ST. LOUIS, MO - SEPTEMBER 11: Head Coach Andy Reid of the Philadelphia Eagles shakes hands with Head Coach Steve Spagnuolo of the St. Louis Rams after a game at the Edward Jones Dome on September 11, 2011 in St. Louis, Missouri. The Eagles defeated the Rams 31-15. (Photo by Jeff Curry/Getty Images)
There has been a lot of speculation about Steve Spagnuolo re-joining the Eagles staff. Would he be a good hire? Let's take a look at his background and just what kind of a coach he is.
In a word, yes.
Steve Spagnuolo was fired by the Rams earlier this week. He was just 10-38 in three years. I'm sure Rams fans can pick him apart based on some questionable decisions as well as the results. I thought injuries played a major part in his struggles. There was a comment during a recent game that the Rams had 10 cornerbacks on injured reserve. 10? That's pretty shocking stuff. Nobody has that kind of depth.
Down the stretch run of the season, when talk heated up that Spagnuolo would get fired, he became a hot topic among Eagles fans. "Go get him, ASAP", was the common sentiment. Now that Spagnuolo is on the street, some fans are clamoring for his return to the Eagles. Interestingly, other fans have gotten cold feet. They have started to wonder if Spagnuolo is as good as the hype surrounding him. Let's take a look.
I don't want to get too much into the Rams overall record and results. I didn't watch a ton of Rams games in the last three years. I can't speak from a position of expertise on what kind of a head coach he is. The franchise was bad when he got there (five wins combined in the two seasons prior to his arrival). Spagnuolo only won a single game in 2009, but then led the team to a 7-9 record and just missed the playoffs in 2010. He lost offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur (now the Browns head coach) and that seemed to have a big effect. Young quarterback Sam Bradford and the offense really struggled and the team was arguably the worst in the NFL by the 2011 season's end.
The Rams did show progress on defense. In 2010 they finished 12th in the NFL in points allowed. That was the team's lowest total since the Super Bowl season of 2001. The team finished 19th in yards allowed that year, the best finish since the playoff season of 2004. The defense regressed this year to 26th and 22nd respectively, but that was largely due to huge injury issues. The starting corners in the season finale were Rod Hood and Josh Gordy. Spagnuolo would have killed to have Curtis Marsh and Brandon Hughes out there. Hood hasn't been a good player since...2007?
Spagnuolo had some success with developing young defensive talent. Defensive end Chris Long was a major disappointment when Spagnuolo got there. Long showed progress each year and had 13 sacks in 2011. He's now a Pro Bowl type of pass rusher. Rookie Robert Quinn looked like a very good player at times. He finished with five sacks. He's got a great future. Cornerback Bradley Fletcher had a good rookie year in 2010, but got hurt this season. Middle linebacker James Laurinaitis looks like the could be the heart and soul of the defense for the next decade. Jerome Murphy is another young corner who didn't get to help in 2011 because of injuries. He showed good flashes in 2010.
There isn't anything from 2009-2011 that points to Spagnuolo being a great coach. He had some success, but the overall results aren't pretty. I do think he laid a good foundation and left the Rams better off than when he got there.
Now let's look back at Spagnuolo as a defensive coordinator. He ran the Giants defense in 2007 and 2008. In 2007 the team finished 7th in yards and 17th in points allowed. Things got off to a rough start that year. I don't know if the players didn't trust the system or didn't like a former Eagles coach running the show. The Giants looked awful at times in the preseason and then allowed 80 points in the first two games. They lost both. There was a lot of heat on them, but Spagnuolo kept everyone together and kept preaching to the players to trust him and good things would happen. They did (unfortunately). The Giants racked up 52 sacks and were very good after the slow start. They were a wildcard playoff team, but being an underdog and on the road didn't phase them. They allowed 14, 17, 20, and 14 points and won the Super Bowl in a huge upset of the undefeated Patriots. Holding Tom Brady and his record setting offense to just 14 points was a huge achievement.
The 2008 Giants were even better on defense, finishing 5th in both points and yards allowed. They accomplished this despite Michael Strahan retiring and Osi Umenyiora missing the season with a knee injury. Spagnuolo had to really coach that group up in order to get the best out of them. Justin Tuck emerged as a great player. The team lost to the Eagles in the playoffs, despite being the top seed. Spagnuolo's reward for the two years was the Rams head coaching job (be careful what you ask for...).
