Count me among that majority (I hope) who have been saddened by the departure of defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. This is not to say that I have much in the way of problems with the separation itself. I seriously doubt that his general competency is at issue here, though that is the easy go to answer for many when frustrated if the team's efforts fall short.
The problem, it seems to me, is a timing issue that became a bigger concern because LeBeau is an outlier. LeBeau defies conventional understandings about age in our culture. I have complained before that there are some in the fan base that subscribe to a simplistic, even bigoted posture about age. For them it is all about the odometer reading. At 30 (or whatever other number of choice) its over, time to move on. And while this is true enough often enough that we can get away with it most of the time, at the end of the day it represents ignorant, small minded and lazy thinking. During his recent end of season press conference when he was asked about the progress made this season by Sean Spence, head coach Mike Tomlin responded by saying he was less surprised than others might have been because what characterizes success at this level was not just about talent but also certain qualities of mind and spirit. Another recent example would be the performance this season of James Harrison, a player whom most agreed in our superior wisdom could only be a sad shell of himself at best. How quickly we forget the hurdles he had to overcome to be the first undrafted player to be named a Defensive Player of the Year. We decide that a thing is impossible and impose that standard upon everything, ignoring the fact (because to face it would be an indictment and a conviction) that the difference between many elite athletes and those relegated to the sidelines is not just physical gifts but qualities of the mind and heart that are of a higher order.
Which brings us to LeBeau, who pointed out in his Hall of Fame speech that if he had followed conventional wisdom on the matter he would have missed, among other things, two world championships as coordinator of one the truly great historical defenses. Nobody could deny the truth of the this. At an age when most were stepping off the stage and even into the grave, he was accomplishing things with a competence and energy that most half his age could not hope to match. But surely there is limit to such things. So it seemed prudent that the Steelers secure a worthy heir for the time, certain to come sooner rather than later, when LeBeau would yield to our assumed logic concerning age and retire. It may have even made sense to LeBeau. Just like Harrison was likely to be the first to agree that he couldn't possibly be able to do what he went out and did this season. Things didn't go according to script, and when they don't things can get awkward. Brett Favre was supposed to give way in an orderly manner to Aaron Rodgers; Joe Montana to Steve Young, but those qualities that made them great kept pushing the envelope. And if these men were in the habit of listening to and believing the wisdom of the rabble they might not have gotten anywhere. Many people wanted to place the failings of the defense on LeBeau, and specifically LeBeau's age. They were guessing of course. And as the week has worn on a consensus has emerged that it is inaccurate to blame the issues of the defense solely in LeBeau's lap. Fans, for example, who have been insisting for years that the team constantly throw high draft picks at offensive linemen can hardly be but so critical when it turns out that there is something of a talent deficit on the defensive side of the ball.
But the basic conundrum remained. You couldn't ask Keith Butler to wait forever. Even if you agreed that LeBeau's football usefulness was not exhausted, keeping him in any capacity in the organization would constitute a threat to Butler establishing his own authority and imprint on the defense. For his part, not only did it not make any sense for LeBeau to retire, to do so may have been dangerous. Some people have died or entered into accelerated deterioration precisely because retirement robs them of a sense of purpose and reason for living. Why should LeBeau risk that if he clearly still has the edge and the energy to still make a positive difference?
Messy as it was, it may have been the only way this thing could have ended. And though I am sorry that his tenure in Pittsburgh has ended, I am encouraged by the possibility that his contributions to the game could continue for some time to come.
The Butler era begins
We are literally months away from answers. Few players have been signed or released, no one has been drafted, few if any contracts have been negotiated. But one thing we do know. When the Steelers take the field next September, someway, somehow they will be different on the defensive side of the ball. The interesting, and hopefully good news of LeBeau's departure is that Keith Butler gets his chance to prove the Steelers' wisdom in placing him in the position to lead its defense. What we've learned and can anticipate so far is that Butler is far less diplomatic than the man he replaced. It would not appear that he is a LeBeau clone, with the specific example of the likely use of some 4-3 configurations in his defense. I was unaware of how often the paths of Butler and Tomlin had crossed before they had arrived in Pittsburgh which brings an element of nuance as to how their working relationship may evolve. Some additional and related themes.
At the beginning of Mike Tomlin's tenure there was very little staff changes or turnover. Anticipated changes such as dumping LeBeau's 3-4 defense for the Tampa Two with which Tomlin was more familiar did not materialize. However, in recent years there has been a lot of turnover that has touched every position group save tight ends and the defensive line. As I pointed out last week, it is unclear how much the Rooneys are also involved in this process given the history of the team, but what is certainly true is that we are looking at a team and a staff that is Tomlin's and not what he has inherited.
