Dominant Dawson opened own path to HOF
Ask football fans to pick the greatest center of all-time, many will say Mike Webster and that’s a fine choice.
Iron Mike played 17 seasons in the NFL and was an All-Pro selection seven times. He anchored the offensive line of Pittsburgh’s Super Bowl dynasty and was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1997.
But what does it say about Dermontti Dawson that he stepped into Webster’s spot with the Steelers in 1989 and there was no drop-off? It says Dawson was at least as good as Webster, if not better.
Chuck Noll coached both Webster and Dawson in Pittsburgh and he gives Dawson the edge. In a 1996 interview, Noll said: “Dermontti is a much better athlete (than Webster). Mike had great strength and power. Dermontti has it all: smarts, strength, quickness and speed.”
Bill Cowher, who succeeded Noll as head coach in Pittsburgh, takes it a step further. He believes Dawson is the best to ever play the center position. Any team, any era. The best ever.
“Other centers snap the ball, then move,” Cowher told Sports Illustrated in 1998. “Dermontti snaps and moves. It’s all one motion. He is so much quicker than everyone else.”
On Saturday, Dawson will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, part of an enshrinement class that includes running back Curtis Martin, offensive tackle Willie Roaf, defensive tackle Cortez Kennedy, defensive end Chris Doleman and halfback Jack Butler. Butler, who played for the Steelers in the 1950s, is this year’s senior inductee.
I knew Dawson was a good player, but I never realized just how good until I went to work at NFL Films. That was when I started watching film for hours at a time and saw how dominant Dawson was on a weekly basis. He never had a bad game. I mean, never.
In 1997, I was doing a piece on Jerome Bettis, who was having a monster season for the Steelers. As I was going through the Steelers’ footage, I found myself watching the line play. There would be a great trap block on a defensive tackle. I’d look closely and it was No. 63, Dawson. There would be a perfectly timed seal block that cut off a linebacker. I’d rewind the tape and it was No. 63 again.
If Bettis was The Bus, then Dawson was E-Z Pass.
Bettis was a very good back – he led the Steelers in rushing eight times in nine seasons – but he would not have been nearly as effective without Dawson. Bettis was a north-south runner, which meant he relied on the interior of his line – specifically the center – to win at the point of attack. If Bettis could hit that inside crease at full speed, there wasn’t much a defense could do to stop him. Dawson made sure it was there.
One game sticks out in my mind: The Steelers played Green Bay and twice in that game, Dawson knocked nose tackle Gilbert Brown flat on his back. Dawson was 6-2 and listed at 288 pounds. Brown weighed 370. Most teams didn’t even try to run his way. They felt it would take a forklift to move him. Dawson pancaked him. Twice.
Cowher called Dawson “country strong.” In other words, he didn’t get his strength in the weight room or the pharmacy. He was naturally powerful with the ideal lineman’s body: a thick torso with muscles that looked like steel cables connecting his shoulders and his neck. As durable as Webster was, Dawson was even more so. He started 171 consecutive games for the Steelers.
Dawson joined Pittsburgh as a second-round draft pick from the University of Kentucky in 1988. As a rookie, he started at right guard alongside Webster. The next year Webster was gone and Dawson stepped into those extra large shoes. Dawson didn’t talk much so he never got much publicity, but coaches and players around the league knew him very well.
He did things other centers couldn’t do. For example, he could pull out and lead an end sweep. He could make a block at the line then go downfield and take out a linebacker or wipe out a safety. He was more athletic than other players at his position. There are a few centers in the NFL now who possess similar traits but Dawson was ahead of his time.
To fully appreciate how good Dawson was consider this: In 1996, the Sporting News polled pro personnel directions around the NFL and asked them to rank the players by position. Dawson received more first-place votes than any other player at any position, more than Jerry Rice at receiver, more than Emmitt Smith at running back.
Dawson once told an interviewer he liked being an offensive lineman because it fit his personality. “I don’t like a lot of attention,” he said.
Well, the center will be the center of attention Saturday in Canton, Ohio. He will join Webster in the Hall of Fame. It is an honor richly deserved.