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HOF 2010: Dick LeBeau

Posted by Chase Stuart on January 26, 2010

Previous HOF 2010 Bios: John Randle; Roger Craig; Russ Grimm; Steve Tasker; Aeneas Williams; Art Modell; Terrell Davis; Dermontti Dawson; Tim Brown/Cris Carter/Andre Reed; Chris Doleman, Kevin Greene and Charles Haley; Cortez Kennedy; Don Coryell; Ray Guy; Cliff Branch; Shannon Sharpe; Jerry Rice; Richard Dent; Emmitt Smith

Dick LeBeau and Floyd Little are the two Seniors nominees for the HOF Class of 2010. The HOF increased the number of potential senior candidates per season to two beginning with the Class of 2004; the candidates since then are listed below.

2010: Dick LeBeau, Floyd Little
2009: Bob Hayes, Claude Humphrey
2008: Marshall Goldberg, Emmitt Thomas
2007: Gene Hickerson, Charlie Sanders
2006: John Madden, Rayfield Wright
2005: Benny Friedman, Fritz Pollard
2004: Bob Brown, Bob Hayes

So far, only Claude Humphrey and Marshall Goldberg have been turned down, although it took Hayes two tries to get in via the Senior's route. Officially, LeBeau is up for induction as a player, but it seems like some (a few? a majority? who knows) of the voters will take into account his career as a coach. We'll analyze both in this post.

LeBeau the player

LeBeau played his entire thirteen-year career in Detroit, with all but the last season coming as a cornerback. He played from 1959 to 1972, during some of the most volatile years in professional football history. In LeBeau's first season there were twelve teams in the NFL; during his last, there were twenty-six. With rapid expansion, there was also significant talent dilution, something Jason has talked about in his AFL series. On the other hand, as more players and teams entered the league, it became harder to make post-season All-Pro and Pro Bowl rosters.

Let's start by comparing LeBeau to his contemporaries. Including LeBeau, there were 11 star cornerbacks who entered the league between 1954 and 1964. Some of them played safety at times, but these guys were mostly cornerbacks. Let's run them through the usual gauntlet: the table below shows their career AV, number of seasons starting, Pro Bowl selections, and 1st and 2nd team All-Pro selections by the Associated Press. The "othAP" category shows the number of times the player was selected first-team All-Pro by at least one other source in a season (which may or may not include seasons where the AP also selected them); "HOF" is whether the player is currently in the Hall of Fame, "INT" shows the CB's career interceptions total, and the last column lists how many championships the player won.

corner AV starter Pro Bowl 1AP 2AP oth1AP HOF INT champ
Willie Brown 112 13 9 5 2 7 yes 54 1
Mel Renfro 112 13 10 1 4 5 yes 52 1
Herb Adderley 111 12 5 4 2 4 yes 48 6
Jimmy Johnson 108 14 5 4 2 4 yes 47 0
Cornell Green 97 12 5 3 1 4 no 34 1
Erich Barnes 95 12 6 1 2 4 no 45 0
Bobby Boyd 91 9 2 3 1 4 no 57 0
Dick LeBeau 83 12 3 0 2 0 no 62 0
Pat Fischer 82 13 3 2 0 1 no 56 0
Dave Grayson 71 9 6 4 1 6 no 48 1
Abe Woodson 67 8 5 2 1 5 no 19 0
Ed Sharockman 66 9 0 0 0 0 no 40 0

On the above list, only Grayson was a pure AFL guy; Willie Brown spent about half of his career in the AFL, while all of the other corners spent all of their careers in the NFL.

Brown, Renfro, Adderly and Johnson lap the field when it comes to AV, and it's no surprise that all four are in Canton. Brown, Adderly and Johnson each had four or five first-team All-Pro selections, while Renfro was a four-time second-team All-Pro choice, a favorite of the other publications, and a ten-time Pro Bowler. Only Grayson comes close to matching their numbers, but he earned half of his 1APs and four of his Pro Bowls in the AFL in the pre-Super Bowl era. Woodson appears to have nearly as good post-season honors as the HOF candidates, but he almost certainly earned the majority of his awards as a returner, not as a cornerback. Brown, Renfro, Adderly and Johnson are and should be HOFers, with everyone else having an uphill road to Canton.

