Saturday, May 24, 2014

Centers Get Little Recognition from Hall of Fame Voters

By Dan Trammel
@HighwayToHall

This week 2 long-time centers celebrated birthdays: Ray Donaldson and Mick Tingelhoff. To mark the occasion, now is as good a time as any to discuss their qualifications for the Hall of Fame, as well as those of the other centers who have or may appear on the ballot.

First, to give us a baseline, let’s review the centers currently enshrined in Canton. Thirteen Hall of Famers are listed as centers or have center listed as one of the positions they played. The list is as follows, with the year enshrined in parentheses:

Mel Hein (1963)
Clyde “Bulldog” Turner (1966)
Jim Otto (1980)
Jim Ringo (1981)
Frank Gatski (1985)
Jim Langer (1987)
Mike Webster (1997)

The Hall’s inaugural class was 1963, meaning Hein was one of the charter members. It also means 5 centers were enshrined in the first 6 years of the Hall’s existence. Furthermore, the players enshrined in the 1960s played during the two-way era, so their enshrinements include their accomplishments as defensive players as well, which complicate our discussion somewhat. Nonetheless, we plow ahead.



As we have mentioned before, football differs from other sports in that not all players garner statistics. All 9 players in a baseball lineup can be measured by batting average, on base percentage, slugging percentage, etc. In football, offensive statistics are limited to the “skill” positions. Offensive linemen tend to be judged by how poorly (or well) the men they are blocking perform. This is definitely an eye-test. As a result, a lot of weight is given to the number of times a player was named All-Pro as well as whether or not they are a member of an All-Decade team. So let’s begin our discussion with this latter point: All-Decade teams.

1920s George Trafton
1930s Mel Hein; George Svendsen
1940s Charley Brock; Bulldog Turner; Alex Wojciechowicz
1950s Chuck Bednarik
1960s NFL Jim Ringo
1960s AFL Jim Otto; Jon Morris
1970s Jim Langer; Mike Webster
1980s Dwight Stephenson
1990s Dermontti Dawson; Mark Stepnoski
Note: Bruce Matthews was the All-Decade guard of the 1990s.

Of the 13 centers in the Hall of Fame, 12 were named to the All-Decade team. The only Hall of Famer who failed to garner this accolade is Frank Gatski, who coincidentally is the only Hall of Fame center selected by the Seniors’ Committee. Before we discuss Gatski’s qualifications, let’s look at selections to the All-Pro team. Twenty-one centers are credited with multiple 1st Team All-Pro selections, and only twelve are credited with 3 or more. Note, this list does not include Bednarik’s 5 selections or Matthews’ 7 selections, since most of those were for their performances at other positions. In order of most selections, the centers are as follows:

Jim Otto
10
Bulldog Turner
7
Dermontti Dawson
6
Jim Ringo
6
Mel Hein
5
Mick Tingelhoff
5
Mike Webster
5
Jim Langer
4
Dwight Stephenson
4
Frank Gatski
3
Kevin Mawae
3
Clyde Smith
3

Only two of our Hall of Famers are missing from this list: Trafton, who is one of the 9 centers with 2 All-Pro selections, and Wojociechowicz, who somehow never made one of the recognized All-Pro teams.



One last thing about the Hall of Fame centers is that they each dominated a period of time. Trafton was the top center of the 1920s, his career spanning from 1920-1932.[1] The other top centers fall neatly in line as follows:
Hein                 1931-1945 (5 time 1st Team All-Pro and 4 time 2nd Team)
Turner              1940-1952 (7 time 1st Team All-Pro)
Gatski              1946-1957 (3 time 1st Team All-Pro and 1 time 2nd Team)
Ringo               1953-1967 (6 time 1st Team All-Pro and 3 time 2nd Team)
Otto                 1960-1974 (10 time 1st Team All-Pro and 2 time 2nd Team)
Langer              1970-1981 (4 time 1st Team All-Pro and 2 time 2nd Team)
Webster           1974-1990 (5 time 1st Team All-Pro and 1 time 2nd Team)
Stephenson       1980-1987 (4 time 1st Team All-Pro and 1 time 2nd Team)
Dawson            1988-2000 (6 time 1st Team All-Pro)

No year is missed. And again, our other 3 Hall of Fame centers spent much of their careers at other positions. So the questions that remain are twofold:

(1)   Has someone who was the 2nd or 3rd best center of his generation been overlooked for enshrinement?; and
(2)   Who is the best of the post-Dawson centers and is he deserving of Canton?

Let’s compile our list of names and address them individually. First, the all-decade selections not in Canton: George Svendsen, Charley Brock, Jon Morris, Mark Stepnoski, Kevin Mawae, and Olin Kreutz.

