The last time Steve Spagnuolo was in the Edward Jones Dome, it was New Year's Day, 2012. Spagnuolo's St. Louis Rams had just dropped a 34-27 decision to the San Francisco 49ers, capping off a woeful 2-14 season and sealing Spagnuolo's fate. Rams owner Stan Kroenke would fire Spagnuolo and general manager Billy Devaney, paving the way for Les Snead and Jeff Fisher to take over.
Thursday night, when the Baltimore Ravens visit the Rams for both teams' exhibition finale, they'll bring with them the former Rams' head coach, now a "senior defensive assistant" with the defending Super Bowl champs. That role will likely have Spagnuolo in the booth high atop the playing field, and probably for the best, out of sight and earshot of still embittered Rams' fans.
Spagnuolo arrived in St. Louis as a "savior." He was the defensive genius of the New York Giants who had devised the plan that thwarted the New England Patriots' bid for perfection and won the Super Bowl for New York. The Rams had foundered since the end of Mike Martz' tenure. Scott Linehan was brought in, but the combination of an aging core and poor drafts had turned "The Greatest Show on Turf" into merely a sideshow.
Spagnuolo struggled to a 1-15 mark his first year with a gutted roster. But with the number one overall pick spent on Oklahoma QB Sam Bradford, the future appeared bright. Indeed, the Rams nearly won the NFC West with a 7-9 record in Spagnuolo's second season. Only a heartbreaking final game loss in Seattle kept the Rams from the playoffs.
But things were not well behind the scenes at Rams Park. Spagnuolo, following the advice of his mentors, Tom Coughlin and Andy Reid, wanted to establish himself as the authority in the Rams' organization. His "my way or the highway" approach rubbed many members of the organization, players and front office personnel alike, the wrong way. Spagnuolo fired some long-time Rams' employees and brought in his own people. When the criticism started mounting, Spagnuolo would find himself insulated and unable to respond effectively.
So when Sam Bradford went down to injury and the Rams limped home to 2-14, Spagnuolo's fate was sealed. He had few, if any, supporters within the organization or in the locker room. Removing him as head coach was the only move to make, for his sake as well as the Rams.
Spagnuolo spent last season coordinating the New Orleans Saints' defense amid the "bounty-gate" scandal that forced out Gregg Williams as well as head coach, Sean Payton and several key defensive players. New Orleans' finished dead last in the NFL in total defense, and Spagnuolo was let go after the season. This move was welcomed, reportedly, by many in the Saints' locker room who were less than thrilled with Spagnuolo's personal approach.
An anonymous Saints defensive player told Larry Holder of the New Orleans Times-Picayune:
"He does have that good-guy persona, but he is a control freak and treats people like crap…(Spagnuolo has) no patience and zero personality. (He) has a way of pissing players and our defensive coaches off with how he says and does things. (I) think it's even harder after having (former defensive coordinator) Gregg (Williams), who guys enjoyed."
Spagnuolo was hired this off season by good friend and Ravens' head coach, John Harbaugh. There he'll be working with the defensive staff, but won't have executive duties. He and the defensive staff face a challenge rebuilding the defense with the retirement of Ray Lewis and the departures of key players like Ed Reed, Paul Kruger and Dannell Ellerbe. Add to that Spagnuolo's affinity for a 4-3 scheme and the Ravens personnel working a 3-4 scheme, and there will definitely be some growing pains.
Given Spagnuolo's problems relating to people as a head coach and coordinator, this might not be the worst thing for him at this point in his career. He has a chance to continue to do what he loves, coach football, and not have the pressures of leadership.
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