After them, Cornell Green and Barnes look to be the most deserving, and they also come up next in AV. They each made 5+ Pro Bowls, while every else (excluding Grayson (AFL) and Woodson (returner)) made three or fewer; Green and Barnes (of podcast fame) have solid All-Pro numbers, although Bobby Boyd is right behind them, too.

LeBeau, on the other hand, has a particularly weak case. Even ignoring the four HOFers, who blow him away in every category (but one), would you put him over Green, Barnes and Boyd?

  • Pro Bowls: Barnes (6), Green (5), LeBeau (3), Boyd (2)
  • LeBeau's three combined first-team/second-team honors are still less noteworthy than what Green, Boyd, Grayson and Erich Barnes can claim. And it's not just the Associated Press that failed to bestow such high honors on LeBeau; no other source placed him on their first-team All-NFL roster, either.

In fact, LeBeau has just one thing to base his HOF candidacy on: interceptions. LeBeau tops this group in interceptions, and he ranks 7th all-time in interceptions (he ranked 6th before the season started, but Darren Sharper has since passed him). He ranked third in league history when he retired. Some have argued that his incredible interceptions total -- "especially in an era with fewer games and much less passing" -- is evidence enough that he was a Hall of Fame caliber player. Hopefully, none of our loyal readers would ever be caught making a statement like that.

During most of LeBeau's career, the NFL played a 14-game schedule. Teams also passed far less frequently than they do today. But neither of those things matter when interceptions overall are less common today than they were doing LeBeau's era. In 2009, there were 3.1 interceptions per 100 attempts in the NFL; during LeBeau's era, there were 5.6 INTs per 100 attempts. Despite playing in fewer games and throwing significantly less often, the average team during LeBeau's career threw 20.1 interceptions per season; the average team in 2009 threw 16.4 interceptions. It's harder, not easier, for defensive backs to rack up high interception totals in the modern era.

Let's put the AFL aside; 51 players have intercepted 10 or more passes in a season since 1950. Eighteen of those seasons came during the '50s, nine each during the '60s and '70s, seven during the '80s, one during the '90s, and seven in the past decade. But remember, expansion has significantly changed the number of teams playing. When you look at how many men reached double-digit interceptions per team-season in each decade, the disparity becomes even more pronounced. In the '50s, 1.5 players per team-season had 10 or more interceptions; in the NFL in the '60s, it was 0.62; that number dropped to 0.34, then 0.25, 0.03 and 0.22. Ignoring the odd dip in the '90s (perhaps because the West Coast offense was en vogue, or maybe because of tough luck, as 23 players had 8 or 9 INTs in a season in the '90s), there has been a clear dropoff in interception rates over the years. LeBeau reached his lofty interception total because he played in the '60s, not in spite of it.

And how impressive were his INT rates, anyway? For the first ten years of his career, LeBeau ranked in the top ten in interceptions only twice; in '64, in the 14-team NFL, he was tied with several others for 8th in the league in interceptions. The next season, in the 14-team NFL, he ranked second. In the first decade of his career, he had one season of particular distinction when it comes to interceptions. LeBeau, through age-31, had 41 career interceptions; that barely lands him in the top 40 on the list most interceptions through age thirty-one.

Then at age 32, he had six interceptions; at age 33, he had nine; at age 34 he picked off another six passes. At age 35? He was moved to free safety. At age 36, he was out of the NFL. So, faithful P-F-R reader, which scenario is more likely:

A) LeBeau, after being a very good, perhaps even elite cornerback for most of his career, never got many interceptions; as he aged, he got better at reading defenses and catching passes, before his skills sharply declined, he switched positions, his skills continued to decline, and he was effectively forced to retire.

B) LeBeau was a very good, perhaps even elite cornerback for most of his career, and opposing QBs didn't throw his way often because his man was usually well covered. But LeBeau lost a step at age 32, and QBs starting picking on him; his skills continued to gradually decline, and he was picked on even more at ages 33 and 34; finally, his coaches decided to move the aging LeBeau to safety, but he was no longer fast enough or quick enough to play there, either, so he was effectively forced to retire.

While A is certainly plausible -- if we had the benefit of game films, I'd prefer to study those than have to guess -- scenario B is much more likely in my view. It's not uncommon for older cornerbacks to get picked on, and therefore to record more interceptions. Generally, cornerbacks do not get better as they age, and by 33 years old (the year LeBeau had his 9 interceptions) they usually have lost several steps. Now it's possible that 40 years from now, some young punk journalist will look back at Charles Woodson's 2009 season and say "he got his AP DPOY award and 1AP based on reputation; come on, he was 33 years old, there's no way he had a bounce back, career season and was actually deserving of those awards. He probably got those INTs because he was picked on, and let up at least as many big plays as he made." And that young punk journalist would be wrong.

