"Everything he touches, he leaves it better than he found it. That is the special mark of the man." Marvin Lewis
There is a very short list of people who can claim a legitimate and influential tenure of 50 years or more in the NFL you're basically talking about the league's Mount Rushmore when you discuss names like George Halas, Paul Brown and Don Shula. All slam-dunk Hall of Famers, and it's past time to add another name to that list. Dick LeBeau, the humble genius who runs the Pittsburgh Steelers' defense, will enter the Hall this weekend in celebration of a pro football career that began in 1959, when the Ohio State grad caught on as a defensive back with the Detroit Lions. Over the next 14 seasons, LeBeau started 171 straight games (a record for his position) and picked off 62 passes, which is tied for seventh-highest all-time to this day.
As a player, LeBeau was as smart as they came, and he knew that opposing quarterbacks were looking to exploit his side of the field after all, LeBeau was lined up on the other side of Dick "Night Train" Lane and Lem Barney at different times through his career. "For one thing, you were aware that they were both probably going to end up in the Hall of Fame Night Train for what he had done, and Lem for what he would do," LeBeau said last week. "Lem was one of our best offensive weapons he would take a kickoff or punt back, or take an interception back ... I think that if he came out today as a first-year player in the league, he'd be a standout and as unique as he was in his rookie season. He had the most tremendous balance and quick feet of any defensive back I've ever seen, and that includes right up to the present day."
LeBeau may not have had that kind of physical talent, but his mind for the game drew early notice from Lions coach Joe Schmidt, who considered giving LeBeau the title of player/coach after another team put the idea out there. "Coach [Bud] Grant in Minnesota called Coach Joe' about the possibility of me going to work up there," he said. "And Joe said, No, he's going to continue to play.' And Joe was thinking a little bit about using me as a player/coach. We talked about it a couple of times, and I think that's about where it ended. I think I would have liked to have done that, because I was quite a bit older than most of the players, but there hadn't been a lot of player/coaches in the history of the league."
LeBeau had known that he wanted to coach in the NFL it had been a dream since at least his college days and he got his first shot in 1973, the year after he retired as a player. The Hall-of-Fame career as a player was cemented, but his legacy as a defensive coach was about to overwhelm it. He coached special teams for the Philadelphia Eagles through 1975 and defensive backs for the Green Bay Packers until 1979, but it was his time with the Cincinnati Bengals in the 1980s that really brought him into prominence. This was when LeBeau started toying with the concept of the zone blitz, a versatile defensive idea that would allow coverage players to blitz at the same time that players who always blitzed in the past would drop into coverage.
"As has often been stated, necessity is the mother of invention," he said. "We had a hole in our defensive concept in the National Football League, where all pressures were all zero coverage. You put everybody at risk; it was a hit-or-miss situation. That's the case with every snap, but when you blitz max, it turns the rolling of the dice a little higher. All I was looking for was a safer way to do that, and there really hadn't been much experimentation going on in that area keeping pressure on the ball, and still playing area defense behind it.
"Sam Wyche was our head coach at the time, and he was a very innovative guy, and that was a matter of happenstance and a plus for me. He was more open to the concept, which at the time, deviated from the standard. Rather than what some conservative coaches would have said There's no way you're doing that with my defense' Sam said, Let's take a look at it.' We took some wrong roads, but eventually stumbled on some right ones, and it's very common in the game today. So, I think it was just an opportunity meeting a situation of need."
When need and opportunity met, the results were definitive the Bengals soon boasted one of the league's best defenses as LeBeau worked his way up from defensive backs coach to defensive coordinator. At the same time that Ronnie Lott was changing the coverage concepts of the safety position in San Francisco, LeBeau turned David Fulcher loose in those blitz looks, essentially creating the hybrid safety/'backer position. As a former defensive back himself, LeBeau always had a great sense of how versatile those players could be. I asked him about the safeties he's worked with, from Fulcher to Carnell Lake to Troy Polamalu(notes), and how responsibilities have changed for today's safety in a league that puts an increasing premium on the passing game.
"It has changed a little bit, and I wouldn't ever leave Rod Woodson out of any defensive backfield discussion he was kind of a rover. He played corner for a long time, and over the last half of his career, he played safety. But all those people you mentioned are big guys over 200 pounds. They could play close to the line and blitz, and still have the kinesthetic sense to play in space and the awareness of where they were in space. I've been blessed to have those kinds of people.
"In the beginning of my career, there were true strong safeties and free safeties. Strong safeties played closer to the line, and free safeties played deeper. But that [strong safety] position, per se, has pretty much fallen out of the league. Both safeties have to be able to do both and be interchangeable. And that is representative of not only what you're going to ask the player to do, but what type of athlete you're looking for."
In part 2 of LeBeau's story, we'll delve into his time in Pittsburgh perhaps the best-matched combination of coach and defense in the history of the league.
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