View Full Version : Why Dick LeBeau Deserves to Be in the Hall of Fame

08-30-2009, 11:24 AM
August 26, 2009, 3:30 pm
Why Dick LeBeau Deserves to Be in the Hall of Fame
By Andy Barall

(Editor’s note: Andy Barall, who has been a Times reader for over 40 years and who has demonstrated a deep knowledge of football history in the comments section, has agreed to serve as an unofficial Fifth Down historian. He has followed Dick LeBeau’s career since the late 1960s.)

Earlier this month, at his induction ceremony, Rod Woodson urged the Hall of Fame to open its doors to his former secondary coach and defensive coordinator, Dick LeBeau. Well, on Tuesday LeBeau cleared the first hurdle. He and the superb Denver Broncos running back Floyd Little were named by the seniors committee as finalists for election with the class of 2010.

LeBeau will soon begin his 51st consecutive season as part of the N.F.L. as a player or coach. He was an outstanding man-to-man cover corner for the Detroit Lions in the 1960s and early 1970s. His 62 interceptions rank seventh on the league’s career list, third highest among cornerbacks.

In 1970, at age 33, LeBeau led the N.F.C. in interceptions with nine. He played in 171 consecutive games as a defensive back.

And yet, as a player, he was never a finalist for election to the Hall of Fame. The selection committee has never even debated his candidacy. Perhaps he didn’t receive serious consideration because he was overshadowed by other members of the Lions’ secondary.

Early in his career, LeBeau played alongside one of the league’s greatest safeties, Yale Lary, and the legendary Dick “Night Train” Lane, whose 14 interceptions in one season is still an N.F.L. record. Later, LeBeau played corner opposite Lem Barney. Lary, Lane and Barney are all members of the Hall of Fame. Unfortunately, LeBeau, like many other N.F.L. players, has also been penalized, unfairly, I believe, for a lack of team success. The Lions never won a playoff game in his 14-year career.

After he retired as a player in 1972, LeBeau was hired in 1973 by the Philadelphia Eagles as their special teams coach. He has gone on to become one of the N.F.L.’s greatest assistants. His coaching career has spanned 36 years and counting with five teams: the Eagles, the Packers, the Bengals, the Bills and the Steelers. In 2008, his fifth year in his second stint as Pittsburgh’s defensive coordinator, the Steelers defense’ allowed the fewest yards and points in the league.

LeBeau has also contributed an important innovation to football. As defensive coordinator of the Bengals in the late 1980s, he perfected the zone blitz.

Cincinnati was in the same division as the Houston Oilers, who, at the time, were proficient at the run-and-shoot offense with Warren Moon at quarterback. The run-and-shoot used a lot of quick rhythm passes to spread receivers running short slants, arrow and angle routes. The Bengals would line up in their usual 3-4 alignment, but at the snap they would drop one or both defensive ends into short zones and blitz the outside linebackers off the edge.

This would create a moment of indecision for offensive linemen about whom to block, and it would get defenders into passing windows at angles the quarterback was unaccustomed to seeing. It also got them one-on-one mismatches between a blitzing linebacker and a much smaller running back. In different forms, the zone blitz is used throughout the league today.

For more than half a century, as a player, coach and innovator, Dick LeBeau has dedicated his professional life to pro football.

I sincerely hope that the selection committee will honor the man his players call “Coach Dad” next February with election to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Extra point: LeBeau and Little were selected from a field of 17 considered by the seniors committee. The two will need the same 80 percent vote as other finalists for Hall election. We welcome readers’ opinions on the merits of LeBeau’s and Little’s candidacies.
Note: A nominee must be retired for five years before he can be elected, so technically LeBeau is being considered for election as a player, not as a coach.

Correction: An earlier version of this post said LeBeau played 171 straight games as a cornerback. We changed it to “defensive back.” According to the Pro Football Researchers Association, he played some games at safety. Also, we changed the word “invented” to “perfected” in crediting LeBeau for the zone blitz. Andy writes: “Bill Arnsparger used a very simple version of it in the early 1980’s. He just dropped defensive end Kim Bokamper into zone coverage. Bokamper had been a linebacker and had experience in pass coverage. It’s fair to give him some credit, but the sophisticated zone blitz you see today in the NFL is a product of the mind of Dick LeBeau, not Bill Arnsparger.”