So maybe LeBeau was a star in his 30s; I don't know. But the fact that he wasn't a first-team All-Pro by any publication makes me suspect that he really just aged like most cornerbacks do; it's worth noting that the cornerback who won all the post-season honors was a 32-year-old Jimmy Johnson, who had just 2 interceptions that season. So there's reason to believe that the voters really judged corners based on other things than interceptions, and those voters did not judge LeBeau to be an elite player that season. And if you're not convinced yet, consider:

In 1967, the Lions drafted HOF CB Lem Barney. I suspect he was picked on his rookie year because, well, he was a rookie from Jackson State. He responded by leading the league in interceptions, interception return yards and interception return touchdowns. By 1969, he was 24 years old and becoming an elite cover corner. Let's look at Detroit's passing rank in Net Yards per Attempt in those three seasons when LeBeau had 6, 9 and 6 interceptions, and then '72 when was moved to free safety, all while Barney was in his prime:

1969 -- 3rd out of 16
1970 -- 20th out of 26
1971 -- 22nd out of 26
1972 -- 18th out of 26
1973 -- without Lebeau, 9th out of 26

I would be stunned if that below average ranking in the post-merger NFL was because teams were throwing on Barney, who had fewer interceptions and we know was a HOF cornerback. The obvious explanation is that LeBeau was a good cover corner in the middle of his career, and probably got a lot of interceptions later in his career because teams weren't afraid to throw on him (with good reason, as evidenced by the Lions' rankings against the pass).

Regardless of how LeBeau aged, interceptions are simply not a strong measure of CB value; some good cornerbacks have high interceptions totals (because they're good) and some have low ones (because teams throw away from them), just as some bad cornerbacks have low interceptions totals and some have high ones. To be considered an elite, HOF cornerback, you need more than interceptions, and unfortunately, that's all LeBeau has. LeBeau also played most of his career with some studs: Alex Karras's career almost perfectly overlapped with LeBeau's, and the defensive tackle is one of the biggest HOF snubs; his teammate inside, Roger Brown, made six Pro Bowls and was with the Lions for most of the '60s. HOF safety Yale Lary and HOF MLB Joe Schmidt were in Detroit for the first half of LeBeau's career, while Barney was in Detroit for the second half of LeBeau's career. As a result of playing with so much star talent, while those Lions had very good defenses, LeBeau never had any huge seasons according to AV (mostly since he never was named a first-team All-Pro). His career AV grade of 83, and his peak three-year grade of 12.0 both are significantly less impressive than those of the average HOFer. In short, there is little evidence, judging LeBeau's career without watching him play, that he was a HOF caliber player.

LeBeau the coach

LeBeau bounced around from the Eagles to the Packers to the Bengals for the first decade of his post-playing career, and was promoted to Cincinnati Defensive Coordinator in 1984. He left the Bengals to go to Pittsburgh in the early '90s, before being named DC of the Steelers in 1995. After two seasons in Pittsburgh, he returned to Cincinnati to coordinate the defense for three seasons immediately before a forgettable three-year stint as Bengals head coach. It was when he returned to Pittsburgh, in 2004, that LeBeau had the first sustained coaching success of his career. Despite what's been written about LeBeau -- that he excelled in the game of football for 50 years -- his coaching track record is not nearly as impressive as you might think.

No one argues for LeBeau on the basis of his track record as a position coach or as a head coach; rather, his admirers talk about LeBeau, the fantastic defensive coordinator. They talk about LeBeau the innovator, as he was the first coach to develop the zone blitz with defensive linemen dropping into coverage. So how did LeBeau's defenses perform? He was the DC in Cincinnati for eight seasons. In 1983, the Bengals led the league in points allowed under Hank Bullough, one of a handful of patriarchs responsible for bringing the 3-4 defense to the NFL. LeBeau undoubtedly played a part in that defense, but his first stint as official DC was in '84, when the Bengals defense fell back to the pack. Over his eight-year run, the Bengals defensive SRS rating was below league average in seven of eight seasons. The Bengals fell in the bottom half of the league in points scored in seven of eight seasons and were in the bottom half in yards allowed six times. This, after taking over the #1 defense in the league in points allowed. His last year in Cincinnati, the Bengals ranked dead last in the NFL in both yards allowed and points allowed.

