Chris Spielman embraces background role with Lions, where Super Bowl win is ‘No. 1 goal’

Detroit News

Allen Park — The best way for Chris Spielman to explain his wide-ranging role with the Detroit Lions is to invoke the Apostle Paul’s words to the Church of Corinth.

“I just want to be all things to all people,” Spielman said. “That’s the goal.”

More than two years after rejoining the Lions, little has been publicly said about what Spielman does for the team. That’s intentional. He’s lived in the spotlight, both as a player and a broadcaster. Now, he works in the background, viewing himself more as a humble servant, aiming to fill a void in his life’s resume by helping others achieve what he couldn’t as a player — winning a Super Bowl.

But unlike the Apostle Paul — and fortunately for Spielman — he didn’t have to go blind for three days to discover this calling. It only took a phone call from Lions owner Sheila Hamp to convince him to leave a great job at Fox, as well as a recently purchased home close to both his and his wife’s families, in order to move back to Michigan to help lead the latest rebuild of the historically downtrodden franchise.

At that time, the immediate order of business was finding new football leadership. Working alongside Hamp, team president Rod Wood and then-vice president of football administration Mike Disner, the collective’s search landed on Brad Holmes and Dan Campbell for the general manager and head-coaching vacancies, respectively.

Obviously, it’s premature to be making any definitive declarations about those hires, but so far, so good. If nothing else, both Holmes and Campbell are exhibiting the traits Spielman deemed must-haves during his introductory press conference in December 2020, particularly the emphasis on being strong communicators, capable of working collaboratively and having an unwavering commitment to their individual values.

But, beyond the month-long search that ended in those additions, Spielman’s fingerprints have been all over the organization, fulfilling the vision Hamp conveyed in that initial phone conversation.

Building a culture

To her credit, Hamp is more accessible than Lions ownership has been in recent memory. That doesn’t mean she’s gone to the extremes of some of the league’s more vocal owners, such as Dallas’ Jerry Jones, but she’s made enough comments publicly that there’s a reasonable understanding of her approach to building a winner.

Among the topics discussed in an interview with The Detroit News ahead of Campbell and Holmes’ first season with the Lions, Hamp talked about barriers that had long existed between the football and business sides of the operation and her desire to bring those down. And while she has made a personal effort to do that, meeting with individual departments and hosting company-wide events, including a summer barbeque, Spielman has served as a wrecking ball to those figurative walls, building bridges from the rubble.

In an effort to bring Ford Field employees more into the fold, Spielman makes a weekly, midweek trip to the stadium during the season to host a film review and Q&A session about the previous game, followed by a scouting report of the upcoming opponent.

Additionally, he regularly teaches a Football 101 class for any team employee interested in attending. He goes over, in detail, the differences between coverage schemes, defensive fronts and positional alignments. He wants to make understanding football accessible to whoever wants to learn.

These initiatives only begin to highlight Spielman’s role as a culture builder. Embracing the franchise’s “One Pride” slogan, he believes the success of a football team isn’t confined to the locker room or the front office, but involves every person employed by the organization.

“I wanted them to feel like they are a Detroit Lion, as much as Jared Goff is a Detroit Lion or Alex Anzalone is a Detroit Lion, or Dan Campbell, Brad Holmes and Sheila Hamp are Detroit Lions,” Spielman said. “That was one thing, that was kind of the standard that I set.”

In a fashion befitting a former linebacker, Spielman and his wife, Carrie, even attended a cheerleading practice to go over some of the rules of the football, before the session evolved into running the group through some tackling drills.

“It was fun,” Spielman said. “I think they had a blast with it.”

Within these activities, Spielman isn’t just carrying out Hamp’s plan of a more cohesive organization, but also serving as a stand-in for Holmes and Campbell. They share in ownership’s vision, but don’t have the time in their roles to regularly engage at this level. So, Spielman always relays his itinerary to the football leadership and they’ll frequently provide a message to relay.

