league — and I think every player will tell you that. Let’s face it: after a while, they don’t really want to listen to me; they’ll rather listen to one of their buddies.”

In such a moment, Spagnuolo sounds just like Reid — with whom he began his NFL coaching career during Reid’s first season as head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles. He remained with Reid through eight seasons, leaving only to become the Giants’ defensive coordinator. Even when he first arrived in Kansas City, it was clear that the two men had immediately re-established their rapport from those years — and it clearly paid big dividends in 2019.

It would be difficult to blame anyone who wanted to worry that Spagnuolo’s history will repeat itself — that he will be unable to sustain this second round of success. But it’s easy to see that the situation in which Spagnuolo now finds himself is wholly different than the one he faced with the Giants in 2008: Reid is no Tom Coughlin — and Patrick Mahomes is no Eli Manning.