Ledyard/Kozora: Greatest Steelers Center

Another series, a collaborative one, to take you through the remaining weeks of the offseason. Jon Ledyard and I will pick a side in choosing the greatest Pittsburgh Steelers at each position. Tell us who is right and who won the debate – those don’t have to be the same answer – in the comments.

The last of the o-lineman, centers. Jon chooses Mike Webster, I pick Dermontti Dawson.

JON: 

Few positions in Pittsburgh Steelers history have enjoyed the richness of talent that the center spot has over the past 50 years, starting the likes of Ray Mansfield, Mike Webster, Dermontti Dawson, Jeff Hartings, and now Maurkice Pouncey. Choosing the best player from that group is an unenviable task, but one that both Alex and I have been charged with. While great moments and seasons exist for all of these offensive lineman, no one had the longevity or success that Mike Webster did in Pittsburgh.

Nine-time Pro Bowl selection. Nine-time All-Pro selection. Nine-year captain. Four-time Super Bowl champion. Pittsburgh Pro Football Hall of Fame and NFL Hall of Fame inductee. Member of the NFL’s 1970 and 1980 All-Decade Team. Jersey #52 no longer issued to players, as the number awaits retirement. 17 years in the NFL and 245 games played.

That is a list of the ridiculous on-field accomplishments of “Iron” Mike, a man who was known for vice-like strength and playing through just about any and every injury. For 150 straight games over ten consecutive years, Webster started every game in the center of Pittsburgh’s offensive line, as much of a force in the locker room as he was at blocking. During the 15 years Webster suited up for the Black and Gold, more seasons than any player in Steelers history, the hulking lineman missed just four games due to a dislocated elbow. Few epitomize the tough, physical demeanor of the Steelers dynasty quite like Webster did, a bruising, violent player who loved contact and never backed down from anyone.

Webster’s dedication off the field was the stuff of legends, constantly running stadium steps at Three Rivers and even lifting prior to games and practices. He was always in the weight room, bulking up from his rookie weight of 225 pounds to his playing weight of 260, adding much-needed weight to an undersized frame. Webster was always ready to play mentally, as he was widely-known as one of the NFL’s more cerebral players, constantly helping Terry Bradshaw set protections and recognize defensive alignments.

Webster gave his life for the game of football, quite literally. After retirement his physical and mental health began to decline sharply, and he struggled with drug use and homelessness. Doctors found a number of medical problems with Webster in the latter stages of his life, with significant brain trauma from his days in football identified as one of the leading causes for his lengthy list of issues.

Webster died at age 50, far too young for a player who meant so much to his teammates and the franchise he starred for. While his life after football remains a sad mystery in some ways, the dominant center left no doubt about his legacy when he was on the field. No player in Steelers history has played more games with the franchise than Webster’s 220, a record which alone should be enough to get him the nod as Pittsburgh’s greatest center ever. But thanks to a host of additional honors and consistently excellent play by Webster, that number hardly need stand alone in the long list of accomplishments that make him perhaps the finest center in NFL history.

ALEX: 

Even with so many storied centers, we don’t even get to talk much about Ray Mansfield or Jeff Hartings, it’s hard to argue against Iron Mike. I secretly hoped Jon would choose another player but like getting a rectangular box on Christmas, I knew the result. This doesn’t take anything away from my selection of Dirt Dawson, but most will agree Webster is the choice. His absolutely heart-breaking post-football life tugs at my heartstrings, making me want to honor him now even more.

I don’t think I”m being a good spokesperson. So let me try again.

Dawson only started 13 fewer games than Webster in Pittsburgh and for ten years, Dirt never missed a game. That’s a streak that even the player deemed “iron” didn’t do. Dawson was a six-time first-team All-Pro, all consecutive years, while Webster did it only five without such a streak. Webster was second-team All-Decade in the 70s, the Miami Dolphins Jim Langer usurping him. Dawson claimed the first team spot in the 90s.

He anchored a 1994 team that brought Pittsburgh back to the Super Bowl, apart of the league’s top rushing attack in yards and sixth best in average.

Sometimes the highest praise comes from your peers outside of the city you played in. Bill Belichick, hated as he might be in these circles, knew Dawson well while coaching the Cleveland Browns. A man of typically few words, Belichick admired the Steelers’ center in a 2008 Pittsburgh Post Gazette article.

“He was one of the best players that we have ever played against at that position. He had exceptional quickness…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…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…Dawson was outstanding; as well as his protection in the passing game.”

Has he ever praised Tom Brady like that? Almost-serious question. He’s gushing the way a teenage girl would over meeting One Direction.

