Published November 20, 2014
Every so often, Dom Capers pulls out the humongous, handwritten playbook from his first year as a defensive coordinator in the NFL. He likes showing it to younger coaches to emphasize how much more labor went into designing plays before such things became computerized.
Dick LeBeau remembers that exact playbook quite well, too.
"I was the guy that had to draw it," he said, chuckling.
That's only the beginning of the tale about an important document in recent NFL history and the close relationship between the defensive signal-callers who will be matching wits in the Super Bowl, LeBeau for the Pittsburgh Steelers and Capers for the Green Bay Packers.
Both born and raised in small towns in southern Ohio, they became friends in the mid-1980s, when they were coaching defensive backs on different NFL teams and often scouting the same college players. They became colleagues in 1992, when Bill Cowher became coach of the Steelers and hired them on his inaugural staff, Capers as defensive coordinator and LeBeau in charge of the secondary.
Capers and LeBeau lived together for six months, spending most of their time building that playbook. It was quite a chore, and it became so thick because they weren't sure whether they would use four linemen and three linebackers as Cowher preferred, or three linemen and four linebackers as Capers preferred. That meant every play had to be drawn twice, once for each defensive front — and LeBeau did all the drawing.
"I was never so glad to go to camp in all my life," he said.
Capers' 3-4 won out, and they soon discovered it worked best while using a wrinkle advocated by LeBeau: the zone blitz.
What started as a way to counter the Run 'n Shoot and West Coast offenses that were dominating at the time turned into the start of a defensive revolution that's swept across much of the league, re-establishing the Steelers as an NFL power — and a defense-first power, at that — and earning these coaches widespread respect as being among the best in the game.
"I think history has proven that we had some good ideas," LeBeau said.
Just look at what their clubs did this season.
The Steelers allowed the fewest points in the NFL (232, or 14.5 per game), and the Packers were a close second (240, or 15.0). This is the first Super Bowl in 28 years pitting the top two defenses from the regular season, a surprising tidbit considering all the talk that defenses win championships.
LeBeau and Capers use the scheme differently, tailored mostly to their talent.
But even that is pretty similar.
The Steelers have a dynamic linebacker in James Harrison and a big-time playmaker in the secondary in Troy Polamalu, while the Packers have a dynamic linebacker in Clay Matthews and a big-time playmaker in the secondary in Charles Woodson. Polamalu was the AP Defensive Player of the Year, with Matthews the runner-up. Woodson won the award last year, and Harrison the year before that.
"This is probably the only Super Bowl ever that the players from either team could jump in the defensive huddle and understand the terminology and probably run the defense," LeBeau said. "I'm sure the nomenclature is different, but they could figure it out. Certainly if you gave them two days of practice, either team could run the other team's defense."
Pittsburgh has the advantage of stability.
LeBeau took over in 2004, and this is his third Super Bowl during that span; the Steelers have already won two. Nine starters on Sunday also started when Pittsburgh won the Super Bowl two years ago.
Capers joined the Packers last year, so things are in flux a bit more. The biggest change is that Woodson was the guy who went anywhere and did everything last year, and now Matthews has taken over that role.
"You just have to try to feature the guys you think have a good chance of winning 1-on-1 battles and of making plays for you," Capers said. "So we're still in the process. That is probably the biggest difference between us and Pittsburgh. They've been running the same defense since about 1992."
Since working together from 1992-94, their careers have followed separate paths.
Capers has been a head coach twice, both times with expansion teams. He got the Carolina Panthers to the NFC championship game in his second season, but wasn't able to get the Houston Texans into the playoffs over five seasons. This is his 25th year as an NFL coach and his first trip to the Super Bowl.
"When you've been doing it this long, you have an appreciation for it," the 60-year-old Capers said. "Once you get here, you want to make sure you follow through and play your best game."
LeBeau has also been a head coach, but he's thrived mostly as Pittsburgh's defensive coordinator. In addition to the recent run of titles, he was the coordinator of the team that reached the Super Bowl following the 1995 season.
This Super Bowl trip is especially significant for the 73-year-old LeBeau because it caps a season that began with his induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He was honored for his 14-year playing career as a cornerback on the Detroit Lions, and the entire Steelers team took a day out of training camp to be in the stands cheering him on.
"I don't think you could write a better script," LeBeau said. "It's right out of Hollywood, only I'm getting to live it. I still pinch myself in the morning when I get up, actually. 'Is this really happening?' It's been dreams coming true, not a dream coming true. It's been plural. How fortunate can you be?"
Perhaps the only unfortunate part is that one of these pals has to lose on Sunday. It's something that likely will come up when they have their usual meal together during the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis.
That is, if they keep up the tradition.
"We may not," LeBeau said, chuckling again. "One of us is not going to be very happy with the other one."