With the Eagles, Spagnuolo did a variety of things. He was hired in 1999 as the defensive quality control coach. He also worked with the safeties. Spagnuolo did that again in 2000. From 2001-03 Spagnuolo was a defensive backs coach. He shared that job with Leslie Frazier for the first two years before doing it alone in 2003. When Ron Rivera left to go run the Bears defense, Spagnuolo took over his job as linebackers coach. He held that position for the rest of his time with the Eagles.
Prior to being hired by Andy Reid, Spagnuolo was a coaching vagabond. He had college stops at UMass, Lafayette, Maine, Connecticut, Rutgers, and Bowling Green. Spagnuolo also spent time with the Barcelona Dragons and Frankfurt Galaxy in NFL Europe. These jobs were all over the defense so Spagnuolo got widespread experience rather than having the same role over and over. He's associated with the defensive line because of his time with the Giants, but really has more experience with the back seven than anything else.
Some fans want to see a distinct track record. Buddy Ryan was a great defensive line coach before becoming the Bears defensive coordinator and unleashing the 46 defense. Bud Carson had success with multiple NFL defenses and was an innovative coach before taking over the Eagles defense. Jim Johnson had enough success at enough stops that it was clear he was a good coach. Spagnuolo doesn't fit that mold.
You have to understand that it took Spagnuolo a long time to break into the NFL, but once he did, he rose quickly. He was a linebackers coach in 2006 and a head coach in 2009. Had Spagnuolo stayed on in New York for several more years I think he would have continued to roll out top notch defenses. That would have grown his reputation as a defensive guru.
I do think he's a gifted defensive mind. Spagnuolo helped build the gameplan that slowed down the Greatest Show on Turf back in 2001. The Rams averaged 31.4 point per game that year. The Eagles held them to 29. That may not sound great, but consider that in the five games leading up to that playoff showdown the Rams had averaged 38 points per contest. They were red hot. Spagnuolo helped with the gameplan that stifled Michael Vick in the 2004 NFC title game and got the Eagles to the Super Bowl. Spagnuolo was masterful with the Giants playoff run in 2007. In four games the defense allowed a total of eight touchdowns, while coming up with seven takeaways and eight sacks.
Spagnuolo is best known for his use of defensive ends playing on the inside in nickel and dime situations. The first I remember hearing about this was in the 2006 offseason. The Eagles had signed Darren Howard away from the Saints and Jim Johnson said at the press conference that Howard was a good interior pass rusher. Due to Jevon Kearse's injury, Howard didn't get to do much of that in 2006. I don't recall Johnson doing it prior to then, but both he and Spagnuolo used the wrinkle in 2007. It worked great for the Giants because Justin Tuck was so good at it.
Spagnuolo has had a hand in breakout seasons for a few players. Brian Dawkins was a talented young safety in 1998. Johnson and Spagnuolo used him creatively in 1999 and took advantage of his skill set. Dawkins has been a special playmaker ever since. Michael Lewis got his career off to a very good start under Spagnuolo's watch. Tuck thrived in Spagnuolo's defense in New York. Long and Laurinaitis bloomed with the Rams and Quinn looks like he could be a dominant pass rusher.
Guys like Dom Capers, Dick LeBeau, Gregg Williams, and Wade Phillips have better track records. Those guys are gurus. Spagnuolo is a notch below them, but he's a better defensive coach than guys like Rob Ryan, Jim Haslett, and Dick Jauron. They may have more years as a defensive coordinator, but volume can be overrated. Spagnuolo delivered results. He also has an extensive background so this isn't some wunderkind that got lucky for a couple of years, but really doesn't know what he's doing. Spagnuolo paid his dues in a big way. He's a coach's coach.
We don't yet know the fate of Juan Castillo. He could be fired. He could be shifted to a different role. He could be retained as defensive coordinator, but with a senior adviser being added to the mix. If the Eagles do want to hire a defensive coordinator or adviser, Spagnuolo should absolutely be the primary target. He knows the X's and O's. He can teach. He can lead. Spagnuolo would be a great hire.