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Injuries aside, the center's job is more complicated than a Cosell explanation. Let's start in the Oakland huddle. "Far right 69 boom man on three," Quarterback Ken Stabler barks to the Raiders. By "far right" Stabler means that he wants the flanker and the tight end to line up out on the right side. By "69" he means he wants the "6" back (fullback) to run through the "9" hole (outside left tackle); in other words, it is a running play to the weak side. By "boom" Stabler means he wants his other running back to handle the linebacker with a boom block, moving him toward the sideline. By "man" he means he wants man-for-man blocking in the offensive line. And by "3" he means he wants his center to snap the ball on the third "hut," thus initiating the play.
"The center basically controls the type of blocking done by the offensive line," Otto says. "If I got to the line and saw that the defense had set up in such a way that 'man' blocking would not work, I was supposed to change the blocking assignment. The blocking pattern was predicated on what I saw in the defensive front. I stood pretty straight-legged," he adds. "The quarterback didn't have to bend over too far to get under me. My body weight was equally distributed between my feet, too, so I was always ready to move in any direction without difficulty."
Before bending over, Otto, like all centers, checked the football, which the referee sets so that the ends point to the end zones. Bending down, Otto rotated the ball so he could place his right thumb over the laces, let the rest of his right hand fall naturally into place, then put his left hand under the ball. "The right thumb is the most important part of the grip because it actually controls the movement of the football," Mansfield says. Otto then waited for Stabler to call signals.
Like all teams, the Raiders employ a nonrhythmic count: there is no pattern to the intervals between the quarterback's calls of "hut." "On this play," Otto says, "all I knew was that I was supposed to center the ball on the third 'hut.' I didn't know when the third 'hut' would come, and I couldn't anticipate it either because the quarterback might check off and call a new play at the line. When the time came, I centered the ball on the 'h'—not the 't'—of the third count."
While Langer agrees that a non-rhythmic count may confuse the opposition, he suggests that it also confuses the center. "It happened to me—or at least I think I was the one who was confused—in an exhibition game. I centered the ball on what I thought was the right count, but the quarterback, a rookie named Craig Curry, didn't take it. The defensive line had moved, of course, and there I was holding the ball between my legs. So I went straight ahead and gained three or four yards. It was an illegal play, but the officials thought I had picked up a fumble or something, so I got away with it."
Otto centered the ball with his right hand. "As my right hand went back with the ball in it," he says, "my left forearm moved forward. The ball moved slightly—less than three feet all told—and while moving it back I turned it one quarter so that it arrived at the quarterback with the laces up." Also, with the ball turned sideways, its ends pointed toward the sidelines. Mansfield works the ball much the same way, but Langer grips the ball with only his right hand.
"I'm left-handed to begin with," he says, "and you can't center the ball to a right-handed quarterback like Bob Griese with your left hand because the laces will come up the wrong way, so I just rest my left hand idly over my knee." Otto would seem to have been faced with a similar problem because he centered the ball with his right hand to the left-handed Stabler. Stabler, however, made all the necessary corrections himself once he snatched the ball from Otto. Joe Namath is not very picky either; Mulligan says that Namath simply wants him to turn the football so that the valve will not be under his grip.
Having disposed of the football, and with his left forearm already in a battering-ram position, Otto moved to execute his blocking assignment. Fun time, the centers call their blocking moments. "Trouble is, our job keeps changing with all these three-man defensive fronts that teams are using," Mansfield says. "Now there's more for us to do. I used to love the old standard four-man lines because most of the time there was no one for us to hit. Oh, we used to pick up a guy here and there, but our job was pretty easy. Now it's ridiculous. The defensive linemen are looping all around and we never know where the hell they are, while the linebackers keep plugging and jumping and creating all kinds of confusion. Most of these three-man lines like to put someone dead-on against the center, too. Sugar Bear Hamilton of New England lined up so close to me in one game last year that he bumped my helmet. I could even smell his breath. I was sure glad he didn't eat garlic before the game."
Langer sympathizes with Mansfield. "Guys like Hamilton try to avoid you and beat you at the same time," he says. "I like the big punishing kind of defensive linemen because the longer they beat on me, which they like to do, the longer it takes them to get to the quarterback or the ballcarrier." Otto classifies defensive linemen and linebackers by their tactics. "First of all, there are the grabbers and jerkers," he says. "They grab you by the jersey, jerk you, then try to go around you. Then there are the guys who like to club you or slap you with an open hand or a forearm to the head, then try to roll around you. And there are the head butters who simply run straight at you with their head down and try to bowl you over."
Langer remembers a pro bowl game in which Minnesota's Alan Page and Los Angeles' Merlin Olsen double-teamed him on one play and left him feeling "like a train wreck." "One of them slapped me off balance, the other jerked me away—and then they flooded through," he recalls. "It's all part of the game, but my head didn't stop ringing for weeks." Johnson encountered 6'9", 275-pound Ernie Ladd early in his pro career and smartly concluded that some defensive linemen are not to be fooled with. " Ladd was going around me," Johnson says, "so I gave him a leg whip and brought him down. I didn't think much about it, but then on the next play Ernie hit me under the chin with the back of his hand and cut me for 10 stitches. I had the dizzies the rest of the day. I told myself that if he can do that anytime he wants, and I had no doubts that he could, then I was in a world of trouble."