KANSAS CITY, Mo. — A year ago at this time, the Chiefs were consumed with converting their Achilles’ heel into an asset. Or at least something more stable than the precarious defense that had become the only unit able to thwart Patrick Mahomes and their offense — the brilliant collaboration that might have been rendered a novelty act without a supporting cast.

So the Chiefs overhauled defensive schemes, and they purged personnel to make money and room for the crucial likes of Tyrann Mathieu and Frank Clark. But hiring Steve Spagnuolo as defensive coordinator was about as pivotal as anything in alchemizing that Kryptonite into the gold essential to winning their first Super Bowl in 50 years.

You might even say Spagnuolo, and his largely new staff, transformed it all by hand. As in hands-on: Returning to coaching after a revitalizing year off, Spagnuolo set a certain tone in offseason training by whirling about like the Tasmanian Devil of Looney Tunes.

“I think if I can keep it going fast, they think a little faster, and hopefully it carries over,” Spagnuolo said last May, adding that he relished pulling players aside for instruction. “I think it just sinks in a little bit more if it’s one-on-one rather than trying to yell over the music.”

Now, Spagnuolo is facing the music of what the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic has wrought on his work … something we got a glimpse of during a Zoom call earlier this week.

Noting the screen format of “a lot of square boxes,” he was reminded of the old TV show “Hollywood Squares.”

Which resembles the view he has now of assistants and players via the Webex forum he’s left to coach through for the foreseeable future.

Which in turn speaks to how he is deprived of one of his most trusty tools.

“When you can only do this,” he said, gesturing with his hands and smiling before leaning forward to the camera, “I’m concerned about them getting bored.”

That’s led to such twists as trying to keep each other “attentive and amused” through “Jeopardy” games and players doing defensive installs.

Adaptive but not quite the same.

The disorienting sensation is doubtless true for virtually any teacher or coach right now, but perhaps more acutely so for some than others.

“There’s only so much Spags can do. I think it’s kind of driving him crazy,” Mathieu said on a call, laughing and adding, “But he’s making it work.”

Immersed as Spagnuolo is in making it work, though, it’s important to note this is relative to someone who remains cognizant of the broader picture.

He knows the world is a different place than the last time he spoke with a media gathering just after Super Bowl LIV, knows the “tentacles to this whole thing” are vast and that all in the NFL should appreciate just having their jobs right now.

He and his wife, Maria, are conscious of those in distress. He feels for college and high school seniors missing out on so much that’s typically taken for granted as rites of passage.

And he worries about the loneliness of the elderly, including family members, who can’t be visited and “sometimes depending on where they are in their thought process … may not remember” why the next day.

Still, there is the job at hand and its multiple challenges for the defending Super Bowl champions.

Like creating a better defense than the Chiefs were in the wobbly first half of last season.

“We knew there were going to be bumps in the road early (last season) with regards to feeling out coaches, players and what we had, what they could do, the new system and the whole thing,” he said, later adding, “My hope is that we’re past that.”

This time around, there also is the issue of motivating this group to remain dedicated in a disconnected time and be hungry for a new tier of trials ahead whenever football starts back up in earnest.

And to work toward it without being able to rely on the forte of his immediate presence.

Like coach Andy Reid, Spagnuolo believes there is ample room for improvement for a defense that will have up to nine starters back if Chris Jones isn’t a holdout or traded.

Extracting that is another matter, though, especially with a foundation built on Webex and virtual workouts instead of first-hand instruction and seizing teachable moments.

But even if some elements of the pursuit are hindered, including the evaluation of newcomers, it’s no more than it is for anyone else.

And the Chiefs have an apparent advantage in continuity, from most of their young core of starters back to a nearly intact coaching staff, including offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy, special teams coordinator Dave Toub and Spagnuolo — any or all of whom could be gone next year as prime head-coaching candidates.

Spagnuolo went 10-38 as head coach of the St. Louis Rams in 2009-2011 and 1-3 as interim coach of the New York Giants in 2017. After Super Bowl LIV, he told WFAN Sports Radio in New York that he still had a “burning desire” to be a head coach but is “very, very blessed” to have this job under Reid — with whom he goes back decades.

So instead of overhauling and guessing who can do what in a new landscape, for the most part they are merely tweaking and building on what they started a year ago, when they whittled down their points-allowed per game from 26.3 the season before to 19.2.

Never mind that in the new abnormal it’s being conducted from afar by a guy who favors being a close-talker when it comes to his work. At least it’s a level field as he laments having to let go.

“Just going out and walking through things,” he said, “is light years ahead of sitting in a meeting all day.”

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©2020 The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.)

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