Posted by Chase Stuart on December 23, 2009
Teams almost never replace one Hall of Famer with another. The 49ers replacing Joe Montana with Steve Young, the Bears filling Bill George's absence with Dick Butkus and the Browns handing the ball off from Jim Brown to Leroy Kelly are exceptions to the rule. Things aren't supposed to be that easy for a team. But in Pittsburgh, fans didn't have to worry about their center for a quarter-century. From 1976 to 1988, Hall of Famer Mike Webster manned the middle for the Steelers offense. Pittsburgh drafted Dermontti Dawson in the second round of the 1988 draft, and he played next to Webster for one season. After Webster left for Kansas City, Dawson moved to the middle, and would start for the Steelers from 1989 to 2000. Those in Pittsburgh still debate who was the better center. But things didn't end there for Pittsburgh, as Jeff Hartings would replace Dawson similarly to the way Jeff Garcia followed Young. From '01 to '06, Hartings continued the Steelers tradition of excellence at the position: he was named to two Pro Bowls and two Associated Press All-Pro teams. But today, we're going to focus on Dawson, and his fantastic accomplishments during his twelve seasons in Pittsburgh.
Dawson is one of only two offensive line candidates this year. Earlier this month I profiled Russ Grimm, but ultimately decided his career lacked both the quantity and sustained quality to make the Hall. Dawson suffers from no such problems. He made seven Pro Bowls and was a six-time Associated Press first-team All-Pro. Perhaps even more impressive, he was a unanimous first-team All-Pro for five straight seasons, as the AP, the Sporting News and the Pro Football Writers all decided that Dawson was the best center in the league.
Dawson's career AV grade is 83, which probably underrates how good he was. Dawson rarely played on good offenses, which tends to cap how much AV a player can earn. Twenty-nine of the 39 first-team All-Pro centers named by the Associated Press since the merger played on teams that finished in the top in the league in scoring. Dawson was the center named in four of those other ten occasions, and he played on by far the worst scoring team ('98 Steelers) of any AP first-team All-Pro center. While one could argue that the Steelers lack of offensive success is evidence that Dawson was overrated and was earning his accolades based on reputation, I think the more likely argument is that Dawson's AV score is underrated because he was snapping to Kordell Stewart and Mike Tomczak.
Since the merger, the only other player to make six consecutive first-team Associated Press All-Pro teams who has been passed over for induction is John Randle. And Randle seems likely to make the HOF, perhaps as soon as 2010. So why hasn't Dawson been selected? Some feel the Hall has more than enough Steelers, and the voters are more than content to vote down another one. Others think the Hall just doesn't care about interior linemen, and centers in particular. He's been a semifinalist in all five years since becoming eligible; last year was the first time Dawson made the cut and was named a finalist, so things may be trending his way. If Dawson makes the Hall, how would he compare to the other centers currently in the Hall?
Only six pure centers of the modern era are in the Hall of Fame, compared to 11 guards and 17 tackles. I've listed the HOF centers from the modern era, Dawson, and the four other centers with career AVs of over 80. Note that for Gatski, his AV score does not include his first four seasons. Gatski was also a two-way performer for the Browns. The "SS" column stands for seasons starting.
In Grimm's case, I noted that several guards -- Larry Allen, Will Shields, Alan Faneca, Steve Hutchinson -- are coming up for induction soon, and appear to have stronger HOF profiles than Grimm. The only centers with strong HOF profiles that have entered the league since Dawson are Kevin Mawae (7 Pro Bowls, 3 first-team All-Pros, 236 starts and counting), Tom Nalen (5 Pro Bowls, 2 first-team All-Pros, 188 starts, two Super Bowl rings), Olin Kreutz (6 Pro Bowls, 1 first-team All-Pro, 165 starts and counting), and Jeff Saturday (3 Pro Bowls, 2 first-team All-Pros, 154 starts, 1 Super Bowl ring, and counting for all categories). Saturday may get add to his personal accolades and win a Super Bowl this year; Mawae may improve his profile, too. But it looks unlikely that any center of the last 20 years will be remembered as a cut above Dawson. While I may support the candidacy of the other centers, none of them are clearly more deserving than Dawson.
If you want to learn more about Dawson's career, or want to hear some of his ex-Steelers rave about him, Austin Murphy wrote a terrific article on Dawson for Sports Illustrated during the 1998 season. It's well worth the read. It's been a long time since a Hall of Fame center was playing in the NFL. Steelers great Mike Webster is the most recently active center currently in Canton. It would be appropriate if Dawson took that position from him.
Chances he'll make the HOF in 2010? Average.
Chances he'll ever make the HOF? Good.