Sports fans love lists and comparisons. Who are the Top 10 QBs ever? Who are the greatest teams ever? Who is better — Emmitt Smith or Barry Sanders? However, only Pittsburgh Steeler fans will understand the importance of this list. Only a lover of the Black-and-Gold will enjoy debating who are the Top 5 Centers in franchise history!
Fans of the National Football League’s other 31 teams might roll their eyes and look incredulous that anyone would take even the slightest interest in the Center position, but not a Yinzer. Perhaps, no other team has had a successful run at a particular position other than the Steelers at Center.
For years, the truest Steeler’s fans, have understood and appreciated the value of the NFL Center and the intelligence needed to excel as opposed to your average league-wide fan. The ability to accurately snap the ball, call offensive line protections, draw a defense offside, and to lock down a 350-lb Nose Tackle are all components valued by any NFL front offices. Since the 1966 season, the Steelers are the one team to routinely find not only star players, but also are fortunate enough to add all-time greats to their roster. It should come as no surprise then that the Steeler’s have also been one of the most successful NFL teams having the best league-wide record since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger.
5. Jeff Hartings (#64)
When a 2-time Pro Bowler, 2-time All-Pro, and 1-time Super Bowl Champion is only #5 on your list, rest assured that you are looking at a special list. Jeff Hartings is the only player listed that started and played a sizable portion of his career for another team. A two-time All-American at Penn State, Hartings was a former 1st-Round pick of the Detroit Lions from 1996 to 2000 where he played Guard. The 2001 season brought him to Pittsburgh as a Free Agent where he would slide into the role vacated by all-time great, Dermontti Dawson. From 2001 to 2006, Jeff anchored a line that blocked for a running attack led by Jerome Bettis and ‘Fast’ Willie Parker culminating in a Super Bowl XL victory over the Seattle Seahawks. Hartings would retire in 2006 citing on-going knee issues.
4. Ray Mansfield (#56)
Every list has its beginning and this one traces its legacy to Ray Mansfield. Drafted in the 2nd-Round by the Philadelphia Eagles as a Defensive Tackle, Ray Mansfield made his way to the Steelers the following season. Then in 1966, Mansfield switched to Center and began the longest stretch of unbroken success at a position in Steeler history at the time by playing in 180 games. Ray was a 2-time Pro Bowler and a 2-time 2nd team All-Pro. His skill was so great that Mansfield was one of the few players that Hall of Fame Coach Chuck Noll kept as a legacy after taking over in the 1969 season and before beginning his Super Bowl run. Ray anchored a line that culminated with two Super Bowl Championships (IX and X respectively) after the 1974 and 1975 seasons before retiring.
3. Maurkice Pouncey (#53)
For Maurkice Pouncey to only be considered the greatest center in franchise history is extremely telling of just how truly great #1 and #2 are. Pouncey started right away in the 2010 season as a rookie having been drafted in the 1st-Round and #18 overall. It was the highest draft position by a Center in the NFL in over a decade and he was well worth the investment. Maurkice, and his twin brother Mike, anchored a University of Florida line helmed by Tim Tebow which completed a 2009 BCS Championship season. Mike, would later, go on himself to be a Pro Bowl center for the Miami Dolphins, and now (as of 2019) the Los Angeles Chargers. Only little brother Maurkice keeps Mike from even more honors and accolades. From the beginning, Maurkice was a force, teaming with another 1st-Round Pick, Guard David DeCastro in the pass-happy Steelers offense of the 2010s. Today, Pittsburgh has what is considered an elite offensive line that has the job of protecting future Hall of Fame QB, Ben Roethlisberger at the latter’s late stages of his career.
Pouncey would be a 7-time Pro Bowl player, 2-time 1st team All-Pro and 3-time 2nd team All-Pro. Perhaps, the only reason Maurkice does not finish higher on this list is his propensity to suffer major injuries. While not his fault, Pouncey did miss almost two full seasons in his prime or he could conceivably be a 9-time Pro Bowler. Sadly, he also missed Super Bowl XLV against the Green Bay Packers in 2010, having suffered an injury 2 weeks earlier in the AFC Championship game. His loss undoubtedly contributed to the Steeler’s offense looking out of sorts early in the 1st quarter of the big game, one Pittsburgh still almost pulled out in the end before falling by a score of 31–25. Still, Maurkice Pouncey will easily become the third Steeler’s center to be inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame in Canton when eligible. However, until that time, Pouncey is the one player on this list with the capability to climb even higher although he will have to do some spectacular things to overcome the next two superstars.
