Bob Smizik: Is it time for LeBeau to retire?

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Dick LeBeau, the Steelers defensive coordinator, is 76. That’s not old for an NFL coach; that’s ancient.

As the Steelers defense struggles much more this season than at any time in the recent past, it’s easy to blame the aging process for that decline. That, however, would be the aging of Ike Taylor, Ryan Clark and Troy Polamalu, not the aging of LeBeau.

Beyond the clear decline of those players, the Steelers no longer have Casey Hampton and James Harrison, lynchpins to the defensive success that helped the team to three Super Bowl appearances and two championships in six years.

Anyone who believes LeBeau is at fault for the deterioration of the Steelers defense is either biased against him or knows little about football. Or both. LeBeau has not forgotten the game. It has not passed him by. There is nothing to indicate his age is detracting from his ability to do his job.

It was not LeBeau’s fault yesterday in the loss to the Miami Dolphins that Polamalu dropped an interception that hit him in the chest and which, if caught, would almost certainly have been returned for a touchdown that likely would have altered the outcome of the game. Nor is it LeBeau’s fault that Polamalu and Cortez Allen could not make a tackle on the game-winning touchdown when the tackle was virtually theirs for the doing.

There is no more celebrated defensive coordinator in the game. There is no coach more revered in the city of Pittsburgh by his players.

But maybe it’s time.

That sentence was not written with anything approaching full conviction, only as a suggestion. There will be no incontrovertible argument as to why LeBeau should be replaced. There will be no presentation of statistical analysis that screams for his removal.

But maybe the time has come. Maybe a new generation of Steelers defenders would profit from hearing a new voice.

The downside to any idea about replacing LeBeau is that his almost certain successor will be Keith Butler, who has been the team’s linebackers coach since 2003. Butler has passed up opportunities to be a defensive coordinator elsewhere to stay with the Steelers. Although it’s never been publicly stated, the belief was that he was waiting to succeed LeBeau and that the job has been promised to him.

And who would be the greatest influence on Butler’s coaching? Whose schemes and philosophies might he most copy?

That would be the man who has been his immediate superior for the past 10 years -- Dick LeBeau.

If the decision were mine, LeBeau wouldn’t have to worry about job security. If he wanted, the job would be his.


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