With the Steelers on pace for a 4-12 finish, it's no surprise that we're looking at firing coaches and coordinators and players and beer vendors and whoever else we can think of to change the course of this football team. In most cities, you'd expect the head coach to pay the ultimate price at season's end. That probably won't happen in Pittsburgh, where there have been a whopping three head coaches since Neil Armstrong walked on the moon.
No, head coach Mike Tomlin will probably keep that title over the winter and probably for the next decade as well. That's fine. Firing a man who has been very successful in his relatively short tenure isn't what will fix the problems the Steelers are having. But there's another notable icon on the coaching staff who could much more easily find himself out of work come January.
This feels blasphemous even to think about. Dick LeBeau isn't just the Steelers' defensive coordinator, he's a legend. The innovative pioneer of the zone blitz that gave this very blog its namesake, the grandfatherly gentleman who reads his team "Twas the Night Before Christmas" every year, the Pro Football Hall of Fame cornerback, could and should take his final bow after this season.
There are plenty of things that can lead to a coordinator being fired, but that turns into a complicated issue in a hurry. Obviously, the Steelers' defense isn't very good at what they do, namely forcing turnovers. Is that because every other offense has figured out how to out-scheme LeBeau? History suggests that, no, the plans aren't the problem with LeBeau. The entire defensive unit failing at their assignments is more likely than LeBeau simply not "getting it" anymore.
So if it's not the coordinator's fault, why fire him? Two major reasons stand out. First, because it's Keith Butler's time. We just talked about the success of the scheme, the 3-4 zone blitz defense that has consistently dominated most of the NFL for the past several years. Butler has been coaching the Steelers' linebackers for ten years in that defense, making superstars out of not only high profile players like Joey Porter and James Farrior, but took practice squad cast-off James Harrison and turned him into the defensive player of the year in 2008. For reference, Porter and Harrison continued playing after leaving Pittsburgh, and neither of them has accomplished anything since.
Given that he coaches this particular defense's most important position, he knows the defensive playbook like no one else, save for LeBeau himself. The Rooneys know this. Kevin Colbert knows this. Tomlin knows this. Most importantly, Keith Butler knows this. When former Ravens defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano was hired as the head coach of the Indianapolis Colts, he attempted to hire Butler away from Pittsburgh to serve as his defensive coordinator. Butler mysteriously declined after a meeting with the Steelers' front office. It's all but guaranteed he was given wink-and-nudge confirmation that the defensive coordinator position in Pittsburgh is his to claim when Dick LeBeau moves on. Butler would serve as a seamless transition to a post-LeBeau era.
Again, with all this being said, why not just retain LeBeau? We'll borrow a paraphrased quote from Penguins GM Ray Shero when he fired Michel Therrien and hired Dan Bylsma: When things aren't going right, it's easier to make a change at one position than across the whole team. That's where the Steelers are in 2013. The defense isn't working right, and it's easier to change one coach than change every player. I don't necessarily think of it like a wake-up call; trust me, the players know they are playing badly. But right now, they need to change anything to get on the right track. Moving on from Dick LeBeau would be a significant change, and perhaps the only thing the team could do to kick-start things in the right direction.
For the record, I don't believe the 76-year-old LeBeau will be fired at the end of the season. I do believe that he will, with encouragement from management, retire as a coach this winter. All the pieces are in place to get a fresh start without changing everything the players know. After 2013, that might be just what the Steelers need.