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Philosoraptor’s Corner: What about Steve Spagnuolo?

Some thoughts about Steve Spagnuolo as the Giants’ (interim) head coach.

It’s been a long time since I’ve done one of these.

What you don’t know is that I’ve had about four of them started before this crazy season, and with it the New York Giants, promptly took a two-wheeled turn like the bus in Speed and wiped out my poor nascent Corners.

I won’t get into what they were going to be about — frankly, this decade-long season has been so ridiculous that almost don’t remember. And besides, I want to get this out and written before it too is rendered irrelevant by ... I don’t know ... The Giants are bought by telepathic octopi from the year 3034.

Or something.

Anyhow, I want to talk about interim head coach Steve Spagnuolo and whether he should be the Giants’ head coach in 2018. I’m not going to advocate either way — that choice is for the Giants’ ownership and whoever they hire as the general manager. I just want to think through my feelings for (and on) Spags, because I have the idea that they aren’t unique to me.

Now, let me get this out of the way now: I have a soft spot for Spags.

Obviously from his work with the defense in 2007 and 2008 before departing to coach the Los Angeles Rams (then in St. Louis). The results obviously spoke for themselves. He took an aging and mediocre defense and turned it in to an aggressively ravenous meat grinder that completely stymied the best offense the NFL had ever seen.

I loved how the defense played, and how the players played for him. And going from those heights to seeing (largely) that same defense mutiny and quit on Bill Sheridan was painful (and until recently, the most ashamed I’ve ever been watching the Giants).

But since his return to the franchise I have gained an appreciation for Spagnuolo the man. Admittedly, this is informed, more than a bit, by the fact that I’m writing about the Giants this time around. But still, I can’t help but admire and appreciate the way in which Spags carries and comports himself.

He is always upfront and honest. He doesn’t hide behind coach-speak or treat anyone outside the building as an adversary. Spags doesn’t just answer every question asked of him, but he will take you behind the curtain (a bit) with funny stories or reasons why he answered the way he did.

For example, this was his answer back in May when he was asked about rookie defensive end Avery Moss:

“He’s a pretty explosive guy,” Spags said. “I think Jerry talked about that. I mean you watch him on tape. From here down [lower body] some of those guys, I don’t know if everybody remembers Hugh Douglas, who was with me down in Philadelphia, and he was the first guy I saw who was just thick and powerful from here down (again, motioning to his waist down). Avery isn’t quite as thick as that, but I thought of him when I watched Avery on tape. And he has played that 4-3 defensive end position, which we do a lot of. We still play some ‘Under’ where they have to move down, and he looks comfortable doing it.”

Most coaches talking to the press about a fifth-round rookie would probably just say something along the lines of “We think he’s going to be a good one, we’re excited to get him out there and see what he can do.”

But Spags didn’t just say that. He made a historical comparison (to a good player on a defense he once coached), and even some insight into how he was thinking of using the rookie.

So when it comes to Spags’ tenure as the interim head coach, I just can’t bring myself to root against him.

Let me be clear: I want the Giants to pick the best head coaching candidate.

But I can also understand why the Giants’ ownership have loved him for a decade, and why he was the unofficial heir apparent to Tom Coughlin. So I also can’t say that I’m not rooting for him, either. After all, if he gets the job, wouldn’t that (hopefully) mean that the team has responded to him and is playing passionate, competitive football?

It’s incumbent upon the Giants to commit to an exhaustive search for the coach who best fits their vision for the future of the New York Football Giants. Maybe that is Steve Spagnuolo, maybe it isn’t, and I can’t say I like his odds against the field.

But even if the Giants go in another direction at head coach, I would be willing to give Spags something of the benefit of the doubt should that coach want to keep him on as defensive coordinator. Rich Hill of Pats Pulpit brought up the possible fit should Josh McDaniels leave New England for New York.

The connection is there, Spagnuolo hired McDaniels to be his offensive coordinator in St Louis back in 2011, and I have to admit, the various symmetries and ironies involved in McDaniels becoming the Giants’ head coach and retaining Spagnuolo are amusing to say the least.

I already know that there are those who will disagree with me, and I certainly acknowledge that Spags has sins this season for which he needs to answer. Namely, the defense’s lack of fundamentals in tackling and his insistence on using three-man rushes on any third down of four yards or more. And yes, the defense has been bad this year. But it’s also difficult to run a scheme effectively when you have a revolving door at the nerve center of your defense (middle linebacker position), two of your best players are trying to play through sprained ankles.

(It’s, frankly, amazing that Landon Collins leads all NFL DBs in tackles despite playing through a high ankle sprain.)

It also doesn’t help that he has to coach a defense that got absolutely no help from what has been, arguably, the worst offense in the NFL. The offense hasn’t been able to sustain drives to give the defense a rest and limit their snaps. It hasn’t been able to generate points to help force opposing offenses out of a balanced game plan and into situations where the defense can be aggressive. And frankly, a defense that — at least from the outside — seemed to be neglected for a year and a half by the now-former head coach.

None of that excuses a defensive coordinator who is coaching a defense that is wildly under-performing its talent level, and Spags will have to answer for that. But it does give some context as to why one of the most dominant defenses in the league could become one of the most porous in the span of an off-season, without losing any key pieces.

So to circle back around to where I started ... What about Steve Spagnuolo?

Well, I’m rooting for him. I’m not sure that I want him to be the Giants’ next head coach — I want to see how the team performs over the final month of the season, who they hire as GM, and who else they talk to in their search. But I’m rooting for Spags. Maybe he is better as a defensive coordinator than a head coach. He wouldn’t be the first, and the likes of Dick LeBeau and Wade Philips aren’t bad company to keep. And on that note, I can’t say I would be upset if he had a similar relationship with the Giants as the long-time Steelers’ defensive coordinator.

At the very least I have some excitement for this weekend and some hope for the team. Whatever happens over the next four games, those feelings have been in short supply this year.

And for that, Spagnuolo has my thanks.