Throughout his long coaching career, Kansas City Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo has developed an anti-rookie reputation. He is frequently perceived as defaulting to his trusted veterans, while younger players — in spite of their talent — learn his system.
But after the Chiefs’ offseason — in which multiple veterans were replaced by rookies — Spagnuolo recognizes that he will not always have that choice in 2022. Six defensive rookies made the initial roster. Cornerback Trent McDuffie and defensive end George Karlaftis — the team’s pair of first-round selections — will be expected to play major roles immediately.
“I think our young guys have done a real good job of picking it up,” Spagnuolo explained in his media remarks before Thursday’s practice. “We’ve limited it for them. I think they’ve played fast in all these preseason games. Now, we know that’s completely different than a regular-season game and the things you’re going to see, but I’m excited to see them play in this game and see how we’ll function.
“I say this all the time: it takes the first quarter of the season to really figure out who you are. And you go into this first game — and we can look at loads of film like we have — but that doesn’t mean the Cardinals aren’t going to change a little. To me, the first two games of an NFL season, it’s what you do in the game adjusting more probably than [what] you do before it — in a lot of ways.”
Though he is happy with what he has seen so far, Spagnuolo acknowledges there will be growing pains.
“I’m going to trust these guys right now,” he predicted. “We played three preseason games, that gave us a little bit of an indication, right? They didn’t get a lot of reps, but there’s going to be some trust here. There’s going to be baptism by fire and we certainly know we’re going to have to live with some rookie mistakes. It’s going to happen.
“Everyone’s going to make mistakes in this game — you just hope that their skill makes enough plays that it offsets that. A mistake back there [is] magnified. You just hope it doesn’t cost us in terms of points.”
As preseason has given way to the games that matter, Spagnuolo also said he has noticed a difference in his young players.
“Yesterday wasn’t a great practice,” he admitted. “Our offensive-look team was trying to simulate a new offense — that’s a little off. We were off a little bit because we did some things we wanted to make sure get answered. I sense that they were getting a little frustrated. So that means there’s a little anxiety in there.
“They’re all getting ready for a game now. Normally in training camp, [if] you make a couple mistakes, everyone just goes to the cafeteria, eats, and don’t worry about it. When they get to the film, we square it away. But they care now; they want to get it right. So I think there’s an element of readiness there. We’ll piece it together — and hopefully it’ll be something good.”
Now entering his fourth year leading the Chiefs defense, Spagnuolo admits that he has thrown a lot at his rookies in a short time, though he claims it was by intention — especially for McDuffie, whom the Chiefs traded up to the 21st overall pick to select.
“Part of why we do that early,” he noted, “is we want to know who can think. If we just play one thing and you can see the skill — obviously we wouldn’t have taken them where we did if we didn’t think they were skilled. I just think that so much of this game is from the chin to the hairline. And we threw a lot at Trent and all these guys.
“Trent had an added responsibility. [He] was playing inside and outside. He didn’t play inside at Washington, but we knew he could. I thought he did a really good job of that. So, he was overloaded and it’s good to know that he feels like it’s lightened a little bit — because I say this all the time: you don’t want to clutter their mind [because] it ties up their feet, right? So hopefully we go out there and play fast.”
Spagnuolo highlighted veteran safeties Justin Reid and Juan Thornhill as players he will lean upon to help the rookies succeed out of the gate.
“Justin’s a pro in his preparation,” he observed. “I can see that in him during the week, in meetings, after meetings, on the field, and in walk-throughs. That part’s great. Juan’s done a good job kind of piecing it together for everybody because he’s the guy that’s been here. I’m hoping all of that — Justin’s vet presence because he’s been in the league, Juan the fact that he’s been in the system for four years, and the other guys just having some talent to play fast — hopefully that molds together and we can do something good.”
Reid acknowledges his importance to the process.
“I just want to be the biggest resource I can for all the guys that come along,” the safety said on Thursday, ”[because] we’re only going to go as far as we come together to go. We have to come together as a unit and all play cohesively, play complementary football and go out and execute. So if I can help those guys, give them tips, reminders, be a veteran in the room — just like veterans were for me when I was a rookie — I try to pass that along.”
The fifth-year pro looks forward to seeing his new teammates this weekend.
“Why not go be special?” Reid proposed. “Those guys come here for a reason. Our scouting team did a great job finding them. The way they’ve come in and been integrated into the system? They’ve all done well up to this point. I know they’re excited to go out — and go hunting — this Sunday.”