“It’s really cool and I’m motivated by that,” Spielman said. “I don’t know, but I’m not aware of any other position like mine around the league. I don’t think it exists.”

Winning is the only thing

The ability for Spielman to do his job hinges on trust. He’s told the workers at Ford Field that the Q&A sessions are contingent on everything they talk about staying in-house. If that basic rule is violated, and any part of those meetings is leaked, they’ll be discontinued.

The other side of the trust equation ties into Spielman’s role on the football side of things. When the team announced his hiring, there was some initial speculation he had aspirations to eventually be a general manager, like his brother Rick, who served in that capacity for a decade with the Minnesota Vikings.

Spielman immediately dismissed that talk, noting his lack of qualifications. And he has continued to hammer home that he has no ambition to climb the corporate ladder to members of the coaching staff and front office.

“I’ve been given the freedom to define the role, but in order to do that, the one thing I had to get, because it’s a paranoid business by nature, I had to make sure I had everybody’s trust, that I have zero agenda other than winning,” he said. “Zero. I tell everyone, ‘I’ve already done my thing, man. I have zero agenda. I don’t want another role. I’m not looking for another role.’ My goal is to help everybody succeed to their highest level. When that happens, I feel like I win.”

Through earning that trust, Spielman is able to participate in various ways to enhancing the football product. This time of year, he’s knee-deep in college scouting. In his first year back, he limited his focus to the linebackers, but he’s expanded that to every position, writing up reports for all draft-eligible prospects.

During the season, Spielman helps the pro personnel department grade the roster after each game. And in preparation for the next opponent, the 57-year-old Spielman lines up at linebacker during walkthrough practices, providing notes on the offensive play calls after each session to coordinator Ben Johnson and offensive line coach Hank Fraley.

“It’s really cool, although it’s very challenging for me, which is frustrating,” Spielman said. “During the walkthrough period, I’m a scout-team linebacker. It has to be in a walkthrough because of two titanium hips and suddenly getting plantar fasciitis, but I love it. I actually got taped one day before the walkthrough. But, it’s for a purpose.

“I’ll go in there, and my body doesn’t move like I want it to, but my eyes and brain still see it,” he continued. “We’ll go through all these walkthrough plays and I’ll make a card for Ben or Hank and say, ‘That play gave me trouble.’ There might be three or four during a walkthrough where the blocking scheme gave me trouble and I didn’t see it. Then I get pissed at myself. That’s one way I think I contribute.”

Spielman’s also constantly learning. As noted, he only scouted linebackers when he first started. And by his own admission, he didn’t like any of them, until he got some important advice from former scouting director Dave Sears, who recently took a new job as assistant general manager with the Arizona Cardinals.

Sears told Spielman he had found former linebackers are unfair in their evaluations of prospects currently playing the position. It took a minute for the feedback to land, but he quickly realized Sears was correct, sending Spielman back to the tape to re-do his reports on the incoming draft class with a fresh set of eyes.

The Lions have drafted two linebackers since Spielman has been in this role, Derrick Barnes and Malcolm Rodriguez. Spielman declined to offer an evaluation of either player, believing doing so would be stepping outside the lane of his responsibilities, but did reveal why he wasn’t surprised by Rodriguez’s rookie-year success, despite outside concerns about the player’s size, which had caused him to slide to the sixth round of the draft.

“That’s not hard: Does a guy make plays or doesn’t he?” Spielman said. “He made plays in college, so why wouldn’t he make them in the NFL? Let’s not overthink this. That was my evaluation process. He makes plays; he tackles the guys within the three yards of the line of scrimmage. I’m good. Next guy.”

When he was hired, Spielman also expressed a desire to learn more about managing the salary cap. He hasn’t been as directly involved there as he has in other areas, but it still interests him. He’s spent plenty of time working through his questions with Disner and Brandon Sosna, the team’s new senior director of football administration. And Spielman has found a way to contribute, working with Sosna on comparing and contrasting the skill sets of players, which helps shape the team’s contract offers to free agents.

