It's combat as fundamental as the game itself: center versus noseguard. They line up two inches apart, maybe less, and the collisions they produce ultimately dictate the level of the battles all up and down the line. "That matchup is the whole game, boiled down," says St. Louis defensive line coach Jim Johnson. "If you don't have a noseguard who can whip the center, the defense is down the drain. If your noseguard can whip the center, the offense is demoralized, and it's down the drain. Not many games are won by the team that comes out worst in that matchup."
"If you can't move the noseman, you can't run," says Jets noseguard Joe Klecko.
"The center is at the apex of the pocket," says Seattle offensive line coach Kent Stephenson, "and in passing situations if that point collapses, there's a feeling of panic with the quarterback, and justifiably so."
The Bears created that feeling of panic when they knocked out both Raider quarterbacks in their 1984 game. Chicago employed its vicious "46" defense, which placed a noseman head-on with the center. To make sure the Raiders couldn't gang up on him, they covered both offensive guards with defensive linemen. "Son of a gun, they forced me to change my whole way of thinking," said Raiders owner Al Davis. "I realized you couldn't survive in this era without an excellent center. I had to put my best offensive lineman there." In 1985 the Raiders had a new center—Don Mosebar, a converted guard. Last year he made the Pro Bowl.
One factor intensifies the other. The emergence of the dominating noseguard, who can intimidate the middle of the line with brute force or quickness or a combination of both, has improved the caliber of play at center, a position where teams once hid their weak-sister linemen. Not only are centers better, but they are also often greatly aided by complex systems of nastiness designed to control the noseman—guards or tackles or motion tight ends chopping his legs from the blind side, backs diving at him low. And all of this, of course, works to make noseguards even better.
They became human walls who could withstand the onslaughts of two, even three blockers. Sure, their lives were hell, but the offense wasn't playing in paradise, either. The guards couldn't pull because they were assigned to monster control. The tight end was tied up, and so was a running back. One player had changed the whole game plan.
So coaches launched a desperate search for better centers, for strongmen who could handle a noseman by themselves and who were gifted enough athletes to fire forward at the same instant they passed an object backward. The result of that search is the best crop of centers in the history of the game. The two best are Pittsburgh's Mike Webster, who set the standard for more than a decade, and Miami's Dwight Stephenson, whom many experts believe to be better than anyone before him.
A few years ago, when Stephenson was approaching greatness, NBC isolated a camera on him for an entire game. The tape showed that he might have the quickest reactions of any offensive lineman in history. The ball was in the quarterback's hands and Stephenson's free hand was on the chest of the noseguard before that poor guy had even come out of his stance.
The game that dazzled everyone was the Dolphins' victory over the Super Bowl-bound Bear's in 1985, when the 6'2", 258-pound Stephenson, his left arm strapped to his side to protect a separated shoulder, buried 325-pound tackle William Perry. "We're getting ready to meet Miami in the playoffs and I'm watching films of that game," says Cleveland noseguard Bob Golic. "Stephenson took Perry on about four out of five plays and physically just threw him to the ground. I'm sitting there telling myself. Why am I watching this? I'm not learning anything from this other than how to bounce."
Noseguards have never been better, either—from the massive bull rushers like New Orleans' 295-pound Tony Elliott and San Francisco's 285-pound Michael Carter to the tall and athletic Bill Pickel of the Raiders to the power-and-quickness players like Klecko and the Chiefs' Bill Maas to the relentless sideline-to-sideline pursuers like Cincinnati's Tim Krumrie and the Giants' Jim Burt. You can talk all you want about today's great quarterbacks, receivers and running backs, and history will match you name for name. But nowhere in the past will you find anything like today's grand crop of pitmen. In short, this is the golden age of middlemen on both sides of the ball.
That's speaking of the whole crowd. As for individuals, there's only one man you could rank as No. 1—then, now and possibly forever. That's Curley Culp. His is a curious story. The Broncos drafted him in the second round in 1968, when everyone played the 4-3. "King-sized collegiate middle guard," the Denver press-book bio said, mentioning a position that didn't exist in the NFL, "who will bid for a defensive tackle post. NCAA heavyweight wrestling champion. Brilliant college defender who combines size (as high as 275 pounds) with speed (4.7 seconds in the 40).... Has 18½-inch neck and biceps to match.... Once busted three opponent helmets in a scrimmage session."