Now, the players named 1st Team All-Pro at least twice: Mick Tingelhoff (5), Clyde Smith (3), Mawae (3), Doc Alexander (2), Forrest Blue (2), Bob DeMarco (2), Jay Hilgenberg (2), Kent Hull (2), Tom Nalen (2), Jeff Saturday (2), and Nick Mangold (2).

Finally, although there is no indication the voters look at Pro Bowl selections when it comes to centers, let’s throw in the guys who are at least 6-time Pro Bowlers: Mawae (8), Hilgenberg (7), Morris (7), Matt Birk (6), Ray Donaldson (6), Kreutz (6), Rich Saul (6), Doug Smith (6), and Tingelhoff (6).



This gives us a pretty comprehensive list of those centers with the best Hall of Fame arguments, and most of the names that have appeared on the preliminary ballot. But let’s go ahead and add the names of the other players who have been named to the preliminary ballot over the last 15 years. That gives us these names: Jeff Bostic, Randy Cross, Dave Dalby, Joe Fields, Don Mosebar, Bart Oates, and Jeff Van Note.

Doc Alexander
With 40 career games, Alexander is not a serious Hall candidate. His inclusion on this list is entirely based on two 1st Team All-Pro selections in his only two full seasons of action.

Matt Birk
Birk was an All-Ivy League tackle at Harvard and 1 of 2 offensive players selected by the Vikings in the 1998 Draft (you may have heard of the other one: Randy Moss). He served as a reserve lineman for 2 seasons before replacing Jeff Christy as the starting center in 2000. He proceeded to start every Vikings game for the next 4 ½ seasons before sports hernias and hip surgeries limited him to 12 games in 2004 and caused him to miss the entire 2005 season. He never missed another start, although his last 4 seasons were spent in a Ravens uniform.

In his 11 seasons in Minnesota, Birk started 123 games and was named to 6 Pro Bowls, but earned only 1 2nd Team AP All-Pro nod. He signed a free agent contract with the Ravens in 2009 and spent his final 4 seasons in Baltimore, retiring after the team’s victory in Super Bowl XLVII.

Forrest Blue
A mountain of a man, Blue is 1 of 5 centers standing 6’6 or taller to appear in 100 or more games. And he is the only 1 of the 5 whose career began before 1983. He was large enough to handle nose tackles one-on-one, and quick enough to cutoff the linebacker when facing a 4-3 defense.

Blue was the 15th selection of the 1968 NFL Draft by the 49ers, and, after serving as a backup to Bruce Bosley as a rookie, took over the starting position in 1969. Between 1970 and 1972, the 49ers won the NFC West each season, twice reaching the NFC Championship Game. In each season, San Francisco finished in the top 10 in both points scored and yards gained. Blue was named a Pro Bowler each year from 1971 to 1974, and was selected 1st Team All-Pro in 1971 and 1972, making the 2nd Team in 1973.



After failing to sufficiently recover from a knee injury (the official story) or for speaking out on team problems (the unofficial story), the 49ers traded Blue to Baltimore on the eve of the 1975 season for a 1978 3rd Round pick (Ernie Hughes) and other incentive-based picks which weren’t met. The 49ers rolled the dice with former World Football League player Bill Reid who, after one season as the San Francisco starter, injured his knee and was replaced by rookie Randy Cross. Blue was unable to supplant coach’s favorite Ken Mendenhall as the Colts center and spent four seasons as a backup until a back injury forced him to retire.

Blue died on July 16, 2011.

Jeff Bostic
One Pro Bowl selection in a 14-year NFL career, but 3 Super Bowl rings as a member of the famed “Hogs” and Bostic appears on our list. Undrafted out of college, Bostic signed with Philadelphia, but was released in training camp. He signed with the Redskins as a long snapper, before becoming the starting center his second season. He started 49 consecutive games before blowing out his knee in 1984. After missing the beginning of the 1985 season, Bostic returned to the lineup and won the team’s Ed Block Courage Award for comeback player of the year. In 1987, he lost his starting position when Washington decided to move Russ Grimm to center. But an injury to Grimm allowed Bostic to regain his position and lead the ‘Skins to the Super Bowl. In 1989, he was named Redskin of the Year by the Washington Quarterback Club. He retired following the 1993 season with 184 career games, 7th on the Redskins all-time list.



Charley Brock
After a career at Nebraska which saw him earn All-Big Six Conference honors at center each year from 1936 to 1938, Brock was selected in the 3rd round (#24) of the 1939 draft by the Packers. In 9 NFL seasons, he was named to 3 Pro Bowls and served as Packers team captain his last 4 seasons. He also starred on defense, intercepting 20 passes. Through the 1945 season, he ranked 3rd all-time in interceptions behind only Hall of Famers Sammy Baugh and Don Hutson.

