There’s nothing that Pittsburgh Steelers fans love more than championships, but if there was anything that comes even close, it’s great defensive players. So when the team recently gathered the majority of their previous Defensive Player of the Year Award winners for a group discussion, it felt tailor-made for the fan base.
Joining the two-time winner Joe Greene were Rod Woodson, James Harrison, and Troy Polamalu, the group missing only two of Greene’s teammates, Mel Blount and Jack Lambert, the latter of whom very consciously stays out of the public eye, though Blount is usually good for participation in such things (and frankly, last time I saw him, he looked like he could still play).
At one point during the discussion, Woodson, who was a part of that transition from Chuck Noll to Bill Cowher, talked about the influence of Dick LeBeau on his career, during the latter’s first stint as the Steelers’ defensive coordinator. And he believes that LeBeau’s willingness to allow his players to play was crucial to both their individual success and to the team’s success.
“What I loved about Dick, he would just let me be me. He was like, ‘You jump out of your stance—but you can. So, I’m okay. Go ahead with that’”, he told his tablemates. “That’s what I loved about him. Some coaches would be like, ‘You’re jumping out of your stance! I don’t want you to jump out of your stance! You gotta be patient! Don’t move your feet! Don’t back up!’ All the little things that get in your head as a player and kind of bog you down. And that’s what Dick would allow you to do”.
While it certainly doesn’t work for everybody, the reality is that you don’t have to be technically and fundamentally sound in every aspect of your game in order to be great. Sometimes it’s the nuance and improvisation that sets you apart, beyond your raw talent. Nobody knows best how to use your own body than yourself. That applies as much to Polamalu as to anybody, as Woodson told him.
“I remember watching you, and I’m like, I called [LeBeau]. I was like, ‘Why do you let him do this and this and this?’, and he’s like, ‘Because he can’”, Woodson said with a smile. “Touché, touché, touché. He let us be us inside of the system. He let us bring our uniqueness inside of the system. Allowing us to be us inside the system I think is what allowed us to be really good players”.
LeBeau has been out of the organization since 2014, but Mike Tomlin still lets his players play, when they earn it. We see that with safety Minkah Fitzpatrick today, and the guy who inspired this group discussion—T.J. Watt, who should be named the team’s seventh recipient of the Defensive Player of the Year Award tonight.