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Vahe Gregorian: After energizing year off, Steve Spagnuolo is crucial to Chiefs’ Super Bowl hopes

ST. JOSEPH, Mo. – For years, one of the final rituals of Steve Spagnuolo’s offseason was a family trip around the Fourth of July to Avalon, N.J., known locally as “downtheshore” from where he met his wife, Maria, in Philadelphia.

That last respite heralded the imminent arrival of football, part of a seasonal rhythm that had become hardwired into Spagnuolo after 36 years of coaching and immersion in the game since his teens.

Grind that it is, the first part, training camp, had become his favorite part of the year … and the essence of the job in many ways.

So imagine how discombobulated he was at this time last year when NFL training camps opened and he was … in Avalon, unemployed at 58 after being snubbed by the New York Giants following a stint as their interim head coach.

The disconnection from coaching was somewhat by design, including turning down an unspecified assistant coaching offer.

But there was some disorientation before it became the reset Spagnuolo was seeking and that effectively led coach Andy Reid to turn to him in February to resuscitate the abominable defense that sabotaged the Chiefs’ Super Bowl prospects last season.

“You do feel a void, because you’re not at training camp … But I tried to fill the void the right way,” he said Tuesday at Chiefs training camp at Missouri Western University.

That meant “trying to do things that I wouldn’t normally have been able to do,” like spend more time with family and going to his 40th high school reunion in Massachusetts. Not to mention what may or may not have been deep-sea fishing expeditions so much as “being out there on the boat or whatever,” as he put it.

He did go drop in on some camps, but it just wasn’t the same as the precious part he loves: “being around the guys and … non-stop being around football 24/7.”

That perhaps helps explain why Spagnuolo is crackling with energy here, so much so that he says he feels “like a little kid. That’s how I feel. I feel 12 again.” Smiling, he added, “Sometimes, I act 12.”

And it’s why he’s proud to say that he’s wearing players out about the “little things.”

Talk about 24/7 …

“They need that in their ears when they fall asleep at night,” he said, smiling.

Contrasting somewhat with his more low-key predecessor, Bob Sutton, Spagnuolo is ever-animated and hands-on.

He also is clearly resonating with players only a week after Reid offered a playful reminder of the challenge entailed in radical simultaneous changes of defensive staff, scheme and personnel.

“In my mind, we’re all coming up for our seventh camp (in St. Joe),” Reid said, “and then I have to keep reminding myself that these guys don’t even know how to get up to the practice field.”

When it was suggested to Spagnuolo that this makes for a lot of “new” under his jurisdiction, he acknowledged the challenges that come with that. The players, he said, will dictate to some degree how many packages and schemes can be employed by demonstrating that “they’re not thinking and they’re playing” without being tentative.

Part of that capacity, though, will hinge on his ability to teach and motivate, elements of his repertoire that figure to be sharpened after a year away from coaching that came just over a decade after what might be called the peak of his career.

After eight seasons in various capacities under Reid in Philadelphia, where Spagnuolo also became a disciple of defensive guru Jim Johnson, Spagnuolo took over as defensive coordinator of the Giants and became one of the hottest commodities in coaching.

In Super Bowl XLII, Spagnuolo choreographed a 17-14 clampdown of Tom Brady and the New England Patriots in what might seem like ancient history if they weren’t still the team to beat in the NFL. That Patriots team was 18-0 entering the Super Bowl and had scored a then-league record 589 points.

That’s the stuff new defensive lineman Frank Clark might be pointing to when he calls Spagnuolo “a legendary coach.”

Following another season with the Giants, Spagnuolo became head coach of the Rams but, alas, has had his share of struggles since.

In his three seasons in St. Louis, the Rams were 10-38 and outscored 1,171 to 657 in the process. In five jobs with three organizations since, the only compelling statistic to his name is a Giants defensive unit that was second in the league in points allowed in 2016.

So by the time the Giants bade him goodbye, Spagnuolo needed a fresh start more than he needed a job.

“Challenging and rewarding,” he likes to call that time. Because of the gnawing ache of being separated from what he loves and the camaraderie, on one hand … and the revitalization and new sense of purpose he feels on the other.

It was an opportunity to sit back, reassess some things and see what in a February teleconference he called a “big-picture view of the NFL and the game of football, as opposed to being in these buildings during the season and having the blinders on (toward) just the team you’re going to play.”

He spent many Mondays at NFL Films in Mt. Laurel, N.J., where he had access to all games and broke down tape and took “oodles of notes.”

For that matter, he did some radio and TV and found himself getting a better sense of the media and lingering on some thoughts and questions in different ways then he had before.

“Sometimes as coaches,” he said in February, “we don’t see the forest for the trees.”

He was speaking specifically of the media component.

But the broader application underscores everything that happened during his year out of coaching and could inform everything to come now.

Meanwhile, no decision Reid made during the offseason has more immediate implications than the one to hire Spagnuolo, with whom he goes back to the late 1980s in El Paso and Columbia, Missouri – where Spagnuolo was such a frequent visitor to Mizzou’s coaches that Reid once jokingly called him “part of the staff.”

At this pivotal juncture for a franchise seeking its first Super Bowl in 50 years, with his legacy in some ways attached, Reid turned to his past and the trust implicit in a longtime relationship.

And whether consciously or not, he turned to someone he had to figure was better off for the year off.

“I would like to think so,” Spagnuolo said, smiling. “We’ll find out right? We’ll find out.”

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New York Giants interim head coach Steve Spagnuolo talks to the media on December 6, 2017, in East Rutherford, N.J. (Howard Simmons/New York Daily News/TNS)

New York Giants interim head coach Steve Spagnuolo talks to the media on December 6, 2017, in East Rutherford, N.J. (Howard Simmons/New York Daily News/TNS)

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