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."
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."
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
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."