Here are two basic truths we know about Dick LeBeau. (1) He is a creative genius when it comes to defensive schemes, who knows and understands every trick and variation that was ever in anybody's book. And (2) he is one of those exceptional human beings who inspires both love and loyalty in his players, former players, colleagues, and employers.
Those are the facts ladies and gentlemen, as attested to over and over and over by everybody from Rod Woodson ("Why isn't this guy in the Hall of Fame?!"), to James Harrison (you saw the interview too), to Mike Tomlin ("Because he's Dick LeBeau, that's why!").
Now apply those truths to the recent history. Do you really think fans have observed problems in the defense that Dick LeBeau - and his entire staff! - somehow ignored? Do you really think no one on the South Side has discussed the proper cushion for DB's to give in various situations, or whether man coverage might be better than zone in others? Of course they did. In fact, they discussed it every single week at great length because tweaking those things is an essential part of building a defensive game plan. It's not Football 101, no. We are better than that. It's Football 201. Most fans would be the equivalent of high schoolers, and most bloggers just freshmen, but we have collectively passed through that phase.
Which, if you remember that stage of your life, will completely explain why so many of us believe we can see holes that the Steelers staff have all missed. Yes, they all have the equivalent of multiple football doctorates, and have enjoyed success putting their theories into action, but we are sophomores. And the one thing sophomores know best is that they know everything. Sigh.
I really don't mean to pick on either this site or its contributors. I am pleased to be counted among that number and consider myself as one of the least informed in the crew. I am, however, a full-fledged adult who has done enough work, with enough different people, in enough difficult situations to recognize when my pack has passed its collective limitations. College sophomores aren't stupid. They're often quite smart. And they're not completely ignorant anymore. They know enough to ask questions, sometimes even smart questions, and in many cases can understand the answer. That's what we are too. The line gets crossed - and crossed in a bad way - when a person who's learned enough to ask a good question assumes that his professors are such complete morons that it never occurred to them until this very moment. Get real. Our criticisms and questions may be exactly on point, but not a single one of them would be news to the assistant dog's boy that holds the hat for a Steelers coaching intern. And to Dick Freakin' LeBeau?! How arrogant can we be?
I have followed this team for a lot of years and I never heard anyone but an outsider use words like "stubborn" and "stuck in his ways" to describe Coach LeBeau or his approach to football. The charge doesn't even make sense if you bother to give it a second thought. No one could inspire the sort of love and loyalty he does by shutting people down and insisting "my way or the highway". Nor become a legend for creativity by refusing to consider changes in the league. Yet those are the very phrases that have flown around these pages over the past few days. Think before you speak my friends!
How many times have you heard this or that player or coach on some show, explaining what it's like to sit in a room and talk football with Coach LeBeau? For me it's at least half a dozen separate men, with some of them repeated several times over. That's enough of a sample size for me to observe a common thread: "It's like talking physics with Isaac Newton, or music with Beethoven. You talk with LeBeau and the whole world of how things work just opens right up..."
Dick LeBeau is not and never has been "stubborn," "narrow-minded," "closed to new ideas," "set in his old ways," or any of that other hooey, nonsense, bunkum, and assorted other descriptors I don't have the time to spit out. Exactly the opposite is true; a fact that has defined his career.
Did you ever think that maybe, just maybe, men like Dick LeBeau would spend their offseason studying every successful defense in the league to see what they are doing and what's working? Plus every offense out there to see how they succeed against the different defenses they face? That maybe, just maybe, he goes about his job at least pretending to be a full time professional? If so, did you then go on to think that he might actually move mountains each year customizing things to take maximum advantage of all that study? That he would even go so far as to adapt the system to the particular strengths and weaknesses of his personnel? That a team with Farrior or Foote at ILB would have one kind of defense, while a team with rookie and second-year athletes would be run in a different way?
We talked about this at great length last year when we were debating the relative virtues of Ryan Shazier (transcendent athletic talent and coach's son who can learn) versus C.J. Mosley (transcendent football IQ who can step in right away as the QB of the defense, with really good athletic skills). I will bet anyone here - and I am neither a betting man nor a football expert - that Dick LeBeau adjusted his schemes in the secondary to reflect the gradual decline in Troy's ability to make up for incorrect guesses, and Ike's ability to handle double moves. Do you doubt it? Do you doubt that he made those adjustments week by week in game planning? And even play by play as a given game went on?
