In his best seller The Blind Side, Michael Lewis explains the evolution of football's left tackle position. Lewis rightly shows how left tackles have evolved from anonymous bludgeoners to highly paid, important players charged with protecting the quarterback from speed rushers like Lawrence Taylor. But the rise of the left tackle is old news, as the game has evolved yet again. Now, the most important guy on the offensive line—and the second-most important offensive player, behind the quarterback—is the man in the middle: the center.
Centers aren't physical freaks like their brethrens at tackle. Few exceed 300 pounds. The ideal middleman is athletic, with the speed to pull outside, the strength to grapple with enormous defenders, and the niftiness to throw as many as three blocks on the same play. Of course, he has to have good hands, as he snaps the ball on every play, then must quickly get his mitts on a bull-rushing 350-pounder or be squashed flat. Most important, the center needs to be brainy, with as firm a command of the playbook as the quarterback. Before each play, he must call out protections, telling each of his linemates which onrushing defender to pick up. The center is the guy who puts the skill players in position to make plays. He ensures runners have holes and that the quarterback has time to throw.
Two recent developments have made the center even more crucial to offensive success. The first is the increasingly exotic nature of NFL defenses, in which multiple blitzers often come from all angles. The second is the emergence of the ultramammoth run stuffer, a 350-pound behemoth who clogs the middle of the field.
The Indianapolis Colts present an excellent case study. Peyton Manning has taken the heat for his team's failure to advance to a Super Bowl. But the Colts' disappointing losses in the last couple of seasons came because of Indy's center, Jeff Saturday. In last year's playoff loss against Pittsburgh, Saturday was manhandled inside by Steelers nose tackle Casey Hampton. In addition (or perhaps as a direct result of the pounding), Saturday was constantly confused by Pittsburgh blitzes. Remember when Manning called out his offensive line after the game, dryly noting that "we had some problems in protection"? Pin that on Saturday, the man who is primarily responsible for assigning blockers to pass rushers.
So, how can you gauge how well your team's center is performing? The most obvious sign is how easily blitzing linebackers and defensive backs get to the quarterback. * If defenders come unabated, it's usually not because the offensive line got beaten physically—it's because the center has missed something. Also, quarterbacks are most successful when they step up into the pocket. If the QB has an open lane when he steps up, give the center thumbs up. When it comes to the running game, if the back is forced to bounce outside when the play is designed to go inside, the center is struggling to control the interior. Contrarily, if you hear the announcers use the phrase "running downhill" a lot, then the line is opening holes inside for the runner to hit without breaking stride. And that team's probably winning.
Center play will be crucial in this weekend's playoff games, particularly the Jets-Patriots contest. As usual, if you are looking for an unheralded great player, look at Bill Belichick's Patriots. Center Dan Koppen has gone from emergency fill-in to the bulwark of a line that won two Super Bowls with him in the middle. Remember, both Carolina and Philadelphia were supposed to whip the Pats up front, but Koppen commanded a line that neutralized the Panthers' superb front four and handled the blitz-happy Eagles, allowing New England to score 56 points in the two games. What happened last year? Koppen was lost for the season to a shoulder injury. Not coincidentally, the Pats finally lost a playoff game, as the Broncos got heavy pressure on Tom Brady.
The Jets' surprise run to the playoffs has been aided by rookie center Nick Mangold, a late first-rounder who has outplayed the team's hyped first selection, tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson. Mangold is one of the few centers talented enough to decipher New England's complicated defensive fronts, while simultaneously handling superb defensive tackles Richard Seymour and Vince Wilfork. New York is outmanned at most positions, but if Mangold outplays Koppen, then the Jets have a fighting chance.
In the NFC, the Seattle Seahawks have quickly descended from a Super Bowl team to mediocrity. Seattle rode a dominant running game to the NFC last year, and guard Steve Hutchinson got a lot of the credit—$49 million worth, in fact, which is what the Vikings paid to pry him away in the offseason. But center Robbie Tobeck was just as important, and the Seahawks offense has struggled this year as Tobeck has battled injuries and missed significant time. If Tobeck can't play against the Cowboys, Seattle probably has no shot.
The two best centers in the NFC are Chicago's Olin Kreutz and Philadelphia's Jamaal Jackson, so I like them to collide in the conference title game. An interesting matchup would come, if form holds, in the AFC Championship game. Wonder why San Diego QB Philip Rivers has been so effective in his first season at the helm? Look no further than Chargers center Nick Hardwick, who was rewarded this year with a deserving Pro Bowl berth. The only time San Diego was held to under 20 points this season was in Baltimore, and a big reason was nose tackle Kelly Gregg, like Hardwick a great but little-known player. Gregg, along with interior partners Trevor Pryce and Haloti Ngata, caved in San Diego's front wall, holding the brilliant LaDainian Tomlinson to fewer than four yards per carry. Meanwhile, Baltimore's Mike Flynn, a merely average center, will struggle to keep San Diego's blitzers, led by Shawne "Needles" Merriman, off quarterback Steve McNair. A defensive struggle seems likely, much like the 16-13 Ravens win in October. May the best center win.