Kansas City Chiefs coach Andy Reid did not try to reinvent the wheel amid pressure to hire a great defensive coordinator who can help maximize Patrick Mahomes’ championship window during the otherworldly quarterback’s rookie deal.
Instead, by hiring Steve Spagnuolo on Thursday, Reid tried to recapture the past, one filled with blitzing, aggression and — much to the pleasure of many Chiefs fans who had tired of the team’s often-passive 3-4 defensive scheme under Bob Sutton — lots of 4-3 fronts.
Critics of the move will point to Spagnuolo’s flaws. They’ll start with his roller-coaster history as a defensive coordinator, where for all of his Himalaya-like up seasons there were some equally porous down seasons. They’ll also talk about his age (59) and how he has made a lot of money during a career that included three seasons as an NFL head coach, making some wonder if he’ll grind the same way a young, first-time coordinator would.
Throw in the fact that Spagnuolo runs a 4-3 defense — which wouldn’t figure to jibe with the strengths of a team that has run a 3-4 system for over a decade — and it’s fair to wonder if he can get the unit up to speed before 2020, when the Chiefs’ salary-cap situation will be more congested due to the massive extension Mahomes will likely command the moment they can extend him (after the 2019 season).
While those concerns are fair — and Reid, 60, has surely been coaching long enough to understand them — Reid dismissed them and hired Spagnuolo anyway, for two main reasons.
Reason No. 1: Reid trusts the guy
The Chiefs came a defensive stop short of beating Reid’s archrival, Bill Belichick, and the New England Patriots in the AFC championship game. A win would have sent Reid to only his second Super Bowl in his 20 years as an NFL head coach.
Reid’s defensive coordinator during that Super Bowl season of 2004, when he was head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles, was the great Jim Johnson, whose brilliant, progressive blitz schemes from the 4-3 front allowed Reid to do what he did best, and focus fully on offense.
You know who was else on that staff? Spagnuolo, who was the linebackers coach under Johnson and spent eight years as an assistant under Reid before he was hired to run the New York Giants’ defense in 2007. So there’s a comfortable familiarity here for Reid, who prefers to promote from within when possible.
And that matters, though Spagnuolo’s results in his six seasons as a defensive coordinator since then have been decidedly mixed. His defenses have ranked an average of 18th in points per game, 19th in yards allowed and 17th in sacks, numbers that are largely close to (or even below) what Sutton has accomplished the past six years in Kansas City (ninth in points per game, 11th in sacks and 20th in yards allowed).
But while Spagnuolo has led some stinky defenses — particularly in 2012 and 2015, when his groups finished 30th or worse in points and yards allowed — when Spagnuolo’s defenses have been good, they’ve shown the ability to be championship good.
Unlike Sutton, who has twice had his passive, zone-heavy defenses absolutely dissected in the playoffs by the Patriots, Spagnuolo’s aggressive, pressure-heavy defense single-handedly ruined the Patriots’ perfect 2007 season in the Super Bowl with a masterful gameplan, one Reid hopes Spagnuolo can one day cajole from the league’s 31st-ranked defense the next time they face Brady and Belichick in the playoffs.
Reason No. 2: The 4-3 fits the new talent
It’s worth noting that Spagnuolo’s three best units — his 2007, 2008 and 2016 Giants — have all been powered by strong front sevens that the Chiefs might be better equipped to replicate.
The Chiefs spent three of their six 2018 NFL draft picks on players who could upgrade their front seven, and in retrospect, it’s probably not a coincidence that all three of them — defensive tackle Derrick Nnadi, defensive end Breeland Speaks and linebacker Dorian O’Daniel — were originally projected to be ideal fits in a 4-3 scheme during the draft process.
For instance, the 6-foot-3, 285-pound Speaks — a second-round pick who struggled to turn the corner as a 3-4 outside linebacker this season — projects as an ideal “power-based” end in Spagnuolo’s 4-3 scheme, someone who can reduce down between the tackle and tight end and defeat blocks to the run side with his power.
The 6-1, 220-pound O’Daniel was limited to a nickel or dime linebacker role in Sutton’s 3-4 scheme, but now the former third-round pick has the look of an ideal every-down weakside “run-and-hit” linebacker, while the run-stuffing Nnadi (6-1, 312 pounds), another third-round pick, held up fine as a 3-4 nose but could potentially clog the middle as the powerful one- or zero-technique Spagnuolo needs to make his zone-blitz scheme sing.
Even one more of the Chiefs’ acquisitions last offseason — middle linebacker Anthony Hitchens — is a better fit in the 4-3 scheme. Hitchens thrived as a versatile run-and-chase 4-3 linebacker in Dallas before signing a monster five-year, $45 million free-agent deal with the Chiefs last March. Hitchens often seemed tentative in the middle of the Chiefs’ 3-4 scheme, but a return to the 4-3 should do him some good.
But wait, there’s more!
Dee Ford ranked seventh in sacks (13) and fifth in pressures (29) as a 3-4 outside linebacker this season, but he put his hand in the dirt nearly every play in college and has the look of a 4-3 “rush” end, where quickness off the edge and pass-rush skill is mandatory in Spagnuolo’s system.
Meanwhile, it’s also easy to see emerging third-year pro Chris Jones — whose juice off the snap and long arms helped him rank third in sacks (15½) and fifth in pressures (29) this season — thriving as a three-technique gap-shooter in Spagnuolo’s system, a new role that could mitigate his occasional tendency to freelance vs. the run.
That’s six positions in the front seven filled with potentially solid positional fits, a tally that doesn’t include edge rusher Justin Houston (whose large salary makes him a cap risk, though he may return) and two younger players who need to prove themselves in Reggie Ragland (a classic 3-4 inside linebacker) and defensive end Tanoh Kpassagnon (who might not be explosive enough to be a “rush” end or stout enough to play the “power” side).
That leaves only strong-side linebacker as a position needing immediate attention, and considering the Chiefs possess four top-100 picks in this year’s draft and enough cap space to make some free-agent additions, it’s safe to say the reinforcements Spagnuolo needs to make the most of the 2019 defense are likely on the way.
So yes, there will be pressure on the Chiefs’ new defensive coordinator, someone who is potentially staring at his last opportunity to coordinate an NFL defense. After sitting out this past season — a trip to the coaching wilderness most coaches would rather avoid — if Spagnuolo fails to build a unit good enough to help Mahomes reach the Super Bowl, it will be hard to earn another gig like this.
Given his 20-plus years in the NFL, there’s no chance Spagnuolo doesn’t know that. And Reid, whose Hall of Fame candidacy will likely come down to whether he can build a defense good enough to win that elusive Super Bowl title as a head coach, is betting on it.
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