08-30-2009, 11:24 AM
August 29, 2009, 10:00 am
LeBeau, the Hall and the Debate
By Andy Barall

(Editor’s note: Andy Barall, a Times reader for over 40 years, writes about pro football history for The Fifth Down. On Wednesday, he wrote a post on why Dick LeBeau deserves to be in the Hall of a Fame, sparking a debate. He follows up here.)

Defensive Back is the hardest position to evaluate without access to coaching film. The classic “inside flanker” shot you see on television just before the snap does not provide you with a wide view of the field. In the 1960s and early 1970s, instant replay, as invented by the famed CBS director Tony Verna in 1963, was not nearly as prevalent as it is today. I don’t remember ever seeing a replay from an end-zone angle.

As a result, it made it extremely difficult to differentiate among Dick LeBeau and his many worthy contemporaries: Bobby Boyd, Ken Riley, Pat Fischer, Brady Keys, Cornell Green, Bob Jeter, Mike Bass, Bobby Bryant, etc…

All these men played before VCRs — you couldn’t even tape games to review them.

The Hall of Fame discussion about these men usually comes down to their number of interceptions and how many All-Pro teams they made. This makes for a shallow and unsatisfying debate. The nuances of how each of them played are lost. Some guards have great pulling speed (Gene Upshaw, Randy Cross). Some are powerful drive blockers (Larry Allen, Chris Snee). Others
are excellent trap blockers (Joe DeLammielleure, Billy Shaw). Many are skilled pass protectors (Tom Mack, Bob Kuechenberg). Some are just great, period (John Hannah, Jim Parker).

But defensive backs? Who, among these outstanding cornerbacks of the 1960s and 1970s, was the best force man against sweeps and pitchouts? Who was the best tackler? Which one covered the most ground? Who had the fastest recovery speed? Which pass patterns made each of them particularly vulnerable? Which wide receiver gave each of them fits? Who was the one who most needed help over the top (by a safety)? All these important subleties are lost in time and memory.

One of the popular arguments made against LeBeau’s candidacy as a player is that the main reason he intercepted so many passes is that the opponent was afraid to test the other side of the field when it was occupied by Hall of Famers Night Train Lane and Lem Barney. This certainly sounds plausible. But is it true? And even if it is true, does it matter? The only time you saw the Lions play during those years here in New York on television was on Thanksgiving Day, or when they played the Giants at Tiger Stadium (home games at Yankee Stadium were blacked out), or, starting in 1970, on “Monday Night Football.” The Lions made few appearances on nationally televised doubleheader games and only played one playoff game in LeBeau’s entire tenure in Detroit, a 5-0 loss to the Cowboys in 1970, a game in which the Lions’ defense held Dallas to 22 yards net passing and one field goal.

I saw LeBeau play as many times as I could from 1967 forward. I even kept running play-by-plays and charted many of those games, even as a kid. But can I deny that LeBeau had more opportunities for interceptions because quarterbacks were scared of the other side? No, but no one else can make the opposite claim with any reasonable degree of certainty, either. We’ll probably never know for sure. Even if LeBeau did get more chances for interceptions, does that mean he wasn’t a great player?

The Hall of Famer Herb Adderley played nine years at strong-side corner for the Green Bay Packers. During his entire tenure there, lining up in front of him were the Hall of Fame strong-side defensive end Willie Davis, and for most of his time, strong-side linebacker Dave Robinson. Robinson was the best zone pass cover linebacker in football. He was tall, rangy, and had excellent lateral movement. Quarterbacks always had trouble throwing over or around him. Did Davis’s pass rush and Robinson’s ability to cast a big shadow in pass coverage help Adderley? Of course. Does that mean that Herb Adderley wasn’t a great player? Hardly.

Some on the Hall of Fame selection committee probably never saw these men play. What do they really know about them?

To them, these men are just print on a piece of paper. Let’s see, how many interceptions did they have? Did they have more than any current Hall of Famers? Did they ever make first-team All-Pro? What kind of debate is that?