Give me a break!
The problems with the Steelers defense DID NOT come from narrow minded, inflexible coaches who insisted on exotic schemes the players couldn't do. They came from mistakes by players on the field who had practiced those exact plays during the week. Or they came from players on offense who simply outperformed their counterparts. As the number of mistakes went down, the quality of the defense went up and - what a shock! - that's the exact progression we saw over the course of the year. And you know what? Only a died in the wool cynic would doubt that the 2015 Steeler defense is going to be even better than 2014's because we had a liquid ton of young guys who will continue to improve.
Bottom line: The Steelers won't be any better next year because Dick LeBeau is gone, and they may not even be as good as he would have made them. I have faith in both Tomlin and Butler to at least come close, but those are big shoes to step into. Dick LeBeau's resignation did absolutely nothing good for what the Steelers will put on the field in 2015.
So why do it? One explanation is that Dick LeBeau's resignation may well be good for what the Steelers will put on the field in 2016 and beyond. Better to lose the legend for a year or two than than to lose his protege (Keith Butler) forever. But there's another reason too. As I wrote in a comment yesterday, the absolute core of the Steelers Way is for the Rooneys to be good employers. We all know the team struck an informal deal with Coach Butler a few years ago. "Please turn down those coordinator jobs you keep being offered. In exchange you will get to keep working with Coach LeBeau (who Butler probably loves and admires as much as Deebo and Tomlin do), we will pay you a coordinator-level salary, give you a special title, and guarantee that you will take over from Coach Dad when he finally decides to retire."
I'm now thinking there was a reciprocal arrangement with Coach LeBeau, along the lines of "Train your padawan well Master Jedi, for he will be our future."
That kind of thing is a year to year arrangement, with each side reexamining it after every season ends. For whatever reason it all came to a head this year. My guess is that Coach Butler announced that he was ready to consider outside offers because you start to feel it a bit as your decade of 50's starts to expire. But that's only a guess. Faced with that statement the Rooneys did what they agreed to when the deal was struck those 4 or 5 years ago: they asked old Obi-Wan to step aside and allow young Luke the center stage. Or... maybe the apprentice went to the master first, and it was LeBeau who went to the Rooneys instead of vice-versa. Thinking it over, I suspect that the second version is closer to the truth because it jibes so well with the gist of the Steelers corporate statement: "We were surprised when Coach LeBeau approached us to offer his resignation..."
One final note. I acknowledge that the tone of this article is a bit... severe. There's a reason for that. It lies in my absolute hatred of tabloid journalism. It sickens me when some hack writer takes two ideas and just throws them together to get a hit-generating headline. For example, it may be true that the Steelers chose (or would have chosen) young Keith Skywalker over the elderly Obi-Wan LeBeau. And yes, I'm sure Coach LeBeau has somewhere made a statement along the lines of "coaching is my life." But combining those into a headline (or heaven forbid an article) screaming "Pittsburgh Steelers Try to Kill Dick LeBeau!!!" would be a lie nevertheless. And a foul one at that. I don't say we have sunk to that level. But I do believe this constant harping that "he had to go" and about "what was really said" carry a definite stink of the same foul air. Hence my agitation. Apologies are offered in advance to any who feel unjustly accused.
This is the Pittsburgh Steelers, my friends. The organization where you're proud to be a fan because the team embodies class from the top on down. This is not some fly-by-night, win-now-or-get-fired wannabe! And we are not fly-by-night fans. BTSC is a site dedicated to thoughtful discussion with a sense of history. Maybe, just maybe, we ought to combine those two points and accept that our team's ownership, front office, and coaching staff acted in a way consistent with what their core principles and the past 50 years of established practice.
Godspeed Coach LeBeau. Thanks for all you did and go with the fullest blessings of a grateful Steeler Nation.
Welcome aboard Coach Butler. It's a much tougher gig when you're the one in the brighter light. Go and do your best with the knowledge that Steeler Nation is grateful for your patience and confident in your abilities.