Posted: 5:25 p.m.
MIAMI - Dick LeBeau is a little like the month of March if he's elected Saturday to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
He'll go in as a Lion.
He has to because that's the rule. Players under consideration must go in based on their career on the field and not as a coach. But Anthony Muñoz, the lone Bengals Hall of Famer who played his entire career in Cincinnati, would welcome the company of a guy he went against every day in practice for a decade. LeBeau, a 14-year cornerback in Detroit, would also be the second Bengals head coach to go in the Hall of Fame. But both he and Paul Brown would get the nod for work other than those stints in Cincinnati.
Muñoz has been talking to fellow Hall of Famers who played with and against LeBeau, notably Lions cornerback Lem Barney, and there is no doubt in his mind that LeBeau belongs.
"It would surprise me if he didn't make it, but I'm not going to speculate because I didn't want to do that with myself," Muñoz said Wednesday at the site of the Super Bowl and where the Hall vote is announced this weekend. "From the guys I've talked to, he's very deserving. He played for a long time and he hit people."
Muñoz, a first ballot Hall of Famer in 1998 regarded as the greatest left tackle who ever lived, said he studied up on the old-timers on the Bengals staff after he arrived in 1980. His head coach, Forrest Gregg, had already been in the Hall of Fame for three seasons, and research would have shown when LeBeau retired after the 1973 season he had the third-most interceptions of all time with 62. His streak of 171 straight games is still the standard at the corner position.
Muñoz knew LeBeau best as the cutting edge defensive coordinator that got promoted from secondary coach in 1984 and wasted no time implementing the zone blitz that he tinkered with under coordinator Hank Bullough. LeBeau didn't get much credit for it until as the current coordinator of the Steelers it helped Pittsburgh to two Super Bowl titles in the last five seasons. But he used it in Cincinnati to hold Hall of Famers Jim Kelly and Joe Montana to a combined three touchdowns in the eight quarters of the 1988 AFC title game and Super Bowl.
"I remember the first snap of the '81 game in San Diego," Muñoz said. "We came out with one lineman, the nose tackle, and five linebackers and five defensive backs and Don Coryell and (quarterback Dan) Fouts had to figure out who was coming. And he did it with not the same level of talent he's had in Pittsburgh."
LeBeau, who coached the Bengals in the first three seasons of the last decade, had two terms as their defensive coordinator. After eight seasons in the 1980s and early '90s, LeBeau returned in 1997 under head coach Bruce Coslet before he was fired following the 2002 season after 45 games as head coach, giving him 18 of his 51 NFL seasons in Cincinnati. He has spent 11 in Pittsburgh.
"For 10 years he sat in the row ahead of me and Max (Montoya) on the plane, so anyone who has been in one place for so long, you think of them as a Bengal," Muñoz said. "The best thing about (the Hall) is the camaraderie with the other guys. We joke that we can't get cut, traded or waived, but it's true. We might have competed against each other, but now we're on the same team for life. It's interesting. You're no longer referred to as 'Anthony Muñoz, Bengal,' you're 'Anthony Muñoz, Hall of Famer.' "
On Wednesday, Muñoz shared the dais with former Saints quarterback Archie Manning and, by video, Hall of Famer John Madden, to present the first Madden Most Valuable Protectors Award to the New Orleans Saints. The award is presented by Prilosec OTC, a product from the Cincinnati-based firm of Procter & Gamble, and recognizes the NFL's best offensive line. Muñoz was on a "Purple Ribbon Panel" that narrowed the field to New Orleans, the New York Jets, Indianapolis, Philadelphia and Tennessee, and fans voted online for the winner.
"They were one of my top two," said Muñoz of the Saints and Jets. "The thing about them is they're so balanced. It's a passing league, but to rush for (131 yards per game) is something."
Muñoz said he "loved what they did," of his hometown Bengals offensive line but he admitted, "I didn't look at that O-line and say, 'Man.' I watched them all year and they were good. They ran the ball well. But I don't think they hammer you like the Jets do. They don't hammer you like the Saints or Titans."
Joe Kelly, the former Reds public relations assistant and current PR chief for Cincinnati's Tri Health, coordinated the event for P&G. Kelly is a notorious Saints fan, as well as a Bengals fan, and he had to feel good vibes that his trip coincided with the Saints' first Super appearance.