Steve Spagnuolo should view 2022 as contract year as Chiefs defensive coordinator

KANSAS CITY, MO - DECEMBER 05: Steve Spagnuolo, defensive coordinator with the Kansas City Chiefs, walks the sidelines during the third quarter against the Denver Broncos at Arrowhead Stadium on December 5, 2021 in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by David Eulitt/Getty Images)
KANSAS CITY, MO - DECEMBER 05: Steve Spagnuolo, defensive coordinator with the Kansas City Chiefs, walks the sidelines during the third quarter against the Denver Broncos at Arrowhead Stadium on December 5, 2021 in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by David Eulitt/Getty Images) /

Kansas City Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo should feel forced to treat this upcoming season as a contract year for his own role on the team.

The Kansas City Chiefs are far from a defensive juggernaut. All-time greats such as Buck Buchanan, Derrick Thomas, and Bobby Bell once called Kansas City home. In those days, the defense was once an integral part of the Chiefs’ identity, but that is no more. That is part of the evolving NFL.

Head coach Andy Reid is one of the game’s best offensive minds, and quarterback Patrick Mahomes is arguably the best in the league. That combination alone will compensate for a lackluster defense. That duo was crucial in Kansas City’s recent dominance with four consecutive conference championship games.

While Kansas City fields an unparalleled offensive unit, the defense has hampered the Chiefs’ championship aspirations. Once it was Bob Sutton who led the defensive unit. Now, it is Kansas City’s most important 2023 free agent: Steve Spagnuolo.

Opinions on Spagnuolo as defensive coordinator are mixed for some fans. Sure, many were happy to see Sutton gone after multiple mediocre years. The Chiefs then brought in Spagnuolo, a coordinator with a championship resume. He spent 2018 away from football, after a lackluster second tenure with the New York Giants. Spagnuolo came to Kansas City, reenergized and highly recommended by team leadership.

"“Steve is a bright defensive mind with a lot of coaching experience and success in our league,” Reid said. “I know him well from our time together in Philadelphia and I feel that his leadership skills and teaching abilities, combined with his scheme, will be a great fit for our team as we move forward.”"

The Chiefs were just a defense away from the Super Bowl, and Spagnuolo proved that to be true. He led an above-average defense in 2019, ranking seventh in points allowed during the regular season. Spagnuolo’s scheme, and safety Tyrann Mathieu’s performance, took the Chiefs over the hump. Kansas City won Super Bowl LIV in Spagnuolo’s debut season, the team’s first in 50 years.

The Chiefs’ investment in Spagnuolo paid off in the beginning, but the returns since have been questionable. Several aspects of the Chiefs’ defense have not met the standards of a championship-contending team since 2019.

The pass-rush is not there, despite big-money commitments to defensive end Frank Clark and defensive tackle Chris Jones. The run defense is porous, with Football Outsiders ranking them 30th overall. While the pass defense is average in interceptions and touchdowns allowed, the 2021 Chiefs ranked 27th in passing yards allowed. This defense, in 2020 and 2021, did not concern opposing offensive coordinators. For the most part, opponents were able to run their scheme with limited effect.

The Chiefs’ offense kept the team successful in 2021, in spite of the defense.

Fans know all about the team’s awful defensive start to 2021. The Cheifs ranked at or near the bottom in several defensive metrics, including points allowed per game, third-down conversion, and red-zone efficiency. The defense did turn it around for a stretch though.

The defense was amongst the league’s best from Weeks 8-14, due to a combination of player turnover and weaker opponents. Kansas City’s defense allowed less than 11 points per game in that stretch, despite high per-game yardage amounts. The “bend but don’t break” defensive approach saw the Chiefs go 6-0 in this stretch, despite questionable offensive output.

But, the wheels fell off when it mattered most. According to Pro Football Reference, the Chiefs’ defense accounted for -58.53 expected points in the season’s final seven games. Their only positive performances came in two games against the floundering Pittsburgh Steelers.

Everyone knows about the instant classic against the Buffalo Bills and the collapse against the Cincinnati Bengals a week later. It was a rollercoaster end to the season for sure.

Yet, despite the continual decline, Spagnuolo is still Kansas City’s defensive coordinator—unwaveringly so, as well. It just does not make sense on paper. If one of a team’s three units is regressing since the coordinator joined, a coaching change would make sense. Instead, the coaches under Spagnuolo have shuffled. The Chiefs named Joe Cullen the defensive line coach and Brendan Daly moved to linebackers coach. Dave Merritt is still the defensive back coach, but Sam Madison is gone as cornerbacks coach after taking a job in Miami.

While mid-level coaching changes are not uncommon ins the NFL offseason, is it enough for Kansas City? That answer won’t come until the 2022 season’s first snap, but it needs to be for Spagnuolo’s sake.

Spagnuolo has failed as a head coach, with an 11-41 record in the position. Lateral moves across the league are rare for coordinators and raise considerable questions. Spagnuolo should not draw interest as a head coach in 2023, or defensive coordinator for that matter. Spagnuolo needs to treat the upcoming season as his contract year, especially with his unit’s negative trajectory.

Will Spagnuolo succeed? Fans should certainly hope so, as even an average defense will help Kansas City’s 2022 outlook. Plus, the Chiefs invested much of their draft capital in the defense, a much-needed move for years. If the rookies do not progress under Spagnuolo, or the defense takes more steps back, he should be gone.

A four-year tenure as a coordinator is nothing to be ashamed of. Plus, Spagnuolo was part of 2019’s championship-winning coaching staff. However, that goodwill can and should only placate the organization and fans for so long. If the Chiefs want to succeed, they need Spagnuolo to put all his effort into the 2022 season. With his job probably on the line, he needs to pull out all the stops.

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