A decade ago, the Pro Football Writers of America (PFWA) created a lifetime achievement honor for NFL assistant coaches and named it the Paul “Dr. Z” Zimmerman Award, after the long-time NFL writer for the New York Post. In the past nine years, 23 assistants have won the award, and another dozen have been finalists.
They're names you would know.
Winners include Dick LeBeau (also in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in part for his success as an NFL assistant), Bud Carson, Bill Arnsparger Jim Johnson, Fritz Shurmur, Emmitt Thomas, Bobby Turner, Monte Kiffin and Wade Phillips. Basically a who's who of the assistant coaching world.
However, one name that's never been among the finalists is Kansas City Chiefs' defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, and that should change. In fact, current events dictate he goes to the head of the list now.
Spagnuolo's defense was the key reason the Chiefs won this year's Super Bowl, unlike what happened in Kansas City's Super Bowl LVII win over the Eagles the season before. In that game, MVP Patrick Mahomes and the offense did the heavy lifting during the regular-season and in the NFL championship game. But this time the 64-year-old "Spags" walked off the field knowing his defense delivered all year, in the playoffs and in the ultimate game.
That's because his defense in 2023 was among the best in the NFL (2nd in fewest points allowed, 2nd in fewest yards allowed and 7th in DVOA) and his pressure concepts thwarted the Dolphins, Bills and Ravens in the AFC playoffs and allowed the Chiefs a comeback win in Super Bowl LVIII.
In the Big Game, he upped his blitzing by 10 percentage points and doubled his usage of man-to-man coverage from about 20 to 40 percent (both per Pro Football Focus). Plus, he prevented the elite 49ers' offense from getting in rhythm in key moments, forcing it to settle for field goals rather than touchdowns.
Result: The 49ers produced just 22 points in five quarters, a significant drop from their yearly average of 29 points per game.
No Spags, no ring.
That hearkens back to 2007 when his Giants' defense beat up the then-undefeated New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLII by allowing the record-setting offense just 14 points. In that game, the Giants sacked MVP Tom Brady five times, notable because he hadn't been sacked four times in a game all season, and countless pressures in addition to the sacks.
Any one of a few Giants' defenders, including Justin Tuck, could have been the Super Bowl MVP. It was a game plan for the ages, spoiling what would have been a perfect season for Brady and Patriots' coach Bill Belichick. And you just know they wanted that perfecto.
But, it didn't happen, in large part, due to Spagnuolo.
What was said then about Tuck as a possible MVP could've been said earlier this month for Chiefs' defensive tackle Chris Jones. While the 49ers were trying to defend free-running corners or linebackers, they forgot to block Jones -- and it cost them. It was an unblocked Jones who forced quarterback Brock Purdy into a hurried incompletion on a critical third-and-4 in overtime that led to a field goal.
Credit to Jones, just like it was credit to Tuck. And credit to Spaguolo. MVP performances by quarterbacks Eli Manning and Mahomes aside, defense won Super Bowls XLII and LVIII. And isn't that what makes a legacy for an assistant coach ... what makes him worthy of a career achievement award ... coaching up big in the biggest of games?
With his latest victory, Spagnuolo became the first coordinator -- offensive or defensive -- to earn four Super Bowl rings, breaking a tie with defensive coordinators Richie Petitbon (Washington) and Romeo Crennel (New England) and two assistants who coached the other side of the ball -- Charlies Weis and Josh McDaniels for the Patriots.
A year ago, Spagnuolo was the first to coordinate Super Bowl victories for two NFL franchises when he tied those four coaches with three coordinating rings. Now he stands alone, and the Chiefs' brain trust recognizes it. Less than a week after Super Bowl LVIII, it signed Spagnuolo to a contract extension.
Now it's time for the PFWA to respond.
To become a Paul Zimmerman Award winner, an assistant coach can be active or retired. Two of last year's winners, Don “Wink” Martindale and John Mitchell, were active at the time, though Mitchell retired after the season. The third winner, Bobb McKittrick, passed away in 2000.
I've advocated for several finalists who have yet to be named recipients, namely Floyd Peters and Jim Hanifan. But with the PFWA naming as many as four assistant coaches in one season, there's room for Spaguolo to be included.
We won't know who the winners are for a few months, but this is one case where "recentism" -- paying closer attention to recent events than ones in the past -- may be warranted. While I understand that recentism clouds judgment and can work against deserving players and coaches (see the Pro Football Hall of Fame), there can be ... and are ... exceptions.
Steve Spagnuolo is one of them.