The Steelers' MVP: All Hail the Wizard

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The Steelers' MVP:  All Hail the Wizard
(Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images)

If I was asked to pick one most valuable person from the two Steelers' Super Bowl runs this decade, it would not be a hard choice. While some fans might go with Ben Roethlisberger or Troy Polamalu, my vote goes to Dick LeBeau, the man his players call "Coach Dad."

That isn't meant to take anything away from what Big Ben or Troy have done or meant to the Steelers. The fortune of the Steelers clearly took a major step in the right direction when Big Ben sat by himself in the back room at the 2004 draft while team after team passed on him.  Nor should the Steelers’ Director of Football Operations', Kevin Colbert, importance to the team be under-appreciated.  He is one of the league’s best draftmeisters and team builders.

That said, I do not think the Steelers would have won either of their recent Super Bowl rings without Dick LeBeau running the defense.  LeBeau is a defensive genius who reminds me of a conductor of a symphony, except his artistry is not leading talented musicians to play music.

Instead, his genius is taking football players and unleashing them to wreck havoc and cause confusion in opposing offenses. Certain types might prefer the symphony but Steelers’ fans are a less cultured sort who prefer the sort of masterpieces LeBeau is more apt to produce.

LeBeau is a defensive genius who changed the way defense is played. And that genius reached a crescendo during Super Bowl XLIII when a confused Kurt Warner threw a perfect strike to a linebacker he thought was blitzing, even as he dropped into the throwing lane, producing arguably the greatest play and momentum swing in Super Bowl history. 

That confusion that results from not knowing who is rushing or who is dropping into coverage is the signature characteristic of LeBeau's defenses. 

It is no accident that LeBeau was the defensive coordinator in two of the best Super Bowls ever played, this year’s game and Super Bowl XXIII between the San Francisco 49ers and the Cincinnatti Bengals. While the Bengals lost that game to the heavily favored 49ers, LeBeau’s defense nearly enabled the Bengals to pull off the upset. 

He is a master game planner who also makes superb adjustments on the fly as witnessed by the near invincibility of the Steelers’ defense in third quarters this year. 

Big Ben may have been leading the many second half comebacks this season, but they were made possible by a defense that refused to give an inch when it mattered most.  LeBeau was also running the defense in 1995 when the Steelers’ played the Cowboys in the Super Bowl, a game they might have won but for two costly interceptions despite being huge underdogs.   

The Steelers’ defense visibly slipped when LeBeau left the Steelers in 1997 for the Bengals, but catapulted back to the top of the league when he returned in 2004.  LeBeau was not successful in his short stint as the Bengals' head coach, one of the only strikes on his record.  But, then again, who has?  The first coach who leads the Bengals to glory doesn't just deserve a Lombardi Trophy, he would deserve a Nobel Prize. 

Coordinators rarely get the credit they deserve. Head coaches, by and large, get most of the credit.  And the Steelers’ two Super Bowl winning head coaches of this decade, Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin, certainly deserve plenty of credit.

But, LeBeau's track record of domination is so complete, having occurred under multiple coaches on different teams, that he is a rare exception. Imitation is indeed the greatest form of flattery. And it is LeBeau's schemes that have been constantly imitated by other NFL teams and also NCAA teams. LeBeau is to defense what Bill Walsh was to offense. 

Back in the mid-1990s, the Steelers were the only team in the league using the 3-4 defense.  This year, about half the league will be employing that defense.  LeBeau is a big part of the reason why as one of the defense’s biggest champions.   

Bill Cowher was a great coach for the Steelers, but he sure looked a lot better when he had LeBeau running the defense. I was a little nervous when Dan Rooney picked the largely unproven Tomlin as the Steelers’ head coach. That nervousness receded when Tomlin asked Dick LeBeau to stay on as coordinator. That showed he had good instincts.

By the time LeBeau finally hangs up his playbooks (hopefully no time this century), he will have concluded one of the greatest careers in NFL history.  Show me another guy who set records as a player, had an NFL career that eclipsed 50 years, was arguably the most important member of two Super Bowl winning teams and innovated the game.  If LeBeau is not one day in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, his exclusion would forever devalue that fine institution. 

Few people in the history of football have had more influence than LeBeau.  More importantly, nobody has had more influence in the Steelers' two Super Bowl runs, not even Superman who lines up behind center.   His players love him, offensive coordinators fear him, and quarterbacks around the league curse the day he was born as they try to repair their shattered quarterback ratings.

To me, he is the Steelers’ true MVP.

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