Giants defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo looks like Jets' top pick
By RALPH VACCHIANO
DAILY NEWS SPORTS WRITER
Wednesday, December 31st 2008, 9:21 AM

Steve Spagnuolo passed on his first opportunity to become an NFL head coach after last season. The Giants don't expect him to take a pass again.

So with three potential suitors lined up to talk to Spagnuolo this week, some in the organization were bracing for the loss of the defensive coordinator who restored the Giants' championship defense. The Jets, the Detroit Lions and the Cleveland Browns have all requested and received permission to interview the 49-year-old assistant.

Spagnuolo will interview with the Jets on Saturday and appears to be Gang Green's leading candidate, with Bill Cowher having withdrawn from consideration last night. The other two interviews will take place on either Thursday or Saturday, the two days this week the Giants' players are off.

The Jets' job could be of particular interest to Spagnuolo, who grew up in Massachusetts and whose wife is from Philadelphia. His family would be able to stay in the Northeast, keep their home in New Jersey, and he wouldn't have to compete in the same division as two of his former bosses - Eagles coach Andy Reid and Giants coach Tom Coughlin.

Having to compete against Reid and Coughlin twice a year was apparently one of the factors in his decision last winter to turn down the Washington Redskins, who nearly hired him after Super Bowl XLII. Owner Daniel Snyder, after watching Spagnuolo's defense batter Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and help pull off one of the greatest NFL upsets ever, hosted Spagnuolo at his estate for two days in early February.

When Spagnuolo finally emerged from that retreat, he announced that he was withdrawing his name from consideration for the Redskins job, although some league sources believe the job was his if he wanted it. The Giants rewarded Spagnuolo for his loyalty by giving him a three-year contract extension worth $2 million per year, making him at the time the second-highest-paid assistant coach in the league.

That also may have turned out to be a preemptive move, because according to a report in the St.Louis Post-Dispatch Tuesday, the Rams were scared off by Spagnuolo's price tag and have apparently abandoned plans to interview him. It's not clear if his likely salary demands have scared away other teams.

What is clear, however, are the reasons the Jets, Browns and Lions are all so eager to interview him. Last year, in his first season as a coordinator after eight years as a Philadelphia Eagles assistant, Spagnuolo took over the NFL's 25th-ranked defense and helped it improve to seventh. The Giants also had one of the most aggressive attacks in the league and led the NFL with 53 sacks.

This year, after losing five starters off Spagnuolo's Super Bowl-winning defense - including Michael Strahan and Osi Umenyiora - the Giants improved to fifth in the NFL in overall defense, and racked up 42 sacks.

If Spagnuolo leaves, it's not completely clear what the Giants will do to replace him. Last year, it was believed they were planning to promote linebackers coach Bill Sheridan, and it's possible that could be the plan again. However, there could be another intriguing outside candidate. Recently fired ***** coach Mike Nolan is a former Giants defensive coordinator and still has ties to the organization.

According to NFL rules, teams looking for a new head coach can interview assistant coaches on playoff teams with bye weeks this week, but they cannot offer them a job until their team is eliminated from the playoffs.