Green Bay posted a winning record in each of his 9 seasons with the club. During his tenure, the Packers were 66-27-4 and won 2 NFL Championships. After his retirement, the Packers failed to have a winning record in any of the next 11 seasons. He was inducted into the University of Nebraska Hall of Fame in 1972 and the Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame in 1973, before passing away in 1987.

Randy Cross
1989 Miller Lite Commercial starring Randy Cross:
Randy: “I’m tired of us centers getting no recognition. I played 13 seasons in front of millions of fans, made All-Pro twice, and started in 3 Super Bowls. Yet no one knows who I am. Hey, even if I am not well known, at least my beer is: Miller Lite. An All-Pro center doesn’t want some watered-down version of a regular beer. I want the less filling beer that tastes great.”
Woman patron bumps into Randy, dropping her purse: “Oh, excuse me.”
Randy, bending down to retrieve the woman’s purse: “Let me get that.”
Woman: “Hey, aren’t you Randy Cross?”

Cross essentially sums up his credentials in the commercial. A 2nd Round pick by the 49ers in 1976, Cross appeared in 185 games, was named to 3 Pro Bowls, and was a 2nd Team AP All-Pro 3 times. Presumably, in the commercial, he references his selection to the Pro Football Weekly All-Pro teams in 1981 and 1984. He started in 3 Super Bowls, retiring after the 49ers victory over the Bengals in 1989, a game in which he played horribly. Although listed as a center, Cross spent approximately half of his career as a guard.

Cross also serves as a historical footnote, as he and Joe Montana were the only 2 men on the field for both “the Catch” and John Taylor’s game-winning touchdown in Super Bowl XXIII.

Dave Dalby
Dalby was only selected to one Pro Bowl. And he was never named an All-Pro. But he anchored the Raiders offensive line for more than a decade. After Hall of Famer Jim Otto finally retired after 15 seasons as the Raiders’ center, Dalby took over the starting position in 1975, and held it through the first two games of the 1985 season, when he was replaced by Don Mosebar (see below). Despite losing his starting position, Dalby continued to snap for punts and field goals, and increased his consecutive game streak of 205 games, before being released in the 1986 preseason. In that time, the Raiders won 3 Super Bowls. Only Dalby, Cliff Branch, and Ted Hendricks started in all 3 Raiders Super Bowl victories.



In his 14 seasons, the Raiders reached the playoffs 11 times, with a 15-8 postseason record. Overall, they had a regular season record of 145-58-2.

He was killed in a car accident on August 30, 2002.

Bob DeMarco
DeMarco was a futures selection in the 1960 NFL Draft, selected by the Cardinals in the 14th Round despite having a year of collegiate eligibility remaining. He graduated in 1961 and joined the Cardinals that season. He spent a season at guard then served as the starting center from 1962 through 1969, earning 3 Pro Bowl berths and two 1st-Team and two 2nd-Team All-Pro selections. During this period, the Cardinals boasted one of the top offensive lines in the NFL. In 1967, 4 of the starting linemen (DeMarco, guards Ken Gray and Irv Goode, and tackle Ernie McMillan) were named to the Pro Bowl. The fifth lineman, tackle Bob Reynolds, was Pro Bowl bound the previous season as well as the next two, but somehow missed out that year.

Despite the Cards’ offensive talent, they failed to make the playoffs with DeMarco in uniform. A contract dispute led him to sign with Miami following the 1969 season, and he served as the Dolphins starting center in 1970 and 1971.



Not only was 1970 DeMarco’s first season in Miami, it was also Don Shula’s first season as the Dolphins’ head coach. Shula hired recently retired Monte Clark as offensive line coach. They wanted Bob Griese to stay in the pocket longer and Griese told them to build him a better offensive line. So the Dolphins set out to do that, acquiring Jim Langer off of waivers and signing Wayne Moore and Bob Kuechenberg. Over the course of the 1970 season, the offensive line showed considerable improvement. In 1971, it became a force. By 1972, it was on the verge of being the most dominant line in the NFL. As Clark saw it, they just needed a change at center. Shula insisted DeMarco was the center, until Clark threatened to resign if Langer was not inserted into the position. A week before the opener, Langer was told he was starting. The Dolphins went undefeated that season and Langer’s career ended in the Hall of Fame.

DeMarco was traded to Cleveland for a 7th Round pick in the 1973 draft (Willie Hatter). He replaced incumbent Fred Hoaglin and started for three seasons before a coaching change led to his exodus. He spent one season with the Rams before retiring following the 1975 season.

Ray Donaldson
Drafted in the 2nd Round (#32 overall) by the Baltimore Colts in the 1980 Draft, Donaldson was the first African-American center to be drafted in NFL history, selected 16 picks ahead of future Hall of Famer Dwight Stephenson. Donaldson backed up Ken Mendenhall as a rookie before becoming the starter in his second season.

