Steve Spagnuolo’s mark as a head coach isn’t pretty. But he deserves this opportunity to be the Giants interim, and possibly full-time, boss.
Plenty of things were downright shocking about the 2016-17 NFL season. The rise of fourth-round selection Dak Prescott in Dallas amazed, as did the Miami Dolphins swiping a playoff spot last year. Of course, most shocking was the fact that the Atlanta Falcons blew a 28-3 lead in Super Bowl LI.
Spagnuolo has spent just five seasons in blue, but in that time, he has achieved what was once impossible, as the Whitinsville, Massachusetts native has become a rare New Englander adored by the New York metropolitan area. His most famous triumph came in 2008 when his defense played a major role in the Giants’ improbable Super Bowl XLII victory. After holding Tony Romo and Brett Favre in check in the NFC playoffs, the defense held the mighty offense of the undefeated New England Patriots to 14 points. The sight of Giants defenders chasing Tom Brady, who was sacked five times, remains a beloved image to Giants and Jets fans alike, bringing the two metro fanbases to a rare compromise.
After bouncing around several other teams in various spots, Spagnuolo returned to the Giants in 2015 and was one of the holdovers when Ben McAdoo took over head coaching duties in 2016. McAdoo’s first season was kept afloat by brilliant defensive mastery from Spagnuolo and his unit, where returnees and newcomers meshed perfectly. Safety Landon Collins, a second-year man, became one of the NFL’s biggest surprises and scariest secondary members, while defensive linemen Jason Pierre-Paul, Damon Harrison, and Olivier Vernon blew up plays before they ever truly began. Spagnuolo was given no interviews for head coaching gigs, but that was something Giants fans weren’t complaining about.
Spagnuolo, under the least ideal circumstances, has gotten that head coaching job, little interviewing necessary, as it will be he who leads the Giants over the final four games of a lost season, starting with Sunday’s visit from the Dallas Cowboys (1:00 p.m. ET, FOX).
To open his first appearance as Giants interim head coach, Spagnuolo took the time to reflect on the tenure of departed leader McAdoo, who was let go on Monday morning, as he and general manager Jerry Reese were relieved of their duties in the midst of the Giants’ 2-10 season.
“It’s hard for me to stand here in the position I’m in right now and I want to publicly thank Ben for two years ago sticking with me as the defensive coordinator here. I greatly appreciated that,” Spagnuolo said. “He’s a great man. He’s a great coach. He’ll be a head coach again in this league in my opinion and a really good one.”
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After offering his thoughts on the past, Spagnuolo talked about the future, starting with this final quartet that features a trio at MetLife Stadium.
“The number one focus right now is to figure out a way to beat the Dallas Cowboys. I can tell you that,” Spagnuolo answered a question about the potential of seeing rookie quarterback Davis Weeb over the next four weeks. “And, each week we’ll talk about other things, but right now, in the midst of everything that’s going on with the changes and what not, little tweaks here and there, the focus is still going to be to beat the Dallas Cowboys.”
Giants principal owner John Mara confirmed on Monday that Spagnuolo will be considered as permanent McAdoo successor. Mara’s declaration, as well as his extreme anti-tanking stance, transforms these final four games, three of which come against NFC East brethren, into a de facto audition for Spagnuolo, giving him an early lead on other contenders. It also gives the Giants, their playoff chances long deceased, something they never thought they’d have a few weeks ago…something to play for.
“I told (the coaching staff) I would not put up with any talk in this building about tanking or anything else and I expected us to go out and try to win these games. I expected their best efforts to try to get us to do that,” Mara said. “I asked (Spagnuolo) to serve as the interim head coach and also to be a candidate to be the head coach after the season if he chooses to do so. He agreed to do that.”
Of course, Spagnuolo isn’t the first choice of many of the Big Blue faithful, whose preferences instead gravitate toward sexier names like Jon Gruden or Bill Cowher. Further hurting Spagnuolo’s full-time chances is his previous experience as a head coach with the artists formerly known as the St. Louis Rams. In three years in the Gateway City, Spagnuolo won only 10 games, seven of which came in his second season.
The new Giants coach is planning, however, to recall the lessons he learned in St. Louis to apply in New York.
“I’ve got a typed out list…I’m not a good typer …that has all of the ‘what would I do next time’, ‘what did I think I did wrong’ and I’ve already reviewed that,” Spagnuolo explained. “I’m not going to reveal them all. It’s too long of a list, but sometimes you learn more from failure than you do from success. I think everybody understands that. So, there are many things. This is a little different. It’s boom. It’s not OTAs and training camp, so we’re going to kind of improvise and adjust as we go. But, I’m hoping all of that will help.”
Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett, in his eighth season at the Cowboys’ helm, can certainly sympathize with what Spagnuolo is going through now. Serving as the Cowboys offensive coordinator in 2010, Garrett watched massive preseason expectations fall flat to the tune of a 1-7 start. Wade Phillips was fired, his job given to Garrett, who made his debut in a showdown with the Giants at MetLife Stadium, then known as New Meadowlands Stadium. Paced by 327 passing yards from Jon Kitna, who was subbing for an injured Romo, Garrett’s Cowboys earned a 33-20 upset victory. It marked the beginning of a 5-3 stretch that eventually earned Garrett the permanent position.
“It was a collective challenge. We had to somehow, someway, process what had happened and then get our sights set on a ball game that we were going to play in six days,” Garrett recalled. “I thought our coaching staff did a really good job and our team did a really good job somehow processing it and just really getting focused and locked in on what that preparation day was and how important it was to us and we were able to do that the rest of the week. That was really the big challenge and the thing that we focused on.”
Spagnuolo is always going to have a spot in the hearts of Giants fans for the strength and swagger he showed as the Giants’ defensive coordinator during the 2007-08 season, a performance that not only netted him a Super Bowl ring but earned him the Rams job. He has plenty of leeway with fans as is, and bought himself some more when he announced that Eli Manning will return to his customary spot as starting quarterback in time for Dallas’s visit.
Cliché as it sounds, a new general manager will likely want to add his own man in the spot. But Spagnuolo deserves this opportunity to prove himself.
The man affectionately referred to as “Spags” is not exempt from the Giants’ woes. To say his defense has regressed is an understatement, as they rank in the depths of the league in many categories. Collins hasn’t captured his 2016 form (though he is steadily getting back it), and silly suspensions of cornerbacks Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Janoris Jenkins (the latter of whom is on injured reserve) have taken center stage.
But the hard-nosed but positive Spagnuolo, who opened the media portion of practice blasting Frank Sinatra’s “This Life” through the speakers, deserves this chance.
Spagnuolo is ready to go in these final four games. His tactics are a throwback to the proverbial “Giants way” Mara was asked about on Monday, appropriate as the Giants are about to break out their “Color Rush” throwbacks that resemble their road jerseys wore in the 1980’s on Sunday. Spagnuolo doesn’t know how long his tenure is going to be, but he’s ready to get started and muster something out of a season gone dreadfully wrong.
“When (the players) come into the building, when they come to work, come to work expecting to win,” Spagnuolo said. “That’s how they should function. Forget about what has happened prior. Let’s just go forward coming in the building ready to work every day and expecting to win.”
Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffMags5490