The removal of LeBeau and the promotion of Butler of course means additional shifts among the defensive staff. The roles of assistants Jerry Olsavsky and Joey Porter will expand with Olsavsky probably taking Butler's old position. Some have not been able to resist the opportunity to attempt to cast Carnell Lake as a scapegoat and failure for the defenses troubles, but that line of thought hasn't gotten much traction. There has also been speculation that Tomlin may take a more hands on role with the defense as well going forward. An interesting question, unanswerable specifically at the moment is who might be added to the equation of the defensive staff. The list of veterans that could be added to positive effect is impressive. Would anyone balk at hiring Aaron Smith, Brett Keisel, Ike Taylor, Rod Woodson, James Farrior, Larry Foote, Deshea Townsend, or Troy Polamalu. Just to name a few possibilities.
The dynamics as to the fate of any number of players on the defensive side of the ball has obviously shifted. Butler's take on the value and utility of certain players is sure to be different in some regard from that of his predecessor. Also the level of commitment of some players themselves, particularly the veterans may be different as well. The tip of this particular iceberg begins with the four most senior veterans James Harrison, Brett Keisel, Troy Polamalu and Ike Taylor. The relationship with Butler and whether LeBeau lands in Arizona as anticipated could effect decisions made by Harrison and Taylor in particular. Would Harrison be more or less likely to come back if LeBeau was still in charge is a question to which we may never have an answer.
There were a lot of questions involving the linebackers room even before this change. The status of Jason Worilds, Arthur Moats and Harrison. The development of Jarvis Jones, Ryan Shazier, Sean Spence and Vince Williams. Even the role of Lawrence Timmons is up in the air depending upon how the other questions are resolved. And the linebackers appear positively stable when compared to the questions that must be answered in the secondary. Right now the most settled position on the defense might be nose tackle.
As I pointed out at the beginning of this segment, we are a long way from definitive answers anywhere. There are signings of players currently who are likely to compete for roster spots, but almost certainly will not be the impact players who may spell the difference in Pittsburgh getting to the next level.
Tracking the off season
Hear are a couple of things to be keep in mind as we begin our thinking about this year's draft. In particular this piece about how scouting departments prepare their draft boards may be helpful.
Not a whole lot of drama on this side of things. Besides a couple of signings here and there, it is likely that Ben's contract will be the only major question coming from this side of the ball this winter and spring. And isn't that unusual and odd?
Bell and Brown
The accolades continue to accumulate for Le'Veon Bell and Antonio Brown. Among these, Bell's selection as Most Improved Player of the Year by the PFWA, and Brown being named a captain for the Pro Bowl team. This stands as a constant reminder of what the potential upside is for this offense going forward.
Draft order and salary cap
Questions surrounding these two areas will be dominating our attention for next four to five months at least.
The questionable logic of off season changes
.Why all the crazed talk of firing Tomlin and Colbert? People talk now as though Bill Cowher was the second coming of Vince Lombardi, but seem to forget that he lost several AFC championship games, and had a 3 year stretch of bad seasons.
ED: I believe they all are adrenaline junkies brought up on video games and instant gratification. They need the Steelers to fire people or sign the most expensive free agents or trade high in the first round in the draft to stoke their excitement. They would love being fans of the Denver Broncos, New York Jets or Buffalo Bills with all that news flying around those teams. All the Steelers had to offer them was a change in defensive coordinators for the first time in a dozen years.
Gene Collier's piece seems to accentuate the point that its not just some fans that engage in crazed thinking about problem solving in the NFL. What is going on in John Elway's mind? And does anyone think that most of these early off season moves amounts to more of a puncher's chance for the long term success of these franchises? Or in this ADS reality does long term success even matter?
I've been liking what Bob Labriola has been opining on recent developments over the last couple of weeks. Here's his take on LeBeau/Butler and a couple of other issues.
Young Money reunion
Emmanuel Sanders has been named to replace Julio Jones in the Pro Bowl.
The public relations and credibility nightmare that has been playoff officiating continues. We should not be surprised that ideas for reform are in the air.
Shear Da Beard
Keisel's fundraiser for charity, perhaps the last rendition is coming up
Ending on a wicked note that I know that some of you are just going to love.
-Don Shula, the NFL's all-time winningest coach, on Bill Belichick, the NFL's fourth all-time winningest coach, when asked about New England by Dave Hyde of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. This is in reference to Belichick's Patriots getting sanctioned by the NFL in 2007 for illegally taping coaching signals on the opposing sideline.
I don't find it startling that Shula would have something against another coach, particularly one found to have violated NFL rules. I find it surprising he'd publicly pick that scab. When you're 85, the filter disappears, I guess.
- Peter King