Unfortunately, Donaldson was stuck on bad teams and, for the most part, lost in Stephenson’s reign as the dominant center in the NFL. Donaldson started 127 games for a Colts team that posted a 55-88 record, lost at least 11 games 4 times, and reached the playoffs only once. Nonetheless, Donaldson was named to 4 consecutive Pro Bowls, was named to the AP All-Pro 2nd Team once, and helped the Colts establish team rushing records in 1983 and 1985. In 2013, the Indianapolis Star selected him as the center on the Colts all-time team over Jeff Saturday.



The Colts waived Donaldson after the 1992 season due to his advanced age (he would turn 35 before the next season). He then signed a two-year contract with Seattle, where he helped lead Chris Warren to consecutive 1,000 yard rushing seasons, which included 1,545 yards in 1994, a total that trailed only Barry Sanders. Not only did Donaldson not miss a game with Seattle, he did not miss an offensive play.

After the season, Donaldson moved on to Dallas to replace Mark Stepnoski (see below). He helped Emmitt Smith rush for a team record 1,773 yards, but, unfortunately, broke his leg and missed out on the Cowboys Super Bowl title. He played one more season in Dallas, making a 2nd consecutive Pro Bowl, and then retired.

His 228 career starts rank 22nd all-time, and third among centers (Tinglehoff (240) and Mawae (238). Only twice did Donaldson miss time as a result of an injury, each time because of broken legs.

Joe Fields
Despite being drafted in the 14th Round of the 1975 Draft, Fields served as the Jets’ starting center for 12 seasons. He was a team captain for 8 years, played in 2 Pro Bowls, and was the center on the first All-Madden team in 1984. He was twice named a 2nd Team AP All-Pro and was selected to the 1st Team in 1982.

Jay Hilgenberg
Wally Hilgenberg was released by the Steelers in 1968. Coming off of a knee injury, he thought his career was over. Jim Finks, general manager of the Vikings, felt differently and signed Hilgenberg, who went on to start in 4 Super Bowls for Minnesota.[2]

Fast forward to 1981. Wally is the uncle of an undrafted center out of Iowa named Jay and Finks is general manager of the Bears. Uncle Wally informs Mr. Finks that he should give his nephew a shot. Finks obliges and Hilgenberg becomes a fixture on the Bears’ offensive line for more than a decade.[3]



Hilgenberg served as a backup to Dan Neal for 2 ½ seasons, before earning his first start on October 30, 1983. Combined with the addition of tackle Jim Covert and guard Mark Bortz, the Bears featured the top-ranked running game in the NFL for the next 4 seasons. After struggling during the 1987 strike season, the running game again ranked in the top 3 from 1988-1990. During this period, Hilgenberg was named a 1st Team AP All-Pro twice and a 2nd Teamer twice. He also was a regular in Honolulu, reaching the Pro Bowl 7 consecutive years from 1985 to 1991.

After a contract dispute, Hilgenberg was traded to Cleveland. The next season, the Browns drafted Steve Everitt, and released Hilgenberg, who finished up his career with one season in New Orleans, serving primarily as a backup to his brother Joel, before retiring as a result of a heart condition.

Kent Hull
Hull was the 3rd pick of the 7th round (#75 overall) by the New Jersey Generals of the 1983 USFL Draft out of Mississippi State. He was named 1st Team All-USFL in 1985 when he helped pave the way for Herschel Walker to set the professional record for single-season rushing yardage. When the USFL fell apart, the Buffalo Bills signed Hull the day after signing quarterback Jim Kelly. He immediately became the starting center and was an integral part of their success. With Kelly, Thurman Thomas, and Andre Reed leading the Bills’ K-Gun Offense, Buffalo made 8 playoff appearances in 9 seasons, which unfortunately included 4 Super Bowl losses.



In 11 seasons, Hull appeared in 170 games. He only missed 2 games (3 starts) in his Buffalo career, when off-season knee surgery caused him to miss the start of the 1993 season.

According to SI’s Paul Zimmerman (Dr. Z), “Hull’s greatness as a player and a leader on the field (I will be his most vehement supporter when he comes up for Hall of Fame nomination in a few years) was that he made all the line calls and kept things kosher.”[4]

Hull retired following the 1996 season, along with Kelly, and was added to the Bills Wall of Fame in 2002.

He passed away on October 18, 2011, due to intestinal bleeding.

Olin Kreutz
There have been many bad drafts through the years. But clearly NFL executives were not paying attention in 1998. “Peyton Manning. Ryan Leaf. Andre Wadsworth. Charles Woodson…The top four players are easy to identify. Though there is continuing debate about which quarterback should be selected first, there is no debate that Manning, Leaf, Wadsworth, and Woodson clearly are the best prospects in the draft.”[5] Clearly. Future Hall of Famers Randy Moss, Alan Faneca, and Hines Ward would probably like to speak a few words on the subject, but their careers will do that for them. Olin Kreutz would also like to share his thoughts.



