Q&A: Kevin Spencer

PITTSBURGH -- Kevin Spencer was named NFL Special Teams Coach of the Year for the 2003 season. Find out how little that award meant to this Steelers assistant, and more, in this interview with Steel City Sports:


What's the fine line for keeping special teams players only?

Well I don't think you can ever lose sight of the fact that they've got to bring something to the table offensively or defensively. I still feel very comfortable. We have to make sure that the guy can contribute as an O or D guy. All I can say is that all things being equal, is that if the guy is a hellacious special teams contributor then that's the guy you're going to keep. I know for a fact that our coaches feel comfortable putting (Sean Morey) in the game as an offensive receiver. Now, he may not be in your top three or maybe even in your top four, but I know they've got to feel like when push comes to shove the guy's got to be able to play for us to get us out of a game. And I think our defensive coaches feel very strongly that you can do the same thing with Chidi (Iwuoma).

Now it's hard for me to believe we would keep a guy just because of his special teams and that's all the guy can do. He's got to be a player because when you only have 53, and then 45, you've got to count on the guy. He's got to be used in the game.

There are degrees aren't there?

I think we've got a couple spots on the roster where it will be incredibly competitive. I don't know what the hell it is. All I can say that I know our head coach is very concerned about the kicking game and having guys that can make good contributions. There are going to be some tough decisions in August. Say you have a guy at a certain position who looks like he could be a hellacious player but he might not be ready yet, but I know we've got to make sure we're not hamstringing ourselves in the kicking game. It's going to be hard. It's going to be really hard. But I guess that's a good problem to have. I was talking to coach Dick (LeBeau) yesterday and he said, 'You never can have enough good football players.' It's a good problem to have for us because there are some tough decisions to be made.

The way I look at it, we've got to have guys who can help us offensively and defensively. If a guy can do it in the kicking game, I've gotta believe he's going to be a contributor to a certain extent offensively and defensively. It's hard for me to believe there could be a guy who's a great player in the kicking game and then you're scared to death to use him on offense and defense. I'd like to think we can get both things accomplished. But like coach says, all things being equal the kicking game is going to push you one way or the other so you've got to be able to do that.

Do assistants make cases for players in meetings?

I'm pretty fortunate that coach has a good feel for that stuff. He listens. He obviously knows our team pretty well. He watches practice and he listens to the coaches and the coaches on a continuum will evaluate and rank their guys positionally, and then there's always that X factor: What can the guy do in the kicking game? I normally don't have to say very much. The biggest job that I have is getting with him early and saying, 'Coach, what do you think?' And he'll give me an appraisal sometimes about where he's going with people. And then it's my job to make absolutely sure that I get those guys roles and jobs and make sure they practice those jobs. The worst thing in the world is you cut down and you've got a hole in your punt team and a hole in your punt return because I misevaluated who I thought was going to make the team. The way you make sure that does not happen is communication. So I spend a lot of time with coach talking about guys who I think have shown me some things, and of making sure of where those guys fit in, because he's got an idea right now, or when we get into training camp anyways. The worst thing that can happen is that I'm in a void, he's in a void, and we don't talk. And that doesn't happen. I mean, I'll give him, before I go home for summer, I'll give him an idea of my depth chart based upon what I've seen out here and guys coming back. And then we'll talk about making sure guys get enough reps at this spot and that spot and so on. He'll ask about my emergency snapper, who's working where. I don't think it's a situation where I don't have to make a case for a guy. We spend enough time talking one-on-one throughout training camp, and he's got a good feel for it already, that when coaches present their guys and how they feel about guys, he kind of knows. If you don't communicate, if you don't have a head coach who values the importance of it and really is adept at handling that 53 - and in training camp we'll even talk about the 45, so I have a pretty good idea of who's going to be there, and I have to make sure I have my bases covered. If he didn't share that info with me, about what he's thinking, I'm in trouble.

The great thing is that he and I, over the three-year period, are on the same page about kids, how to use kids, who has some value so it's not a problem. And hey, if it comes down to losing a guy, then I'll just trust their judgment. I'll be disappointed, but I've got to find a way, via the guys left, to get the job done. You always have your heart broken. You get your hopes up high for these guys and then it still comes down to what you can keep at each position. I have to remember now that I am only a third of the game. I can't be selfish.

Thank God we have two coordinators and position coaches who understand the value of that. Keith Butler's constantly talking to the young linebackers about stuff. (Dick) Hoakie's already making eye contact with the young running backs. Those guys are pumping up the kicking game. You know, J.D. (James Daniel) is one of my greatest supporters in the tight end group. He's already talking to Krannie (Matt Kranchick) and Heath (Miller) about contributing to the kicking game. It's already being planted in their mind. I have great supporters, and I, in turn, am not going to be selfish. It's about the Pittsburgh Steelers. It isn't about Kevin Spencer and special teams coach of the year nonsense. It's about us winning a championship. So there'll be some real hard decisions because we have a real good football team and a lot of good football players.

Is there a temptation at cut-down time to de-emphasize special teams?

You kind of see a kid and you think that in a year's time, or maybe six games in -- I'm sure that's always in the back of your mind. But I trust coach tremendously that that's not going to happen. And you know what? If it does happen, you've got to find a way to make it work. I've been in it long enough now to know you're not always going to be 100 percent happy and you're going to have to make adjustments. That's the challenge of coaching. You find a way to get it done with the guys that you have.

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