He joined the Steelers as a DB coach in '92, where Pittsburgh had a dominant defense under Dom Capers. In '94, Capers' defense ranked 2nd in the league in both points and yards allowed. When he left to coach the expansion Panthers, LeBeau was promoted to DC; while the Steelers made the Super Bowl in '95, the defense took a considerable step back from the '94 squad, likely due to Rod Woodson's injury. In '96, Pittsburgh ranked 2nd in the league in yards allowed and 4th in points, although LeBeau wasn't exactly doing Midas' work: Jason Gildon, Levon Kirkland, Chad Brown, Rod Woodson and Carnell Lake were all in the primes of their careers, and guys like Brentson Buckner and Joel Steed were effective big bodies up front.

LeBeau left to take on the title of DC/assistant head coach in Cincinnati after two successful years in Pittsburgh. To call it a disaster would be kind: the Bengals ranked 27th, 30th and 31st (last) in the league in points allowed in those three seasons, and won just six more games in those three years than they did the year before LeBeau arrived. The defense was similarly awful as measured by yards allowed. LeBeau's fourth year in Cincinnati, 2000, was the year HC Bruce Coslet was put out to pasture; LeBeau took over as HC for the next two-and-a-half seasons. Cincinnati went 12-33, allowing the most points in the league during LeBeau's last season.

Following those six seasons, LeBeau went to Buffalo in 2003, where he did have success: the Bills defense had an unexpected turnaround, improving from terrible to great nearly overnight. Technically, Jerry Gray was the DC and LeBeau the "assistant Head Coach", but I'm willing to give LeBeau credit for that turnaround since Gray presided over the '02 defense, as well. When LeBeau went back to Pittsburgh, the Steelers would win two more Super Bowls, largely on the strength of its defense. In four of his six seasons in his most recent stint with the team, Pittsburgh ranked in the top four in both points and yards allowed. Of course, again, Pittsburgh has not been devoid of talent on the defensive side of the ball, and it's worth noting that the Steelers defense fell of dramatically when Troy Polamalu missed time with injuries in 2009.

LeBeau's coaching career pre-Pittsburgh (the second time) was more about quantity than quality; over his 30 years as a coach before 2004, he presided over a lot of bad defenses, a lot of average defenses, and some excellent defenses. There's nothing particularly unusual about that. The last six years he's done a fantastic job, and it's easy to think that he's always been a fantastic coordinator; the truth is, his relatively short success with Pittsburgh is the only notable success he's had a defensive coordinator. One of the reasons the HOF has a five-year waiting period is to ensure that recent success does not cloud our judgment; with LeBeau, he's up for induction as a player. If he was being nominated as a coach, he would have to wait five more seasons, and I suspect that his coaching record would look less impressive to most voters once they took a step back and analyzed his whole coaching career.

I've got no doubt that LeBeau will be inducted this year, because he's considered a defensive genius (which he may well be; I'm only questioning his lack of success, not his intellect) and because he's been around the game forever. Whether or not the seasons were always great, 50 years in the NFL is an unbelievable accomplishment. Technically, he's up for induction only as a player, although I think it's likely that many voters will (inappropriately) take his coaching career into account. As a player, it's clear to me that he falls far short of the standard for induction; he would be one of the worst players in the modern era to be inducted into the Hall of Fame. And obviously, LeBeau the Head Coach wouldn't come close to being HOF worthy. Even if we were voting on LeBeau the player/assistant coach, he'd still fall short in my eyes, unless I was just overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of his career. LeBeau the innovator may be worth a bust in Canton, although he's certainly not being nominated as that. Putting aside his playing career, his head coaching career and his assistant coaching career, LeBeau the innovator is a HOF-caliber candidate.

But for the world we live in, Lebeau has the two most important thing going for a HOF case: he's perceived as an all-time great and Steeler Nation supports him. All I ask is when you hear about how LeBeau was a fantastic player and coach for half a century, you don't take those words at face value and investigate his career for yourself. You may come to the same conclusion I did.

Chances Dick LeBeau will make the HOF in 2010? Very good.
Chances Dick LeBeau will ever make the HOF? Very good.