Maybe the best compliment that could be paid to Dick LeBeau is that he turned out to be a better coach than a player—and he was a Hall of Fame player, so what does that make him as a coach?
A portion of the above sentence has been met with a stone wall for some 32 years—the part about him being a Hall of Fame player. But no one said that those who vote on such things always get it right.
LeBeau, 72 next week, is finally, after far too many years—decades, really—knocking on the door of that funny-shaped building in Canton, Ohio with the faux football protruding into the air.
It was announced last week that LeBeau is a finalist for induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, thanks to the senior committee, who frequently has had to ride to the rescue to right some wrongs. It happens all the time in baseball.
LeBeau will be lauded as the vote grows near—it’ll happen early next year—as being Hall worthy because of what he did on the sidelines as a position coach and, more so, as a defensive coordinator for Super Bowl teams.
Let’s see how many folks talk about his career as a player, and why that alone should have been good enough, even if he hadn’t coached one practice in the NFL.
LeBeau is one-third of a trio of former Lions whose snub by the Hall voters was an annual rite of winter.
The others are both from the defense and you likely already know who they are: DT Alex Karras and LB Wayne Walker.
If the NFL had introduced the Wild Card entrant into the post-season party in the early-1960s, the Detroit Lions would have qualified frequently. They were often the Western Division’s second-best team, usually behind the vaunted Green Bay Packers.
That seemingly irrelevant observation is anything but, because it’s my belief that players like LeBeau, Karras, Walker, and Lem Barney and Charlie Sanders (who both had to wait too long for their inductions) all got the short shrift because of the distinct lack of post-season play on their resumes.
Don’t come at me with Karras’s gambling blip, which cost him the 1963 season due to suspension. Fellow NFLer Paul Hornung was suspended as well, and The Golden Boy is in the Hall, comfy and cozy.
Walker, until Jason Hanson broke it, held the Lions’ record for career games played, with an even 200. He held that record for over 30 years. Walker was a Pro Bowl caliber player for several seasons.
LeBeau, a cornerback, intercepted 62 passes in his 14-year NFL career, which is good for seventh best of all-time.
LeBeau returning one of his 62 career interceptions
The Lions, ironically, were actually known far more for their defenses than their offenses during much of the Snubbed Trio’s time in Detroit. Yet the lack of division titles trumped that, as far as Hall of Fame chances go.
But this isn’t to diminish what LeBeau has done as a football coach, because that alone is Hall worthy.
Aside from three brutal seasons as head coach of the woeful Cincinnati Bengals, LeBeau’s career on the sidelines has proven him to be a pioneer in certain aspects of football defense. It was LeBeau who’s widely credited with developing the zone blitz—a dizzying, almost frenetic way of trying to both confuse the offense while also thwarting as many passing options as possible.
Before the zone blitz, defensive linemen hardly ever were asked to drift back into pass coverage. But they did after LeBeau sunk his talons into defense preparation.
“As far as I’m concerned,” said Hall of Fame CB Rod Woodson and one of LeBeau’s prized pupils, “Dick LeBeau has done more for the game than a lot of people in the Hall of Fame currently. He’s done more than Vince Lombardi, if you ask me.”
As a coach, that is.
But Dick LeBeau did a pretty damn good job wearing the helmet and pads, too. He just had the misfortune of doing it with the Lions. Lem Barney and Charlie Sanders were able to overcome that, but the Snubbed Trio hasn’t.
Looks like one of the Trio, though, is about to break through. LeBeau won’t go into the Hall as a Lion, per se, but at least he’ll be in. Let’s hope when they give the speeches in Canton someone remembers what LeBeau did on the field. As a Detroit Lion.