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.