Coaching success was in the cards Steve Spagnuolo has gone from lowly quality-control coach to coordinator with a shot at the Super Bowl.

Posted: January 20, 2008

GREEN BAY, Wis. — Steve Spagnuolo spent last week devising a defensive scheme to stop Brett Favre and the Green Bay Packers today inside the frozen confines of Lambeau Field.

All that's at stake for the New York Giants' first-year defensive coordinator is a trip to the Super Bowl. Only the winner of today's NFC championship game gets a ticket to the NFL title game two weeks from today in Glendale, Ariz.

It has already been quite an ascent for Spagnuolo, whose NFL coaching career started when Andy Reid arrived in Philadelphia back in 1999. Reid, in remaking the Eagles' staff, hired Spagnuolo to be a defensive assistant and quality-control coach.

That job gets about as much attention as a Rolling Stones stagehand. In fact, if you're getting attention as a quality-control coach, it's probably not a good thing.

Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson, while taking a break from reviewing film of his own defense Wednesday, remembered a day when Spagnuolo received some of that unwanted attention.

"It was his job as the quality-control guy to bring out the cards and diagrams of the opposing offense to show the scout team during practice," Johnson said. "One day, Steve forgot the cards, and he got a little panicky. We told him not to worry about it, that we'd wing it, but he was nervous about it. That's one thing I kind of always kid him about."

Spagnuolo, of course, survived his forgetful moment in his early days as an Eagles assistant and slowly moved up the ranks, becoming first a secondary coach and then the linebackers coach.

Along the way, he learned enough about Johnson's defense that the Giants thought he was ready to draw up his own schemes after they interviewed him for the coordinator's job last January. It's a move they do not regret.

After giving up 80 points in consecutive losses to Dallas and Green Bay to start the season, the Giants staged a memorable goal-line stand to rally for a win over Washington in Week 3, then sacked Donovan McNabb 12 times the following week in a 16-3 victory over the Eagles at Giants Stadium.

Spagnuolo's plan was working. The Giants went from the NFL's 25th-ranked defense a year ago to seventh this season. They allowed 11 fewer points, and their league-leading 53 sacks were 21 more than a year ago.

"We combined both some of the good things that were here in New York with the staff that was still here, and certainly we certainly brought a lot of things from Philadelphia," Spagnuolo told reporters in New York Thursday. "It's been a pretty easy natural transition. It never works unless you have the people to do it, and we were lucky enough to have guys to do it."

It's true it doesn't work without the right players, but it also doesn't work if said players don't buy into what the coach is selling. The Giants' defensive players say they got a real bargain in Spagnuolo.

"He has everything to do with this," Giants Pro Bowl defensive end Osi Umenyiora said after his team's upset win at Dallas last Sunday. "He's a great defensive coordinator, and the best thing we could have ever done is hire that guy. We knew that in the preseason just by the way he talks and the way he carries himself.

"Even if we would have lost five straight, we still would have followed him anywhere. It's the way he goes about his business and his plan. I've heard a lot of people say things, but he actually believes in us."

Umenyiora said the Giants' defense may be similar to what Johnson runs with the Eagles but is not the same. Johnson says he agrees.

"It's fun to watch him," Johnson said. "Steve and I worked together for eight years, and it's fun to see him go and beat the Cowboys. He's a hard worker and a good football mind. He really learned the system, and I knew he'd go there and do a good job."

Justin Tuck has every reason to believe in Spagnuolo's system. In his first two seasons with the Giants, the defensive end had one sack. This year, despite being the No. 3 defensive end, he had 10 sacks. Spagnuolo, 48, found different ways to get Tuck involved, choosing sometimes to use him as an inside pass rusher.

"Everything is kind of contagious with that guy," Tuck said. "He's one of those coaches you want to play for because he's just so excited about everything he does. He's kind of like a player-coach out there. He understands the things we like to do, and he puts us in a lot of defenses we like to run. Sometimes he'll look at us and say, 'What do you want to run?' And then he lets us run it."

Former Eagles linebacker Ike Reese is not surprised that the Giants have fallen in love with Spagnuolo's coaching methods and schemes.

"He started as a quality-control coach, but you can tell right away if a guy has it or it's going to take a little while," Reese said. "Some guys are just happy to be coaching in the NFL, but you could see he was taking the job seriously, and he moved up quickly. He has an infectious personality. He has that Boston accent, and you'd always hear it when he was coaching. He had passion."

Today, Spagnuolo, nine years after forgetting the play charts for a practice just outside Veterans Stadium, will try to push the right buttons as his Giants defense goes against a future Hall of Fame quarterback in Favre and a Packers offense that was white hot in the cold snow last week against Seattle.

"Any coach in this business looks forward to these kind of days," Spagnuolo said. "It means a lot."

It means a trip to the Super Bowl.

Contact staff writer Bob Brookover at 215-854-2577 or bbrookover@phillynews.com.

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