I’m sure this article will not further endear me to members of the Steeler Nation, but the recent announcement by the Pro Football Hall of Fame Senior Committee of Dick Lebeau as one of their two “senior finalists” for 2010 further emphasizes why significant changes need to be made to the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection process.
Earlier this month I completed a two-month series that ran both on my sports site Sports Then and Now (even if you don’t agree with me on this article, I am sure any passionate sports fan will enjoy the site, so please check it out) and on Bleacher Report in which I looked at the best players not in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
I diligently ranked my choices for the top 25 players still waiting for the Hall of Fame call at each position and then made my picks for the 25 best players overall who I believe belong in the hall.
By my estimation, Dick LeBeau is the 12th best defensive back not in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He unquestionably was a solid defensive back during his 14-year career with the Detroit Lions, but he was never GREAT. And, in my humble opinion, the Hall of Fame should be about selecting the greatest players, not the ones with lots of high profile supporters.
Now during his career Dick LeBeau did play in the same defensive backfield with some great players who are in the Hall of Fame (Dick “Night Train” Lane, Yale Lary, and Lem Barney) and I would argue that their presence on the field is a major reason that LeBeau ranks seventh all-time with 62 interceptions.
Let me use the old analogy about the town with two barbers to illustrate why I am not sold on LeBeau’s greatness or Hall of Fame worthiness.
So a new guy comes to a town that has two barbers and he needs a haircut. He sees the first barber and his hair looks perfectly groomed with every hair smoothly trimmed and combed nicely into place. The second barber has a very uneven haircut with some patches noticeably longer than others and not well trimmed.
So, which barber should he choose?
Most people would probably choose the first barber because he looks good, which automatically makes you assume he is a good barber. Sort of like an NFL defensive back with a large number of interceptions.
However, in reality the better barber is the second guy, because he is the one who cut the first barbers hair and made it look so nice.
LeBeau’s NFL stats are like the looks of the first barber, they are due to the work of the second guy. He has good numbers and therefore people just assume he is good.
However, in reality LeBeau’s high interception total is at least partly due to the fact that he spent almost his entire career playing opposite a superstar that quarterbacks knew they didn’t want to mess with.
Quarterbacks decided they would rather take their chances against LeBeau than to mess with Lane, Lary or Barney.
Now certainly 62 interceptions is a respectable total, but in the past the Pro Football Hall of Fame selectors have made it clear that interceptions alone do not warrant a spot in the hall.
Of the 20 eligible players with 54 or more interceptions, only 10 are in the Hall of Fame.
In fact, taking it a step further, the three players with 60 or more interceptions who are not in the Hall of Fame, Ken Riley (65 picks), Dick LeBeau (62) and Dave Brown (62) combined for a grand total of four Pro Bowl appearances (three by LeBeau and one by Brown) and one first team All-Pro pick (Riley in his final NFL season) during their combined total of 44 NFL seasons.
So why is Dick LeBeau now being considered for the Hall of Fame after all these years?
In my opinion, LeBeau has suddenly moved from off the list of viable candidates to the top because the Hall of Fame selectors have about as much backbone as a feather. Instead, they go wherever the wind is blowing and this year they are going toward LeBeau.
In his Hall of Fame speech, 2009 inductee Rod Woodson singled out LeBeau, who was the secondary coach and defensive coordinator for the Steelers during much of Woodson’s career, for his great service as an assistant coach and said he deserves entry into the Hall of Fame.
Now that is all well and good and maybe one day after he retires from coaching LeBeau should be considered by the Hall of Fame voters for his total 50+ years of service to the NFL. In that context, he is probably deserving of a spot in the Hall of Fame.
However, according to the rules printed on the Hall of Fame web site, coaches are not eligible for consideration until five years after they retire.
So, that means that when the full committee gathers in February to decide the 2010 inductees, technically (and I’m sure the voters always follow the rules completely; wink, wink) the only thing that Hall of Fame voters should be considering about LeBeau is his 14 years as a defensive back.
If that truly is the case, then I just don’t see how they can rightfully say LeBeau is deserving of being in the Hall of Fame solely for his accomplishments on the field.
As I mentioned earlier, LeBeau was never a first-team All-Pro and made just three Pro Bowl appearances. There are 37 defensive backs that have not been selected for the Hall of Fame who appeared in four or more Pro Bowls and most of them were first team All-Pros on multiple occasions.
As I chronicled in my rundown of the best defensive backs, players like Johnny Robinson (7 Pro Bowls, 6 first-team All-Pro selections), Steve Atwater (8 Pro Bowls, 2 All-Pro), Cliff Harris (6 Pro Bowls, 3 All-Pro), Eric Allen (6 Pro Bowls, 1 All-Pro), and many others received far more recognition for their performance on the field than did LeBeau.
Instead of following the "flavor of the moment" and making someone like LeBeau a finalist for the Hall of Fame, the voters need to do a much better job identifying former players and contributors that are truly deserving of entry and make sure they are recognized while they can still appreciate the honor.
In recent years, I have watched the Hall of Fame select people such as George Allen, Hank Stram, Gene Hickerson, and Bob Hayes either after they had passed away or after their health had deteriorated so much that they were unable to enjoy their moment in the sun.
In each case, it had been decades since their last game as a player or coach, yet it took that long to get them inducted.
I especially feel the selection committee cheated fans out of special moments with George Allen and Hank Stram. Can you imagine the great stories that would have been shared had these two legendary coaches been selected for the Hall when they were first eligible and still healthy?
I know at age 71 LeBeau himself is not a young man, but he is still coaching and therefore should wait until after he is done coaching to rightfully be considered for his total football achievement.
One former coach who is deserving of a plaque in the Hall of Fame, yet seems to have gotten lost is the architect of the "Air Coryell" passing attack that LeBeau and other defensive coaches couldn't stop for a decade, Don Coryell. Currently 84 years old, it would be a shame if Coryell, who last coached in the NFL in 1986, passes away before he is inducted.
Other deserving candidates including Jerry Kramer (73-years old), Johnny Robinson (will turn 71 in September) and Chuck Howley (73) should also be at the top of the list for Hall of Fame voters.
There may one day be a deserving spot for Dick LeBeau in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, but the time for such selection is not now. Unless the Hall of Fame selection committee is going to formally hand over their responsibility to the Steeler Nation or Rod Woodson, they need to respect the integrity of the Hall of Fame and stop playing politics.