Since 1959, Pittsburgh Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau has been in the NFL, first as a player and later as a coach. Fifty-four of his 75 years on planet Earth have been in service of the game of football, and in September, he'll turn 76 and begin his 10th straight season as the architect of the Steelers defense.
It could very well also be his last.
In LeBeau's most recent run with the Steelers (he was defensive-backs coach and defensive coordinator from 1992 through 1996), his defense has never once been less than a top-10 unit in total yards allowed—in fact, they've never ranked lower than seventh and have been first in the league five times (see the numbers here).
His innovative "zone blitz," which used multiple defensive positions in the pass-rush capacity in order to confound opposing offenses, has been his and thus the Steelers' hallmark over the past 10 years and has defined them as one of the most dangerous, effective units in the league. He's already a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame and has two Super Bowl wins as well as numerous AFC North titles spanning both his tenure in Pittsburgh as well as his stints with the Cincinnati Bengals.
LeBeau certainly doesn't have much more he needs to accomplish—he's already cemented his legendary status in the NFL.
But more than just his list of accomplishments in the NFL and the length of his career seem to point to LeBeau wrapping up his time in Pittsburgh sooner than later: There's also the matter of Keith Butler to consider.
Butler, who has been Pittsburgh's linebackers coach since 2003, has long been considered LeBeau's successor as defensive coordinator. In fact, he was told as much in 2009 when he opted to remain with the Steelers rather than take the Miami Dolphins' coordinator job.
When Butler was offered an interview with the Indianapolis Colts for their vacant coordinator position in January 2012, he again chose to stay in Pittsburgh, and as the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Gerry Dulac pointed out, probably because he was not only given a raise but a clear timetable for when he'd likely take over for LeBeau.
Considering that Butler has been LeBeau's de facto successor for the past four years, the best guess is that he'll take over coordinator duties sooner rather than later, especially as he's already turned down two coordinator positions in that span.
It's not hard to imagine that Butler and the Steelers have an idea of when to expect LeBeau's retirement, and it's quite possible that could come at the end of the 2013 season, regardless of the Steelers' win-loss record.
Change is coming in Pittsburgh. The players LeBeau's system helps make household names are hitting their early and middle 30s and closing in on the ends of their careers. Linebacker James Harrison is already gone, defensive end Aaron Smith retired last year and nose tackle Casey Hampton is still on the free-agency market. Safeties Ryan Clark and Troy Polamalu are 33 and 32 years old, respectively, cornerback Ike Taylor and linebacker Larry Foote are both 33 and defensive end Brett Keisel is 34.
As far as the roster is concerned, things are going to change considerably in the next year or two, and when that happens, LeBeau may also opt to call it a career and hand his responsibilities off to Butler and the younger crop of Steelers defenders.
Transitioning from LeBeau to Butler—whether that happens at the close of this season or another—should be fairly seamless. As the linebackers coach in LeBeau's system, Butler likely shares the same philosophies and knows intimately the intricate series of blitzes, pressures and schemes that have defined the Steelers defense over the past decade.
The players are familiar with Butler and respect him; there will be practically no loss of continuity once Butler eventually takes over.
Ultimately, the decision is LeBeau's alone, though it's also certain that the Steelers believe it is coming soon or they wouldn't have worked so hard to retain Butler through all of the overtures made to him by other teams. It would be convenient for LeBeau's retirement from the Steelers to coincide with a large-scale turnover of their defensive roster, which seems to be coming soon as well.
The end of the 2013 season does seem like a good time for it to happen, but we've seen no indication as of yet that it will. However, whenever LeBeau chooses to walk away from the Steelers, their defense will be in Butler's capable hands.
If they (briefly) miss a beat, it will be because of the younger members of the roster needing to move into higher-profile roles and not because of LeBeau's absence.