After an All-American career at Washington, Kreutz was the highest rated center in the NFL Draft, but inexplicably fell to the 3rd Round (#64 overall). The 1st Round included Leaf and Wadsworth, as well as such stellar performers as Curtis Enis, Duane Starks, Jason Peter, Anthony Simmons, Terry Fair, and R.W. McQuarters. Teams left a lot of talent on the board, as 7 future Pro Bowlers were selected in the 3rd Round alone.

Everyone’s loss was the Bears’ gain as Kreutz spent 13 seasons in a Chicago uniform, starting 187 games and being named to 6 consecutive Pro Bowls. Despite being named to only two AP All-Pro Teams, once to the 1st Team and once to the 2nd Team, he was selected to the All-Decade Team of the 2000s.

Nick Mangold
An active player, Mangold cannot be properly evaluated after only 8 seasons. But with 2 1st Team All-Pro selections, he is one of the frontrunners for the top center for the post-2006 era.

Kevin Mawae
Dermontti Dawson’s last All-Pro selection was in 1998. Mawae’s first All-Pro selection was in 1998, to the AP 2nd Team. Over the next 11 seasons, Mawae achieved the following:

8 Pro Bowl selections
3-time 1st Team AP All-Pro
4-time 2nd Team AP All-Pro
Member of the 2000s All-Decade Team

He is eligible for the Hall of Fame in 2015



Jon Morris
What does a man get for being the 2nd best center in the AFL?
(1)   A trip to the Pro Bowl in each of his first 7 seasons (a total which ties him with Tom Brady for 2nd all-time among Patriots, trailing only John Hannah’s 9);
(2)   Three 2nd Team All-Pro selections, although Morris was 1st Team All-AFL in 1966, the only time in the history of the AFL someone other than Jim Otto received the honor;
(3)   Zero postseason appearances in 15 seasons and 182 career games; and
(4)   Induction into the Patriots’ Hall of Fame 37 years after he last played for them.

Don Mosebar
The 1983 NFL Draft was one of the greatest ever…for every position other than center that is. 17 centers were selected, with only 2 (Mosebar and Jesse Sapolu) being named Pro Bowlers. A center was not selected until pick No. 25 of the 1st Round when Cincinnati chose Dave Rimington. The Raiders then selected Mosebar with the 26th pick. The two Super Bowl participants (Miami and Washington) were overjoyed with their good fortune and selected Dan Marino (No. 27) and Darrell Green (No. 28) respectively.

An All-American tackle at USC, the Raiders moved Mosebar around during his career. He was a reserve tackle as a rookie on the Raiders’ 1983 Super Bowl team. He was the team’s starting right guard in 1984 before supplanting Dave Dalby as the starting center in 1985. He earned the first of his 3 Pro Bowl trips in 1986 but in 1988 he was moved back to tackle. He returned to center in 1989 and remained there the rest of his career. After 173 career games, and 93 consecutive starts, Mosebar was forced to retire due to an eye injury sustained in the 1995 training camp.   

Tom Nalen
Despite being ranked among the top 5 centers in the 1994 NFL Draft, Nalen fell all the way to the 7th Round. In fact only 4 players were selected after him.[6] The Broncos selected him with a pick acquired from the Giants in exchange for wide receiver Arthur Marshall. But frankly, the 1994 draft was a bit of a mess across the board. Look at these gems:
(1)   The Giants selected Thomas Lewis as the 3rd receiver ahead of, among others, Isaac Bruce and undrafted Rod Smith;
(2)   The quarterback with the most passing yards (21,291) is Gus Frerotte, a 7th round selection, with nearly 6 times more passing yards than the number 3 overall pick Heath Shuler (3,691);
(3)   Of the 28 running back selected, only 4 made the Pro Bowl, including a 5th (Dorsey Levens) and 7th rounder (Jamal Anderson); and
(4)   The Eagles picked Wisconsin tackle Joe Panos in the 3rd Round to play center as they thought more of his potential than Tom Nalen.

After initially making the Broncos’ 53-man roster, Nalen was released 4 days after training camp when Karl Mecklenburg decided to return for his 12th season. Nalen cleared waivers and was signed to the practice squad. Despite having the full allotment of five players on the practice squad, offensive tackle Kenny Hall required shoulder surgery, allowing him to be placed on injured reserve and freeing up a spot for Nalen.