The ultimate goal

If there’s been one challenge for Spielman that’s stood above the rest, it’s staying level through the low times. To say he’s never dealt well with losing would be an understatement, but he doesn’t want to let those negative emotions consume him like they did when he was playing.

“I’ll say this, my family, when I was a player and we’d lose, they’d often mention they’d never seen someone living a dream who is so freaking miserable,” he said. “I promised myself that I was not going to ride the emotional rollercoaster like I did as a player because I don’t want to be that person again. And I’ve been able to control it, but it’s been challenging, at times. It just is.”

But, during our hour-long conversation, Spielman couldn’t hide his emotional investment in the job. Like Campbell, after a hard-fought loss or victory, Spielman’s voice cracks as he talks about some of the experiences from the past two years, starting with the hiring of Holmes.

“Do you have children? Do they do sports at all? When they do something, set a personal best or something, the joy that I have for them supersedes any joy I could have for myself,” Spielman explained. “That’s when you’re totally invested. When he got that job, I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m getting to watch, in person, a man get his dream job.’ I’m watching him calling his mom and wife and say, ‘I’m the general manager of the Detroit Lions.’ I think I was more excited for him than he was for him. I think I actually kissed him on his head. I might have. I don’t know. But, that’s the definition of being a teammate.”

Spielman felt a similar joy, although more bittersweet, when Sears landed the job in Arizona. And if Johnson or Aaron Glenn ever earn a head-coaching opportunity, it will be more of the same.

“I’m going to feel like I had a small, really small part in helping them achieve the goals they want to achieve,” Spielman said.

As for Hamp, prior to her picking up the phone to convince Spielman to come to Detroit, the two didn’t have a personal relationship, beyond exchanged pleasantries prior to the games in which he was on the broadcast team. But, it didn’t take long for her to win him over.

“When I talk about our initial conversation, when I was in that hotel room in Cincinnati, you’ve probably experienced it as somebody that talks to people all the time, when you talk to an acquaintance and you feel like you’ve known them for a long time,” Spielman said. “I kind of felt that connection with her.”

Spielman is amazed by Hamp’s passion and enjoys fostering her enthusiasm. Recently, when both were at the practice facility with no immediate agenda, they took a stroll around the building, stopping by the assistant coaches’ offices to see what they were working on.

Fraley shared the college tape he was breaking down in search of offensive-line prospects who could help the team next season. Special-teams coordinator Dave Fipp was reviewing drills the team had implemented during training camp and how those developed skills carried over to games. And Glenn, the defensive coordinator, spent an estimated 45 minutes going over some of his season-long review, explaining why his unit had struggled so much early in the season before settling into a groove down the stretch.

“It was really cool to see the investment and passion she has,” Spielman said. “I just know she had such an enthusiasm and interest in those conversations, which is fun. We’re doing football here for crying out loud. It’s supposed to be fun.”

Those quiet moments run in stark contrast to the home crowd at Ford Field relentlessly booing Hamp during a 2021 ceremony to honor Calvin Johnson’s Hall of Fame enshrinement. That grated at Spielman, who feels there’s long existed a faulty narrative that the Ford family doesn’t care about winning.

“All that did was motivate me more because I took that personally,” he said. “When they booed her, I took it personally, because I’m here to help her.”

As Spielman said, his only agenda is winning and helping people succeed. Within that is the ultimate goal, the one, that if achieved, will allow him to contentedly call it a career.

“Football is in me,” Spielman said. “It’s not the most important thing in my life. My faith, my family, then football. But, I never succeeded as a player, and I have one more chance to succeed. Success is defined as winning a Super Bowl. I didn’t succeed. I fell short. So, I have one more shot.

“…When Sheila, Dan and Brad hold up a Super Bowl trophy — this is my No. 1 goal — and I’m sitting in the back thinking, ‘I’m good. I’m done. See you,'” he said. “I’ll be in Sanibel hanging out with a drink.”

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers

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