Onward And Upward

Jim Wexell examines why the Steelers have decided to move on without their legendary defensive coordinator.

As the news broke that the Pittsburgh Steelers and Dick LeBeau had parted ways Saturday, the questions immediately began pouring into my Twitter account.

To streamline the answers: Yes, he was forced out, and, yes, I expect long-time linebackers coach Keith Butler to replace him, and, yes, Butler would probably keep the same general 3-4 base alignment, but that with such a large trend toward hybrid sub-packages the base alignment is almost a moot point.

The question of why LeBeau was forced out is the one with which I had trouble. Someone stepped in and gave me a hand.

"How else was this going to end?" a man kept writing to the more angry Steelers fans who wanted to know why the great defensive coordinator was out looking for another job at the age of 77.

"How else could this have ended?"

And it's one of those questions that seems to be an answer in and of itself.

The Steelers had to realize that LeBeau just wasn't going to quit, that, like so many true coaches out there, he would want to die with his proverbial spurs on.

Coaches do one thing: They coach. And in LeBeau's Hall of Fame induction speech the most important point he tried to make was that "Age is just a number."

And with him, it really was. The guy doesn't look 77, and he certainly didn't want to act like he was 77. And he most certainly didn't want to feel like a doddering fool behind the worst statistical ranking in his 13 seasons as Steelers defensive coordinator.

Much of the public charged that LeBeau and his philosophies were too old and were to blame for its ranking as the No. 18 defense in the league. In 2013, it ranked 13th. In only one of the 11 other seasons on the job had the Steelers' defense ranked worse than fifth. Five times the Steelers ranked first under LeBeau.

But this has been a rebuilding project. And, in my estimation, the heavy lifting has been completed: The line has been rebuilt; the inside linebackers are deep and fill specific and necessary niches; LeBeau believes the next great pass-rusher is in place; the safeties are set to carry on without Troy Polamalu; depth at cornerback has had to suffice as starting material, but answers are being found there, too. Overall, the Steelers still need another man to rush the passer and another to cover that passer's throws, but at least these problems have been narrowed and specific needs and not general ones have been identified.

Rebuilding has been inevitable since the offense was the first to get the attention as the final remnants of the great 2000s era began to retire. To blame LeBeau for those 3,000 no shows against a blood rival in a playoff game would be pretty short-sighted thinking, indeed.

But this proud coach wanted to see the rebuilding job through to the end. And then, once Cameron Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, Shamarko Thomas, Jarvis Jones and Ryan Shazier had grown into team leaders, LeBeau no doubt would've wanted to watch another magnificent creation of his perform and win.

Who wouldn't?

Particularly when age is just a number?

No, there was no doubt LeBeau wanted to continue on and Mike Tomlin had to realize there would be no end in sight. So, really, how else was this going to end?

So my guess here is that Tomlin -- who may or may not explain his decision -- took this period of adjustment, this 18th ranking, as the logical time to make the change, and that it was probably as good excuse as any.

Perhaps LeBeau was becoming too distant, perhaps a little bit stand-offish, as icons can become. Perhaps Tomlin spent more time talking defense with Butler, and perhaps some of Butler's ideas became appealing as some of the new and exciting parts began showing off their potential. So perhaps the time was now.

Maybe it was a good move, and maybe I can begin to convince myself of this, but it doesn't mean I have to like it. Not today.

As for LeBeau, "onward and upward," was his promise to friends. He told his inner circle as late as last week that he was coming back, but when informed he wasn't by Tomlin, LeBeau began thinking of his next project, his next coaching job. We can all imagine he drove back to Ohio this weekend with a smile on his face and some Bruce Springsteen on his stereo.

I don't think I need to begin re-telling the story of this great man. I think we all love and respect him and what he has done in Pittsburgh. My interest today is more about why this had to happen. But, of course, how else could it have happened?


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