After a rash of injuries, the Broncos were down to only six healthy linemen, so they activated Nalen from the practice squad for the Week 6 game against Seattle. He started the Week 10 game at left guard after Jon Melander sprained his ankle. He spent the remainder of the season as a backup guard.

When Keith Kartz was forced to retire after a skiing accident, and Dave Widell moved on to Jacksonville, Nalen beat out Bill Lewis and Ralph Tamm for the starting center position in 1995. He missed a Week 4 start after injuring his knee, then started 115 straight games before a torn ACL cut short his 2002 season. He didn’t miss another start until he missed most of the 2007 season with a torn biceps and all of the 2008 season following knee surgery. He then retired.

But he was the center of a dominant era for the Broncos. Between 1995 and 2006, the Broncos won the most games (123, Green Bay is second with 121), produced the most rushing yards (27,174, Pittsburgh is second with 25,964)), the most rushing yards per attempt (4.5, Minnesota is second with 4.4 with 867 fewer rushes), the most individual 1,000-yard seasons (11), and the most individual 100-yard rushing games (88)[7] in the league.

The Broncos won 2 Super Bowls while Nalen earned 5 Pro Bowl spots and was twice named a 1st Team All-Pro, and once named to the 2nd Team.

Bart Oates
Like Kent Hull (above), Oates began his professional career in the USFL. A 2nd Round pick by the Philadelphia Stars, Oates was named 1st Team All-USFL in 1984. In his 3 USFL seasons, he led the Stars to 3 Championship Game appearances, winning 2.

As the USFL was folding, the New York Giants were having significant issues at the center position. On January 24, 1985, Giants starting center Kevin Belcher was involved in an automobile accident. During the preseason, the Giants were using Conrad Goode, a converted tackle, to man the center position. Other centers in training camp were Rich Umphrey and rookies Brian Johnson and Jack Belcher. Unhappy with this cast of characters, the Giants signed Oates to a 4-year/$1.1 million contract after a long 6-week quest to have Oates released from his contractual obligations with the Stars.

Oates joined the Giants in time for their final preseason game but pulled a hamstring in his first practice. Goode began the 1985 season as the starter, but after he struggled against the Packers in Week 2, Oates took over the spot and held it for the next 8+ seasons, starting every game until late in the 1992 season. head coach Ray Handley benched him for Brian Williams late in the 1992 season.



Oates paid immediate dividends for New York, helping the club set team records for rushing yards (since eclipsed by the 2008 squad) and rushing touchdowns (still standing) while helping the club win 10 games for the first time since 1963. A season later, the Giants went 14-2 on the way to a Super Bowl title, and Oates helped pave the way for Joe Morris to set the Giants single-season rushing record (since passed by Tiki Barber 3 times).

After a losing record during the strike-marred 1987 season, the Giants returned to their winning ways, winning 10 or more games each of the next 3 seasons, culminating in a Super Bowl victory in 1990. In 1990, Oates also received the first of 3 Pro Bowl invitations as a Giant. Unfortunately, it was also Bill Parcells’ last season on the Giants sideline, as Ray Handley took over. Handley benched Oates late in the 1992 season in favor of Brian Williams. Under Dan Reeves in 1993, Oates and Williams split time at the center position. So, despite being offered more money by the Giants, Oates signed a free agent contract with the 49ers prior to the 1994 season. In his 2 seasons in San Francisco, he was named to 2 Pro Bowls and helped lead them to a Super Bowl title. He asked for his release after the 1995 season so he could retire as a Giant.

Jeff Saturday
Saturday was a 2-time 1st Team All-ACC selection, captaining the North Carolina Tar Heels to a 21-3 record his last 2 seasons. Nonetheless, Saturday was considered “too small,” “too short,” and “too slow” to make it in the NFL. He signed as an undrafted free agent with the Baltimore Ravens but was cut during a mini-camp in 1998.

While Saturday was working as the manager of an electrical supply store, his former college roommate Nate Hobgood-Chittick, then an Indianapolis Colt, told the powers-that-be in Indy about Saturday, and they brought him in for a tryout. Impressed enough by what they saw, the Colts invited him to mini-camp in the Spring of 1999. With the untimely death of guard Brandon Burlsworth 2 weeks after the 1999 draft, the Colts had an unexpected opening on the offensive line. Saturday made the team and appeared in 11 games at guard. He started two games that season when starter Steve McKinney underwent an appendectomy, earning a game ball after his first start.

In Saturday’s second season, the Colts moved center Larry Moore to guard and Saturday became the new starting center. He proceeded to start every game the next 4 seasons, before missing 2 starts in 2004 with a torn right calf. He didn’t miss another game until 2008, when a knee injury forced him to sit out 4 games. Those were the only 6 games he missed in his 12 seasons as the Colts starting center. In that time, he earned 5 Pro Bowl trips and was named a 1st Team All-Pro in 2005 and 2007 and a 2nd Team All-Pro in 2006.



