Steelers: Saturday is judgment day for Dermontti Dawson
Chuck Noll, an old guard in his playing days with the Cleveland Browns, drafted one in 1988 in the second round from Kentucky. In the next round, he drafted a center from Notre Dame.
He and the Steelers believed they had just acquired two-thirds of their interior offensive line for the next decade. They were wrong, half wrong anyway. They found their center and missed badly on the other guy, but not the way they had planned.
Chuck Lanza, the center from Notre Dame, washed out quickly. Dermontti Dawson, the guard from Kentucky, moved to center one year later and not only succeeded Hall of Famer Mike Webster to continue the team's grand tradition at the position, but many believe he exceeded Webster's play over the next decade.
Dawson, among the finalists for the Pro Football Hall of Fame Class of 2010 that will be chosen Saturday in Miami, set a new standard for centers throughout the National Football League. Before Dawson, the center position featured men of strength to take on defensive tackles and nose tackles, and smart players who could call the pass protections and adjust blocking schemes for the entire line.
Dawson did that and more. He revolutionized the position because he also had such athletic ability, quickness and speed that he often led sweeps around end, blocked men not just in front of him but to his right, and rarely needed a double-team to block a defensive lineman as most centers did.
There are some who will say he was the greatest center who ever played in the NFL.
"I don't know if he was the first center to snap the football and lead on the sweep, but I've never seen a center do it as good," said Hall of Fame cornerback Rod Woodson. "The guy was a tremendous athlete, the strongest and probably most athletic offensive lineman I've ever seen."
Dick LeBeau has been in the game for 51 years and agrees with Woodson.
"He's the first guy I ever saw as a center pull and lead sweeps," said LeBeau, who coached against Dawson and with him. "And they would lead Dermontti on what we called the 'plus nose tackle,' the guy who sat outside his shoulder with the play going to that side. His blocking assignment was to cut that guy out of that onside gap, almost impossible. But Dermontti could do it because of his quickness. You just don't see that very often."
Dawson not only made seven Pro Bowls before hamstring injuries forced him into retirement after the 2000 season, he was chosen first-team All-Pro six times as the best center in the NFL. He earned the first-team nod at center on the NFL's Team of the Decade for the 1990s. He also was chosen as the NFL's offensive lineman of the year in 1993 and '96 by two organizations and he played in 170 consecutive games.
Those Steelers teams of the 1990s did not dominate the league running the ball just because they wanted to do it.
"To me he was the best athlete to ever play that position," said former Steelers coach Bill Cowher. "He was very powerful and explosive, just a rare combination of quickness, explosion, and he was a very dependable player. This guy hardly ever missed a game.
"He redefined the position. Looking schematically, when you start to design the center to pull after the snap, not many can do it. When you look at the numbers we had in the running game, everything we did worked from the inside out, and to have a guy like Dermontti and such stability, that was a staple of every offense we had."
Cowher might be considered biased on the topic of Dawson, Bill Belichick cannot.
"He was one of the best players that we have ever played against at that position," said Belichick, who played the Steelers twice annually when he coached the Browns in the 1990s. "He had exceptional quickness.
"I think that really is the measure of a center is his ability to play against powerful guys that are lined up over him and try to bull-rush the pocket and collapse it in the middle so that the quarterback can't step up. Dawson had great leverage and quickness with his hands and his feet where he did a great job of keeping that pocket clean for [Neil] O'Donnell and those guys who played behind him.
"The other thing that I think was a key to the Pittsburgh running game for years is when the nose tackle or the defensive tackle is offset to the play side; if you are running to the right and the nose tackle is lined up in the center-guard gap on the right, or sometimes even on the inside shoulder of the guard; that is a very hard block for the center to get. Defensively, you feel like they should not be able to cut him off from the center position, but Dawson made that block consistently."
That is precisely what LeBeau said. Belichick continued his praise of Dawson.
"Without him making those blocks inside, a lot of those runs for [Jerome] Bettis and [Barry] Foster would not have been able to get downhill like they did. As great as those Steelers' running games were over the last decade-and-a-half that I played against them, the effectiveness of the center position has had a lot to do with that. Dawson was outstanding; as well as his protection in the passing game."
Webster and Miami's Dwight Stephenson were considered two very different styles of centers. Webster had the strength, Stephenson the quickness. Both are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Stephenson played from 1980 to 1987, made six Pro Bowls, five All-Pro teams and was the center on the all-1980s decade team.
"People referred to Dwight as the No. 1 guy but I think Dermontti was every bit his equal in all phases of the game," LeBeau said. "He played ahead of Dermontti, year-wise, but still I think Dermontti was the guy who popularized the pulling center. Dwight did a little bit but Dermontti did it a lot."
Tunch Ilkin, a two-time Pro Bowl right tackle, played on the offensive line with Webster and then with Dawson, and played throughout Stephenson's era.
"In my day, we always argued with guys around the league who was better, Webby or Dwight Stephenson," Ilkin said. "Everyone who picked Dwight picked him because of his athleticism. Those who pick Webby picked him because of his strength, toughness and power.
"If you put them both together, you've got Dermontti Dawson."