When you hear that, when you look at the accolades that were even more impressive than Webster, you can forgive yourself for giving Webby the silver medal. Dawson has earned gold.

About the Author

Alex Kozora

Full-time blogger from mom’s basement. Marrying tape and statistics. Chidi Iwuoma is my favorite Steeler of all-time.

  • Woodsworld

    Dermontti Dawson isn’t just the Steelers best center every, but the best in NFL history. I watched both Webster and Dawson, and I think Tunch Ilkin says it best. If you take Dwight Stephenson’s quickness, and Webster’s strength, you have Dermontti Dawson.

  • Orlysteel

    Back when Webster played the head slap was legal meaning a defense of lineman can smack you on the side of the your helmet and rattle your brain, Lyle Alzado says that the Broncos used to have a lineman think Rich Jackson was his name that cracked a few helmets used to bring people to their knees, different eras, different game both great players.

  • Orlysteel

    The head slap became illegal in 1980. Should’ve said Alzado said, rip Lyle.

  • No Center in the history of the NFL has ever been as good as Webster was. Dawson was great, but Webster was and always wil be…….THE MAN!

  • Woodsworld

    Not saying that Webster wasn’t great. I never saw anyone get as much out of himself as he did. The information I provided was from people who played the game. I’m old enough to have seen both of their careers, and Dawson is the best I’ve ever seen. The expectations in his era with a 300+ lb NT on your head cannot be overstated. Cowher and another NFL head coach both said that he was the GOAT at that position. This is up there with the John Hannah/Larry Allen debate as the best guard in NFL history.

    Great conversation, and that’s all it is gents

  • Craig M

    It’s so difficult comparing players/ athletes present and past, so much changes in time. I think it best to say a person was one of the all-time greats. Every athlete learns from the previous ones thru development, then there’s the playing conditions of covered domes, artificial turf, modern conditioning techniques etc.. People don’t realize that Ruth hit his 60 HR’s in 27 when he was 32 and that was when he first turned to lifting weights and working out regularly, prior to that baseball players didn’t use weight training. Or Jack Ham, one of the all time greats pretty much sucked when going against the T-formation that KC ran, and said he hoped to never see it again. I like to think that there were some really great players we’ve never heard of back in the leather helmet era, that are also some of the greatest players ever.

  • BLITZBURGH

    both were GREAT and honestly, i can’t say one was better than the other. 1a and 1b of the best centers in the league, ever.

    when webster left, i felt he was irreplacable. dirt never made me miss webster, which says a lot.

    pouncey gets lots of credit and is very, very good as well but he isn’t in webster’s or dirt’s class (maybe if he can keep improving).

  • 20Stoney

    I saw them both too and I agree with you. Webster had that mystique around him, but Dawson could do everything you’d ever want a center to do. I loved Webster but I think Dawson was actually better. His mobility on top of being physical set him apart in my mind.

  • Hypo Cycloid

    100 years from now, Dawson and Webster won’t be known as two of the greatest ever simply because many generations will never have seen them play. I agree that there were some all time greats that don’t get recognized anymore. How many people know of don hutson anymore? Quite possibly the goat receiver. Most say rice, and when mentioning hutson many never heard of him.

  • Jon Ledyard

    You compared Belichick to a teenage girl, so honestly it is an automatic win for you Alex, regardless of which center is better.

  • Jon Ledyard

    A Gilbert Brown reference! Night made!

  • Jon Ledyard

    Hutson was amazing. Production he put up at that time was otherworldly.

  • Jon Ledyard

    Agree 100% about Pouncey.

  • RMSteeler

    Raise their hands like at the end of a heavyweight fight. I have to call it a draw. Different rules; both had incredible longevity, awards, respect. Each in their own way was the best.

  • mokhkw

    Dawson did things I’ve never seen any other Center do.

    One play that comes to mind is the 97 AFC Champ vs Denver when Slash scored on a fake WR screen left/boot right. I can’t think of any other C who would have had the foot quickness to do what Dawson did on that play.

  • mokhkw

    I’ve seen pretty much every snap of the Steelers since the FA period began in the 90s & I would rank Pouncey as the 3rd best Steelers C in that period behind Dawson & Hartings.

    Hartings had to replace Dawson which was a really hard act to follow, he managed to do that very well. Pouncey followed such guys as Mahan & Hartwig.

    Pouncey is very good but I sometimes think he’s given more accolades because of the Steelers legacy at the C position & he looks so much better compared to the guys he replaced.

    I would take Dawson over Webster but it is very hard to compare eras.

    Both are HOFers so really you can’t go wrong choosing either. I chose Dawson because he’s the best I’ve ever seen at his position in any era.

  • Webster was the best Center of all time.