NFL Draft: Steelers' centers thrive on excellence, longevity
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The history of the Steelers is littered with great defensive players, in particular linebackers such as Jack Ham and Jack Lambert, Greg Lloyd and Joey Porter. There are cornerbacks such as Mel Blount and Rod Woodson, safeties such as Donnie Shell and Carnell Lake and defensive linemen such as Joe Greene and L.C. Greenwood.
On offense, there were Hall of Fame receivers Lynn Swann and John Stallworth and running backs Franco Harris and Jerome Bettis. Even the two coaches who have guided the franchise since 1969 -- Chuck Noll and Bill Cowher -- can each claim a Super Bowl championship.
But, for the past 30 years, the Steelers have dominated one position in the National Football League more than any other team. And they did it with three consecutive players who were considered the best at that position during their tenure -- a feat that could be unmatched in NFL history. The position is center. The players are Mike Webster, Dermontti Dawson and Jeff Hartings.
"I think it definitely came about because of the emphasis the Steelers put on that position," said Hartings, a two-time All-Pro selection who has been their center since 2001. "They always make sure they have a reliable person there."
Reliable, to be sure. Consider: Webster, Dawson and Hartings have manned the position since 1974.
But it is more than just longevity. The three centers have combined to be selected to 14 NFL All-Pro teams -- or nearly half the time since 1975 -- and 18 Pro Bowl teams. Almost amazingly, each were the best at their position during their tenure.
Make no mistake, the Steelers have produced centers the way Shakespeare produced plays, establishing a standard that is difficult for any team or any position to match in terms of longevity and excellence.
"It's definitely unbelievable when you think about it," Hartings said.
Three of a kind
The Denver Broncos seem to keep churning out 1,000-yard running backs and the St. Louis Rams always seem to have a 1,000-yard receiver. And history has shown the San Francisco 49ers to produce an assembly line of Hall of Fame quarterbacks.
But the Steelers, for all their Super Bowl MVPs and Hall of Fame inductees, have become known as a pro football factory for centers. They replaced Webster, a Hall of Fame center, with Dawson, a seven-time Pro Bowl selection. They replaced Dawson, who retired in 2000, with Hartings, an All-Pro selection the past two years. In the history of the NFL, it is difficult to find three players in a row who dominated a position, any position, with one team the way Webster, Dawson and Hartings have for the Steelers.
Two is easy. Joe Montana and Steve Young. Jim Brown and Leroy Kelly. John Hadl and Dan Fouts. But try coming up with three players who replaced each other that established a standard as lofty as the Steelers' trio of centers. Even the research team at the Pro Football Hall of Fame had a difficult time coming up with a three-player lineage to match Webster-Dawson-Hartings (see accompanying chart).
"The only way you go 30 years with only three centers is to have longevity," said Hartings, who played five seasons in Detroit before signing as a free agent with the Steelers. "And the two of them had tremendous longevity."
Webster (7), Dawson (5) and Hartings (2) have combined to be named to the NFL All-Pro team 14 times since 1975. For comparison, Montana (8) and Young (4) combined to be named All-Pro as many times as Webster and Dawson.
Unlike the Pro Bowl, where two centers each from the American Football Conference and National Football Conference are selected, the All-Pro team selects just one center from the entire league as the best at his position.
Why do the Steelers produce great centers? After all, Dawson and Hartings were guards in college who were converted to center when they came to the Steelers.
"You have to have natural athletic ability," said Dawson, who lives and works in Lexington, Ky. "A lot of people like to say that centers are usually not your most-talented players, but there are a lot of responsibilities that go with it. They depend on you to make adjustments for the rest of the line."
If it weren't for Hall of Famer Webster, Dawson would be considered the franchise's greatest center. As it is, he remains one of their best offensive linemen, a center who was quicker and more athletic than Webster, and heavier (290).
"All of us have some of the same attributes," Dawson said. "You have to be quick in their offense, and you got to get your hands up. You let the defensive lineman control you, you're done. You have to be well-balanced and you can't be out of control. You have nose tackles and defensive tackles who are running stunts and slants, you have to be able to read [what they're doing] because someone will give it away sooner or later."
"You have to be smart to play the position," said former Pro Bowl tackle Tunch Ilkin, who was a collegiate center at Indiana State. "Under Chuck [Noll], you had to be smart, you had to know what's going. And you had to be tenacious and you had to be a decent athlete. It's the same thing now."
Time for a change?
The Steelers haven't drafted a center who actually became a full-time starter since Webster, a fifth-round pick in 1974.
Dawson was a guard at Kentucky when he was drafted in the second round in 1988 and actually played alongside Webster on the offensive line his first season with the Steelers. And Hartings was a guard who hadn't played center since grade school when the Steelers signed him as a free agent from the Detroit Lions in 2001.
Since '88, the Steelers have drafted four centers, none of whom were full-time starters -- Chuck Lanza (1988), Kendall Gammon (1992), Chukky Okobi (2001) and Drew Caylor (2004). Okobi remains with the team, but he has started just five games, all in 2002.
Could that change tomorrow?
When they make their first-round pick (No. 32) in the NFL draft, the Steelers could have a shot at Ohio State center Nick Mangold, a consensus pick as the best center available. Mangold (6-3, 300) has the potential to continue the Steelers' legacy of excellence -- and, hopefully, longevity.
He could sit and learn for one year and probably replace Hartings, who will be 34 in September, as the starter in the 2007 season. That's what Dawson did -- watched and learned under Webster for one season -- before becoming the starter in 1989.
Mangold might not be available when the Steelers get to pick at No. 32. The New York Jets, with the 29th pick in the first round, need a center after releasing perennial Pro Bowler Kevin Mawae in the offseason. Jacksonville might be inclined to take Mangold at No. 28.
"I think that when you look at where we are with our team, I think we are in a position that we are able to take the best player," said coach Bill Cowher. "I think we are not picking out of need. I think we have positioned ourselves to not feel we have to reach for anybody. I think if there is a good football player there at [No.] 32, even though you feel that where you are today is still pretty good ... you don't want to bypass a good football player."
Don't forget Mansfield
The Steelers have had that at center for 30 years. Before Webster, Ray Mansfield played there for 12 years, splitting three years with Jim Clack (1971-73) before Webster became the starter in 1975. Mansfield, who retired in 1976, did not enjoy the acclaim afforded his successors. But his longevity added to the position's lore for the Steelers -- only four centers in 40 years -- and created an anomaly for NFL centers who spend a career getting pounded in the head.
"Mike set the bar high for Dermontti, and Dermontti set the bar high for me to live up to," Hartings said. "Mike was like a 10-time Pro Bowler. I'll never achieve that because of the years I have remaining. But I think I have been able to live up to that standard of play the last two years."
In the annals of the NFL, it's a high standard for any player at any position to match. Let alone three of 'em.
Correction/Clarification: (Published April 28, 2006) For part of the April 28, 2006 news cycle the caption for this report on the role of centers in the Steelers lineup had incorrect dates for Dermontii Dawson's tenure in the position. He played center from 1988-2000.42 Years, 4 Centers Clockwise from upper left corner, Ray Mansfield was the center from 1964 to 1976. Mike Webster centered the offensive line from 1974 to 1988. Dermotti Dawson held the position from 1988 to 2000 while Jeff Hartings has anchored the line since 2001 and helped the Steelers win Super Bowl XL.
First Published April 28, 2006 12:00 am