The Broncos loved him, all right. They loved him so much they tried to make an offensive guard out of him. When that didn't work, they traded him to Kansas City, where a year later he became part of history. Culp was the left tackle at 265 pounds in the Chiefs' 4-3 defense, but against the Vikings in the 1970 Super Bowl he played over 237-pound center Mick Tingelhoff, a six-time All-Pro. The overmatch helped Kansas City get its 23-7 win. Culp's domination of Tingelhoff was the beginning of the end for the quick, light center who made his living cutting off the middle linebacker. Pretty soon everyone was testing the league's greyhound centers by having bulky defensive tackles play them head-up.
A few years later, in probably the worst trade in Kansas City history, the Chiefs sent Culp, along with a No. 1 draft choice, to Houston for defensive end John Matuszak. The Oilers' defensive coordinator, Bum Phillips, had put in a 3-4 defense, and he needed a dominating noseguard to make it go. Culp was the man. When he went to Houston, in October '74, the Oilers had lost 31 of their last 34 games. With Culp at the nose, they went 6-2 for the rest of the year and 10-4 the following season.
What makes an ideal noseguard? High pain threshold, toughness, quick feet and great strength are high on the list. Buffalo defensive line coach Ted Cottrell says the perfect noseguard needs long arms to hold off long-armed centers like Stephenson, plus a good field of vision because he is always looking around a lot of bodies. Most of all he needs the right temperament. "He simply can't give a darn," says Indianapolis defensive line coach John Marshall.
"You can't just take a defensive end and put him at nosetackle," says Klecko. "You need more of a rough, tough guy."
"Part cat, part bull, part sick," says Maas.
"It's almost like you're lining up and trying to see how many people you can let hit you," Golic says. "The more people that hit you, the more successful you are. I know that almost sounds masochistic, but it's like you derive a lot of satisfaction from being beat up. Basically, we're there to be used and abused."
Golic faces Webster twice a year, which is bad enough, except that the Steelers also double-team him with the guards. "As if Mike Webster needs any help," says Golic. "I remember one time at Three Rivers they snapped the ball, and as Webster hit me, both the guards hit me on either side a split second later. We were on Astroturf, and my heels stuck in the turf. I literally somersaulted backward. [Linebacker] Tom Cousineau saw what was going on and jumped out of the way. As I was rolling backward I was yelling, 'Save yourself! Save yourself!' The next time I went up to the line I told Webster. 'That was a helluva blocking scheme you guys had there.' He says, 'Hey, I'm sorry, Bob. Only two of us were supposed to hit you.' It kind of makes you hope they don't mess up."
Seattle defensive line coach George Dyer says, "We see a lot of combination blocking where the center sets up the noseman to have the guard or tackle hit him. When the center comes straight out and hits him right in the mouth, we tell our guy to get ready, someone else will follow. Something very bad will happen very soon."
One of the most ferocious means of dealing with the noseman was San Francisco's notorious cripple block. This called for a tackle to peel back and crack down on the back of the noseguard's legs. "We saw one film where they were playing the Eagles," says Denver defensive line coach Stan Jones, "and the Eagles had to use three different nosetackles." Teams got revenge on the 49ers by going after their noseman, Carter, who hobbled through much of the '86 season on a bad ankle. When the cripple block was banned this year, the Niners raised no objection.
With a supercenter like Stephenson, though, it's a point of honor to handle his opponent with no help. "When he came into the league, no one knew that much about him," says Buffalo's 270-pound noseguard, Fred Smerlas. "He started a game against me in Buffalo and just kicked my butt. He pancaked me about six or seven times. The next day we were watching films and our coach, Chuck Knox, says, 'Freddy, you let that Stephenson block you like that? He couldn't block my grandmother.' I said. 'God, Chuck, I'd hate to meet your grandmother.' "
No one is quite sure what the ideal center should look like. Dallas offensive line coach Jim Erkenbeck says that men like Stephenson are the last of a breed, and that the new centers will be like the Saints' 271-pound Steve Korte, "a real gorilla." But the Colts' line coach, Tom Lovat, disagrees: "No, the good centers aren't what I term trained killers. They're more finesse-type players, utilizing more balance."
Could the old greyhound centers make it in this bulked-up new world of football? Jim Ringo, the 235-pound All-Pro center for the Lombardi Packers, flatly states. "I could never play today."
I disagree. I think the greyhounds could play, but they wouldn't look the same. They would have the same athletic ability, the same desire, plus new and different means—weight training and steroids—to turn themselves into 270-pounders. They would have less hair on their heads, and their dispositions would be edgier, but they would play. The competition would bring them up to its level.
So the next time you watch an NFL game, tear your gaze away from the quarterback for a while and focus on the center and noseguard. Watch their thrust and thunder up the middle. You will be seeing today's best against the best—and they have never been better.