Steve Spagnuolo is back in the Super Bowl, and his return to the NFL's biggest stage is nothing short of remarkable given how he spent the 2018 season.
The two-time Giants defensive coordinator, nearing the completion of his first year in the same capacity with the Chiefs, helped Kansas City clinch the AFC Championship Game thanks to Sunday's 35-24 win over the Tennessee Titans.
While the Chiefs' offense gets the well-deserved shine, led by quarterback Patrick Mahomes and the skill players at the unit's disposal, Spagnuolo has guided Kansas City's quiet turnaround on defense throughout the 2019 campaign.
In 2018, the Chiefs featured the NFL's second-worst total defense at 405.5 total yards and 26.3 points allowed per game. Kansas City went 12-4 overall that year, but struggled mightily on defense under then-coordinator Bob Sutton, who was fired two days after last January's 37-31 loss to the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game.
Despite the Chiefs' success on offense under veteran head coach Andy Reid and rising-star coordinator Eric Bieniemy, Spagnuolo's overhaul turned Kansas City into the NFL's No. 17 defense at 349.6 total yards and 19.2 points per game for 2019.
Spagnuolo's unit, of course, has its issues to start as it had an up-and-down first half of the season. The Chiefs turned the corner by winning their final six games of the regular slate from Nov. 18 through Dec. 29 and, while, the offense flashed, Kansas City allowed 11.5 points per game down the stretch.
Former Giants DC Steve Spagnuolo is heading to the Super Bowl with the Chiefs pic.twitter.com/96kAPO4RK4- SNY (@SNYtv) January 19, 2020
"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," Spagnuolo said. "If you didn't believe in it and trust in it, you shouldn't have been doing it in the first place."
Spagnuolo spent 2007-08 and 2015-17 as the Giants' defensive coordinator before New York fired him along with former two-year head coach Ben McAdoo's unraveling. After the Giants went 11-5 overall in 2016, clinching the NFC Wild Card behind the NFL's No. 2 scoring defense at 17.8 points per game, New York fell apart on both sides of the ball the next season.
Following his stint as the Giants' interim head coach, a spot he held from early-December firings of McAdoo and general manager Jerry Reese through the end of the season, Spagnuolo was jobless in 2018. For the first time in his football coaching career, which Spagnuolo started in 1981 at the college level with Massachussetts as a graduate assistant, he was out of a job.
Spagnuolo took the year off and, according to Sam McDowell of the Kansas City Star, spent 2018 crunching tape at the NFL Films headquarters in Mount Laurel, New Jersey. Whatever Spagnuolo dedicated his time to looking at, it worked. As he heads to Super Bowl LIV, Spagnuolo can add another ring after earning one with the Giants at the end of the 2007 season, highlighted by New York's 17-14 win over the previously unbeaten Patriots in Super Bowl XLII.
"Now you have to be fortunate that the year after, someone wants you to come back, because that's a fear," Spagnuolo said. "That's a real fear. But you can learn some things. It worked out for me. I'm blessed."