The doubts surfaced almost immediately after Steve Spagnuolo began his tenure as the Giants’ defensive coordinator in 2007. His defense allowed a combined 80 points in back-to-back losses to start the season, and there was plenty of skepticism about Tom Coughlin’s decision to hire Spagnuolo off Andy Reid’s staff with the Eagles.
But by the end of that season, any questions about Spagnuolo’s value were erased. Completely. The Giants went on to pull off one of the great upsets in Super Bowl history, taking down the previously unbeaten Patriots, 17-14, in Super Bowl XLII. Spagnuolo’s defense held Tom Brady to just two touchdown drives, ruining the Patriots’ perfect season.
Are we about to see Spagnuolo help pull off a similar feat in his first season with the Chiefs?
Well, the script is nearly the same so far, with just one wrinkle. After Reid tabbed Spagnuolo to replace embattled and ineffective defensive coordinator Bob Sutton, the Chiefs’ defense showed immediate improvement. It was toward the middle of the season, when the Chiefs lost four games in October and November, that questions arose about the 60-year-old Spagnuolo.
But just as he did with the Giants, Spagnuolo responded with the same kind of resilience. Over the last five regular-season games, the Chiefs allowed a total of 48 points – the fewest in the NFL in that span – and secured the No. 2 seed in the AFC playoffs, thanks in part to the Patriots’ upset loss to the Dolphins in Week 17.
The Chiefs are now one game away from going to the Super Bowl, and they can thank their resourceful defensive coordinator for helping to make it happen.
“I think there's always a little bit of that when we struggle in anything in life,” Spagnuolo told reporters in a recent interview about the defense’s earlier struggles. “It could be anything, life, whatever, but certainly in football. What I have learned, because there have been a couple of times when we've felt this way, I've always found it best to believe and trust in what you're doing. If you didn't believe in it and trust in it, you shouldn't have been doing it in the first place.”
And trust they did. That’s what happened with a Giants’ defense that included star players Michael Strahan, Osi Umenyiora, Justin Tuck and Antonio Pierce, and that’s what the Chiefs are doing this year. Spagnuolo has gotten the most out of newly acquired defensive end Frank Clark and safety Tyrann Mathieu, as well as defensive tackles Chris Jones and Derrick Nnadi. Throw in the late-season acquisition of longtime Ravens pass rusher Terrell Suggs, who was released last month by the Cardinals, and you understand why the Chiefs now have their best chance to win a Super Bowl for the first time since Hank Stram and Len Dawson joined forces to win Super Bowl IV after the 1969 season.
“‘Trust our way to improvement’ is the way we put it, the way the coaches fed it to the guys,” Spagnuolo said. “To the guys’ credit, they embraced it.”
Quarterback Patrick Mahomes, last year’s MVP who threw 50 touchdown passes in his first full season as the Chiefs’ starter in 2018, is clearly the biggest single reason for the Chiefs’ march to the AFC Championship Game, where they will face the Tennessee Titans at Arrowhead Stadium on Sunday. But if the Chiefs are to get one step farther than last year, when they were defeated at home by the eventual Super Bowl champion Patriots in a 37-31 overtime loss, they’ll need another strong performance from the defense.
Defense stood in the way of last year’s team. This year, it may be the decisive factor in pushing them through.
But it won’t be easy. The Titans beat the Chiefs, 35-32, in Tennessee on Nov. 10, as All-Pro running back Derrick Henry ran for 188 yards and two touchdowns. Henry has carried the Titans in the playoffs as well, rushing for a combined 377 yards in upset wins over the Patriots and top-seeded Ravens.
Mahomes can be counted on to put up points – he led the Chiefs to a thrilling 51-31 comeback win over Houston on Sunday – but Spagnuolo’s defense will have to find a way to stop Henry if the Chiefs hope to punch their ticket to Super Bowl LIV in Miami.
But Spagnuolo has been here before.
The Chiefs are hoping this movie ends the way it did for the Giants 12 years ago.