2. Mike Webster (#52)
Here is where the list will get controversial among Steeler’s fans, many of whom are currently horrified to find that Mike Webster is only listed as the 2nd greatest center in franchise history. Webster was a 5th-Round draft pick out of Wisconsin in the 1974 NFL Draft in what turned out to be the greatest draft in league history. He was just 1 of 4 future Hall of Famers in the legendary draft as no other NFL draft by any other team has produced more than 2 Hall of Fame-caliber players. Webster was joined by Lynn Swann — 1st Round, Jack Lambert — 2nd Round, and John Stallworth — 3rd Round as having a future bust in Canton (one day Donnie Shell may join them as an undrafted Free Agent Rookie in ’74).
‘Iron’ Mike picked up after Ray Mansfield’s 180 games by eventually playing in 220 himself. His accomplishments are legendary as a 4-time Super Bowl champion (IX, X, XIII, XIV), 9-time Pro Bowler, and 7-time 1st team All-Pro. Webster also made numerous lists that recognized the greatest players from different eras. Mike was a member of the All-Decade Team of the 1970s (Miami Dolphin’s Jim Langer was 1st Team), the All-Decade Team of the 1980s (Miami Dolphin’s Dwight Stephenson was 1st Team), and the 1st Team starting center of the NFL’s 75th Anniversary Team. Webster was a beast who manhandled opponents, either opening holes for Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier or while protecting another all-time great, Quarterback Terry Bradshaw. Bradshaw even credited Mike for much of his own success by first acknowledging Webster’s great talent during the former’s Hall of Fame induction speech. ‘Iron’ Mike was himself inducted in 1995.
Sadly, the post-career of Mike Webster is tragic. After leaving the NFL, Mike suffered from dementia, depression, homelessness, and substance abuse issues even needing the help of former teammates, such as Bradshaw, to support him. In 2002, Mike passed away from a heart attack after which an autopsy revealed signs of CTE. Webster, in death, became the poster for CTE in the NFL leading to numerous changes to improve the safety of the game.
1. Dermontti Dawson (#63)
Webster’s last year in the league was spent mentoring a Guard who was to become his replacement the following season. Drafted in the 2nd Round from the University of Louisville, Dermontti Dawson would go on to revolutionize the position in the last 30 years. Dawson’s career is highlighted as a 7-time Pro Bowl player, 6 consecutive 1st-team All-Pro selections, and an appearance in Super Bowl XXX against the Dallas Cowboys. Dermontti Dawson also was a member of the NFL’s All-Decade Team of the 1990s as the starting Center. Dawson would be selected to the Hall of Fame in 2012.
Like Webster before him, Dermontti was the most physically dominating center of his era, but it was combined with rare athleticism for an offensive lineman. Penalties called on Dawson were few and far between as many an opponent commented on his perfect technique. Former Houston Texans, Seth Payne, once said how he only hoped not to be embarrassed. Bill Belichick, coach of the New England Patriots and considered by many to be the greatest NFL Head Coach of all-time, lauded rare appraisal on Dawson’s ability. Ahead of his time, Belichick would often design game plans to confuse the opposing team’s centers. Dawson, however, was one egg he found tough to crack as he often said Dawson was the best center he had ever coached against. Dermontti’s athleticism was so unique that he could read the defense, snap the ball, engage the D-line, and then run downfield to the second level and flatten a Safety. This skill allowed the Steelers to design and run plays that no other team could.
Dermontti Dawson may lack Mike Webster’s Super Bowl titles but, in my opinion, he was more responsible for how the position is played in today’s NFL. Honestly, picking between Dawson or Webster as the greatest is a luxury the Pittsburgh Steelers are glad to have. It really is an argument, I am happy to say, that no Steeler fan can lose.
Statistics and Accomplishments — https://www.pro-football-reference.com/
1998 Sports Illustrated Article on Dawson — https://www.si.com/vault/1998/12/07/253120/center-stage-dermontti-dawson-of-the-steelers-possesses-talent-unmatched-by-any-other-lineman-in-the-nfl-and-clears-holes-wide-enough-to-drive-the-bus-through
Mike Webster’s Tragic Death and Concussions — https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/article/the-autopsy-that-changed-football/
Steeler’s Website Article on Dawson — https://www.steelers.com/news/dawson-changed-the-center-position-17344712
Donnie Shell’s Hall of Fame Snub — https://247sports.com/nfl/pittsburgh-steelers/Article/Donnie-Shell-Tony-Dungy-Pro-Football-Hall-of-Fame--133439085/
First Published In Liberal Musings — https://www.liberalmusings.com/home/top-5-pittsburgh-steeler-centers-ever