With Peyton Manning as the Colts quarterback, Indianapolis went 138-54 between 1999 and 2010, winning one Super Bowl and finishing with only one losing season. Saturday was the perfect complement to Manning: an intelligent player who seamlessly made last second blocking adjustments to keep up with Manning’s audibles. However, in 2011, a Manning injury forced Curtis Painter into quarterbacking duties and the Colts slipped to 2-14. Following the season, Saturday moved on to Green Bay, where he played one year with the Packers, earning a 6th trip to Honolulu, before retiring. In that Pro Bowl game, Saturday, despite playing for the NFC squad, was given the opportunity to snap the ball to AFC quarterback Peyton Manning one last time.

In all, Saturday appeared in 211 games with 202 starts. His 20 postseason games rank 3rd among centers, behind Dalby (above) and Frank Winters.

Rich Saul
Saul was a defensive star in college. He led Michigan State in tackles in both 1967 and 1968 and was named 1st Team All-Big 10 in 1969 as a defensive end/linebacker. He and his twin brother Ron were both named 1st Team Academic All-Americans in 1969, the first brother combination to do so in the same season. Saul was drafted in the 8th Round of the 1970 NFL Draft by the Rams (his brother was selected in the 5th round by Houston).



He began his NFL career as a special teams standout, serving as a backup at center, guard, and tackle. He eventually succeeded Ken Iman as the starting center in 1975. Saul only started for 7 seasons, retiring in 1981. But he crammed quite a career in those few years, reaching the Pro Bowl in each of his final 6 seasons in the NFL, an accomplishment matched or exceeded by only 14 men.[8] The Rams reached the playoffs in 6 of his 7 seasons as a starter, failing to reach the postseason only in his final year.

Suffering many years from leukemia, Saul died on April 15, 2012.

Clyde Smith
Similar to Alexander, Smith only played 3 full seasons for a total of 33 games. But he received All-Pro accolades each of those 3 seasons. He is not a serious candidate.

Doug Smith
Smith signed with the Rams as an undrafted free agent out of Bowling Green in 1978. With Rich Saul (above) as the starting center, the other centers were competing for a backup spot. Unfortunately for Smith, the Rams had selected Leon White out of Colorado in the 3rd Round (#80 overall) that year. The use of a high pick on a player usually guarantees their spot on the roster. But as fate would have it, White underwent several knee operations and never played a down in the NFL, although he later made a name for himself in professional wrestling as “Big Van Vader.” Smith ultimately made the team and spent his first 4 seasons rotating between the two guard spots, and sometimes right tackle, before Saul finally retired.



Smith took over the starting spot in 1982, and during the next decade he was named to 6 consecutive Pro Bowls and helped pave the way for 7 consecutive 1000 yard rushing seasons, including Eric Dickerson’s record-setting 2,105 yards in 1984. The Rams also made 6 playoff appearances during this time, ending with an appearance in the 1989 NFC Championship Game.

Smith would eventually lose his starting job to 1st Round pick Bern Brostek in 1991 and then his backup spot to Blair Bush during the 1992 preseason, as the Rams preferred the backup center to also serve as the long snapper.[9]  Following his retirement, the Rams would fail to post a winning record until the magical 1999 Super Bowl season.

Mark Stepnoski
A 4-year starting guard at Pittsburgh, Stepnoski finished 3rd in one of history’s most controversial Outland Trophy results, behind winner Tracy Rocker and runner-up Tony Mandarich. Named to various 1st Team All-American teams as a senior, the AP placed him on its 2nd Team, behind Oklahoma’s Anthony Phillips and Washington State’s Mike Utley.

The Cowboys drafted Stepnoski with the 1st pick of the 3rd Round of the 1989 NFL Draft. Although a guard in college, Dallas drafted him with the intent of moving him to center. With 4 games remaining in his rookie season, he earned the starting position. Comically undersized, Stepnoski possessed extraordinary strength, as well as quickness, intelligence, and great leveraging ability.

The Cowboys first Pro Bowl center since Dave Manders in 1966, Stepnoski made 3 consecutive Pro Bowl trips and was twice a 2nd Team All-Pro while helping Dallas to back-to-back Super Bowl titles in 1992 and 1993. But he missed out on the third by signing a 4-year/$9.2 million contract with the Houston Oilers in 1995. With Houston (and later Tennessee), Stepnoski made 2 more Pro Bowl appearances and was again named a 2nd Team All-Pro. But they enjoyed no team success as Houston/Tennessee did not finish higher than 8-8 during his term.



Stepnoski returned to Dallas in 1999 after signing a 5-year/$10.5 million contract. But the Cowboys were clearly not the same team that Stepnoski had left. Released in 2002 as a cost-cutting measure, Stepnoski retired from the NFL.

