The rumors floating around in the non-newsworthy week before the big game link LeBeau to the dreaded "R" word, which would be a bitter pill for Steelers fans to swallow. That isn't to suggest the Steelers couldn't find anyone to head up the best defense in the game. It just means that unless LeBeau is Jerry Seinfeld, he won't just walk away from the driver's seat of the best thing in the industry.
LeBeau will be 72 years old near the start of the 2009 regular season, and we all know 70 is the new 40. (Incidentally, 40 is the new 20, so that means LeBeau will be the same age as the Steelers' first draft pick when they begin defense of their AFC championship.) So age is definitely on his side. Defensive Player of the Year James Harrison is 30 years old. Troy Polamalu, the guy who finished 5th in the voting, is 28. Neither of them show any signs of slowing down, either.
That's a bad sign for the opposition, but the opponents of 2009 have to make even LeBeau – known for his humility – excited.
Look at the passers LeBeau will face next year. He gets a combined four games against Cleveland's Brady Quinn (barely played) and Baltimore's Joe Flacco (five picks in three games vs. Pittsburgh). Who knows if Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer will be healthy next year? Then there's the Rookie TBD in Detroit, Tyler Thigpen (snicker) with the Chiefs, Tarvaris Jackson (full belly laugh) with Minnesota and JaMarcus Russell (shaking head sadly) with the Raiders.
To put it mildly, this group is less talented than the juggernaut schedule the Steelers faced in 2008. They gave up an average of 156 passing yards per game against seven of the 15 highest-rated quarterbacks in the league: Phillip Rivers, Peyton Manning, Tony Romo, Donovan McNabb, Matt Cassell, Matt Schaub and Eli Manning.
It's not just passing, either. Cleveland, Detroit, Cincinnati, Kansas City and Oakland all finished in the bottom 10 of offensive scoring. That's seven games against offenses that failed to average more than 19 points per game. If LeBeau was able to manage a defense that surrendered the fewest yards in nearly two decades against the league's toughest schedule, just think of what he can do against one of the easiest.
So why retire? He's been involved with the NFL for 50 years, and he's never presided over a defense with two of the top five individual defensive players in the game. It's possible that all 11 starters will return next year, too. CB Bryant McFadden may sign elsewhere, but he missed six games this year, and the defense didn't miss a beat. Other than that, Harrison and Polamalu will return, as will the entirety of the best linebackers unit in the game. While LeBeau's desire to remain active doesn't seem to be fueled by ulterior motives, his players wearing his No. 44 Lions jersey to the Hall of Fame game last pre-season wasn't a coincidence. If LeBeau wants to make a serious push for Canton, a second ring this year and backing up their ridiculous 237 yards allowed per game in 2009 would help that tremendously.
Do things like induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame entice a man who has been viable in six straight decades? Maybe, maybe not, but he's already put together one of the best single season defenses in history, and he's fully capable of doing it again.
That's enough to make even a humble man proud.