The 2017 NFL season didn’t go the way Steve Spagnuolo or the New York Giants had hoped.
That’s why he’s so anxious to get another chance for redemption.
Like most Giants assistant coaches, Spagnuolo was fired at the end of a 3-13 campaign that saw his defense take a major tumble. New York dropped eight spots to 31st in NFL rankings for yards allowed (373.2), and the Giants surrendered 24.2 points per game, which marked a 6.4-point increase from the previous year.
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Spagnuolo, whose defensive acumen helped him become Rams head coach from 2009-11, didn’t become dumb overnight. He believes New York’s decline stemmed largely from a problem that can cripple even the best of units.
“We hit the injury bug,” Spagnuolo told co-host Bill Polian and me recently on SiriusXM NFL Radio. “The most compelling thing to me was having to play five (middle) linebackers throughout the season.
“That’s no different than having to put five different quarterbacks in there. That’s the guy that kind of runs the show.”
Spagnuolo became the guy running the whole show on an interim basis last season when head coach Ben McAdoo was fired with four games remaining. The Giants proceeded to lose another three games before a Week 17 victory against Washington that Spagnuolo admits “felt like we won the Super Bowl” considering what the team had gone through.
“We didn’t get off to a great start and we kept trying to find that one game when we could turn it around,” Spagnuolo said. “We just couldn’t. And sometimes when it snowballs downward and you keep trying to push that thing back up hill, it gets tougher and tougher.
“The injuries kind of hit us and we couldn’t get out of a rut. Just when we thought we did, something else would happen. It was one of those years with a lot of things out of your control. You try to make the right decisions as you go and you hope they’re the right ones at that time.”
McAdoo made a wrong one when he decided to bench Eli Manning amid the team’s struggles, which ended the NFL’s longest active starting streak among quarterbacks at 210 regular-season games. The blowback was such after the ham-handed handling of a sensitive situation that McAdoo and general manager Jerry Reese were fired shortly thereafter.
Spagnuolo immediately began trying to make amends by reinserting Manning as his starter and not giving backups Geno Smith and Davis Webb snaps like McAdoo and Reese had planned.
New York’s new brain trust of coach Pat Shurmur and GM Dave Gettleman continue trying to rebuild the relationship, as well, and plan on having Manning as their starter in 2018. But even if the 37-year-old QB regains his old form personally, the Giants still need improvements at running back and across their offensive line — not to mention a healthy Odell Beckham Jr. — for team success.
Changes also are a must defensively with the cornerback spot in disarray and lack of impact linebackers, which is a problem that hasn’t gotten fixed since around the time Spagnuolo was defensive coordinator of the 2007 Giants team that won Super Bowl 42.
“I think they’ll get that ironed out,” said Spagnuolo, who is being replaced by ex-Cardinals defensive coordinator James Bettcher. “They’ll get some guys back healthy and a couple draft picks and free agents like everybody does.
“Hopefully, it’ll be just like we were in 2016. We were a pretty good defense two seasons ago. I think they can get back to that.”
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Spagnuolo, 58, admits he was disappointed that Shurmur, who was his offensive coordinator with the Rams in 2009 and 2010, didn’t retain him with the Giants. Spagnuolo wants to get back to coaching but realizes he may have to wait a year now that most vacancies around the league are filled.
“I’ve got a lot of football left in me,” Spagnuolo said. “I’m gonna coach again. I want to. I’m passionate about the game. I enjoy dealing with the players, teaching, mentoring — that’s what I think coaching is all about.
“Sometimes it’s not a bad thing to sit back for a year. That may happen, it may not. There’s a slight chance of maybe working in 2018 still. But, if not, I’ll use this time wisely.”
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Spagnuolo then cited one of his coaching mentors and former boss with the Giants.
“I know Tom Coughlin has done it twice in his career and bounced back,” Spagnuolo said. “Sometimes, I think you can learn more from sitting back and looking at the big picture, and then when you get back into it, things make a little bit more sense. You’re just a little bit more well-rounded.”
And a bit hungrier, as well.
Alex Marvez can be heard from 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. ET Wednesday and Thursday on SiriusXM NFL Radio.