NFL Nation: Dick "Night Train" Lane

Had Dick LeBeau's life taken a slightly different path, he says he probably would've been a golf instructor.

Instead LeBeau is entering the Hall of Fame as a three-time Pro Bowl cornerback and one of the greatest defensive minds in football history.

[+] EnlargeDick LeBeau
AP Photo/Don WrightDick LeBeau's zone blitz has changed the way teams play defense in the NFL.
LeBeau spent his college days playing football for Ohio State in the fall and enjoying golf in the offseason. Legendary golfer Jack Nicklaus had a heavy influence on LeBeau's career choice.

"I played with Jack, then I decided I really should concentrate on football," LeBeau said with a chuckle. "I would not have been a golf player like Jack Nicklaus or Tom Weiskopf. But I can make a par or two, and I love to teach. So instead of a football coach, I probably would have been a golf coach."

LeBeau realized around his sophomore year at Ohio State that he wanted to coach football. He was hoping to last a few years playing professionally before making that transition. But LeBeau wound up playing 14 seasons in the league as a member of some great cornerback tandems with the Detroit Lions, teaming with Lem Barney and Dick "Night Train" Lane during his career.

Once LeBeau got into coaching, he made an even greater contribution to the NFL. His invention of the zone blitz changed the way many teams play defense and has been a huge part of LeBeau's Hall of Fame career.

"The largest impact that it has on me is that you're going to be a piece of National Football League history forever," LeBeau said. "That just makes me kind of shake my head a little bit, but I just feel truly blessed. No, it hasn't hit me. I'm not sure that it ever will. It's 10,000 dreams come true. I just count my blessings every day."

Out of respect, the Steelers organization re-worked its training camp schedule this year to fit in a bus trip to Canton, Ohio, to see LeBeau. Head coach Mike Tomlin said the entire team will be in attendance to see their popular defensive coordinator get enshrined.

"We're excited about it. What a great opportunity to have a field trip, if you will, for a football team," Tomlin said. "The camaraderie, coming together for a little bus ride, but more important it's a guy that we all love and admire. It's a very special day for him and by no means do we intend to miss it."

Have at It: LeBeau as a player

February, 10, 2010
I appreciated the thoughtful debate you produced Monday on Dick LeBeau's pending enshrinement to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. I asked if you considered LeBeau a Hall of Famer independent of his stellar coaching career, and from the top I should tell you how the voters themselves considered his candidacy.

[+] EnlargeDick LeBeau
David Boss/US PresswireDick LeBeau went to three Pro Bowls as a member of the Detroit Lions.
As NFL vice president Greg Aiello points out, coaches aren't eligible for enshrinement until five years after they retire. LeBeau remains Pittsburgh's defensive coordinator, so by definition that means the Hall's 44 voters were required to evaluate him solely on the merits of his playing career.

I've independently confirmed that with voters. They elected LeBeau based on his performance as a Detroit cornerback from 1959-72. That said, I thought some of you made a reasonable leap by suggesting LeBeau's tenure as an elite defensive coordinator at least kept his name fresh for this generation of the seniors committee and voters.

Wrote whelk: He should have been elected a HOF'er as a player in the first place. However, it was his coaching that kept reminding people he was out there. Without the coaching, this deserving player likely would have been forgotten.

And who was that deserving player? You engaged in some of the most interesting debate we've had in Have at It.

Elkman812002 pointed to this analysis from Pro Football Reference. The piece notes LeBeau totaled 62 interceptions during an era when teams passed much less frequently than they do now. But it also points out interceptions were much more frequent relative to passing attempts during those times. "Even though only 14 games were played per season in LeBeau's era it was in fact easier to get interceptions," concluded Elkman812002.

Jerious6 countered with what we noted in the original post: LeBeau had more interceptions than any other NFL player during the meat of his career from 1960-71.

Wrote Jerious6: "No matter how easy or hard interceptions were to come by during that time, having more total picks than anyone over that period accounts for something, mostly his consistency."

I think it accounts for more than that. My take? I realize there was some gray area in LeBeau's candidacy. There is a reason it took 38 years after his retirement for him to be elected. He was surrounded by some better-known Hall of Fame players, including cornerback Lem Barney, cornerback Dick "Night Train" Lane and safety Yale Lary. The presence of high-caliber teammates tends to lead to the argument that LeBeau got more opportunities for interceptions because opponents chose to "pick" on him rather than challenge ostensibly more talented players.

To me, however, the point is LeBeau made teams pay if they in fact took that approach. He didn't just intercept some passes. When he retired, he had more interceptions than all but one player in the history of the game. Even today, his total ranks among the top 10 of all time. It's overthinking to suggest there is a mitigating circumstances that should overshadow 62 interceptions in 14 seasons.

Interceptions should be a weighted statistic, in my book. In general terms, turnovers are as closely associated to wins and losses than any other figure. Even if LeBeau was a less-skilled cover man than some other Hall of Fame players on his own team and elsewhere, he made up for it at the end of the day.

I understand why it took LeBeau so long to reach the Pro Football Hall of Fame. I also understand why he has finally been included.


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