George Svendsen
With 52 career games, only 31 of which took place in the 1930s, Svendsen was a bizarre choice for 1 of the 2 All-Decade centers of the 1930s. Like Alexander and Clyde Smith, Svendsen has no chance for induction, and rightfully so.

Mick Tingelhoff
Very little needs to be said about Mick Tingelhoff…and his absence from the Hall of Fame is an absolute injustice. An undrafted free agent out of Nebraska, Tingelhoff spent 17 seasons in a Minnesota Vikings uniform, never missing a game. He appeared in every preseason, regular season, and postseason game for 17 years. And outside of the first preseason game of his rookie year, he started every one: 240 consecutive regular season games, 19 postseason games, and 89 of 90 preseason games.

He was a 6-time Pro Bowler and a 5-time 1st Team All-Pro. He led the Vikings to 10 division titles, 5 conference championship games, and 4 Super Bowls.

The Vikings retired his #53 in 2001.

Jeff Van Note
Similar to Rich Saul, Van Note was a defensive standout in college, and was named 2nd Team All-SEC at defensive end in 1966. He was Kentucky’s MVP in 1968, and in 1990, both the Lexington Herald-Leader and the Louisville Courier-Journal named him as a defensive lineman on the All-Time Kentucky team (selected in honor of the 100th season of Kentucky football). Although drafted as a linebacker by the Falcons in the 11th Round of the 1969 Draft, on the first day of training camp, coach Norm Van Brocklin sent him to play offense and learn the center position. There were 8 other centers in camp. He spent 8 weeks in the minor leagues at Huntsville before returning to the club for good. Van Note spent the next 17 seasons in a Falcons uniform, only missing 4 games. His 246 career games with 1 team rank 11th all-time and it ranks 9th among players who never wore another team’s uniform.[10]



Unfortunately for Van Note, the Falcons were terrible for most of his tenure, finishing with a winning record just 5 times, and only reaching the postseason on 3 occasions. Adding insult to injury, in each of the team’s 3 playoff appearances, the Falcons failed to hold second half leads.

Despite toiling for one of the NFL’s worst teams, Van Note was considered one of the top players at his position, reaching 5 Pro Bowls and twice being selected a 2nd Team All-Pro. The Falcons retired his #57 during his final home game in 1986.

Final Verdict
Mawae and Tinglehoff will be the next two centers enshrined in Canton, as Mawae is clearly the best of the post-Dawson centers and Tinglehoff’s credentials are too overwhelming to be ignored forever. All of the other centers will get tossed to the Seniors Committee. As evidenced by the Committee’s failure to nominate Tinglehoff, it is difficult to see whose name, if any, from the above list may eventually be called. Our guess would be among Hull, Nalen, Oates, Hilgenberg, Saturday, and Charley Brock. Each were highly regarded players who contributed significantly to Championship (or in Hull’s case near-Championship) teams. But in again looking at the centers currently in the Hall, the next center enshrined after Mawae and Tinglehoff will most likely be whoever emerges as the top center in the post-Mawae era.




[1] Trafton was the top center of the 1920s. Trafton, Clyde Smith (3), and Doc Alexander (2) were the only 3 centers that decade to be named 1st team All-Pro multiple times. But Smith only played in 33 career games and Alexander appeared in 40, while Trafton’s 148 games far outdistanced everyone.
[2] See Berghaus, Bob. Black and Blue: A Smash-Mouth History of the NFL’s Roughest Division. p. 96. Clerisy Press. 2008.
[3] Id. at 96-97.
[4] Zimmerman, Paul. Untold stories of the wild-card wars. Sports Illustrated. Jan. 7, 1999. Available at http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/football/nfl/1998/playoffs/news/1999/01/05/drz_onfootball/
[5] Pompei, Dan and Dennis Dillon. NFL Draft: April 18-19 After the top four, the fun begins. Charleston Daily Mail (WV). 1C. Apr. 11, 1998.
[6] Tight end Tracy Greene, linebacker Lemanski Hall, defensive back Filmel Johnson, and linebacker Marty Moore.
[7] The Broncos were an incredible 70-18 in those games.
[9] Ironically, Bush was born on the same day as Smith and happened to be the 1st center drafted in the 1978 Draft, the draft which came and went without Smith’s name being called.
[10] Jason Hanson, Bruce Matthews, Darrell Green, Jim Marshall, Lou Groza, Jackie Slater, David Binn, Brett Favre, Mike Kenn, and Pat Leahy. Favre and Marshall both spent time with other teams. As a side note, special mention should be given to Matt Stover, who played in 287 games with the Cleveland Browns/Baltimore Ravens. Since they are technically 2 different franchises, he does not make the list. 

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