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.
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. I was all but praying, as he continued to slip, that no team would trade ahead of the Steelers and grab him.
That said, I do no think the Steelers would have won either of their 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 beautiful music. Instead, his genius is taking great football players and using 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 the Super Bowl 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.
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 XX between the 49ers and the Bengals. 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 second half comebacks this season, but they were made possible by a defense that refused to give an inch when it mattered the 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.
The defense 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. Coordinators rarely get the credit they deserve. Head coaches, by and large, get most of the 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.
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 bit nervous when the Steelers’ picked the unproven Mike Tomlin as a head coach over Ken Whisenhunt (a pick that looks great in hindsight). That nervousness started receding 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 soon), 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. To me, he is the Steelers’ true MVP.