DERMONTTI DAWSON - A PITTSBURGH STEELER 1988 - 2000
With the Class of 2012, Dermontti Dawson became the twelfth center to make the Football Hall of Fame, but perhaps he is the most significant as he is given credit for re-defining the way his position is played in the NFL.
Dawson played thirteen seasons in the NFL, all with the Steelers, including a streak of 170 consecutive games, a spell interrupted only by a hamstring injury.
Selected in the second round of the 1988 NFL draft, the Steelers were coming off a season when it was viewed their defense had won eight games, while the offense had lost seven. With such a lack lustre offense, fans were hoping the Steelers would use the draft to boost their offense, although the biggest lift to the offense had been the April trade of Mark Malone to the San Diego Chargers.
That year’s draft was forecast to have few quality players, so the Steelers with a lowly 18th pick were not anticipated to get a solid player with their first pick. They liked Northwest Louisiana running back John Stephens, but he was projected to go early. When Stephens was still available after round 16, the Steelers must have been hopeful of getting their man, but New England with the final selection before Pittsburgh’s, picked him up.
Defensive end, Aaron Jones, out of Eastern Kentucky University bore the burden of the Steelers number one choice. It was the fourth time in ten years the Steelers had used their number one pick on a defensive player, reflecting head coach Chuck Noll’s philosophy that it was defense that wins championships.
Defensive line coach, Joe Greene, was high on Jones and had a big influence in his selection. Inevitably, Steeler fans were disappointed with the choice. The fans were more receptive to the second and third round draft picks, although they lacked the usual glamour fans expected from the draft.
Dermontti Dawson was next up for Pittsburgh. Aged 22, he was described as one of the strongest offensive linemen in the country. Dawson played guard and center in college, starting at guard his junior and senior seasons.
At 6-2, 272 pounds, he was smaller than many teams liked their linemen to be, but his smaller stature gave him great quickness, agility and ability to change direction. Those qualities suited the Steelers system of trapping and pulling for their running game and allowed Dawson to eventually own the position and set the standard for years to come.
“What Dermontti did, which is what Mel Blount did, was change the game,” said ESPN analyst and former Steelers running back Merril Hoge, who played with Dawson from 1989-93. “You never had a center pull until Dermontti Dawson. He revolutionised and changed how teams ran the football in the NFL.
I played with Mike Webster in my first year with the Steelers, and I never thought I would be able to say someone was better than Mike Webster at center. But Dermontti changed how we ran the ball. Who knows if the Steelers would have evolved to where they are today in terms of running the football? It was because of him.”
Hoge left the Steelers for the Chicago Bears via free agency following the 1993 season, and when he arrived there the coaches picked his brain about what made the Steelers running game so successful.
“When I went to Chicago they asked me to show them how we ran the football,” said Hoge. “I drew it up and said, ‘We pull the center.’ They said, ‘We can’t do that.’ I told them, ‘Well then you can’t run the ball like we did it in Pittsburgh.’”
After fourteen years with the Steelers, Webster hinted that 1987 would be his final year in professional football, and the following February he told the Steeler he was retiring. Not for the first time, Webster changed his mind and for a year, Dawson was able to learn from the master while, as a guard, gaining experience of the Steelers offensive system.
The impending retirement of Webster saw the Steelers select Chuck Lanza, a starting center for Notre Dame, with their third draft choice. It was additional insurance for the pivotal position on the offensive line, and it would prove an interesting battle for the training camp ahead.
Dawson began his career starting the first three games of the 1988 regular season as a long snapper while Lanza became the player to step into Webster’s shoe as the season progressed.
Dawson took to the field as the starting left guard against Buffalo in week four, but an injury meant he was then placed on injured reserve. Reactivated on November 26, he returned as the starting right guard for the week thirteen game against Kansas, finishing the season in that position.
It wasn’t an easy task replacing the legendary Webster. The 1989 preseason saw the offensive line come in for much criticism, as the yards were hard to come by while sacks given up were plentiful. The main reason for the disappointing performances of the line was the injuries that caused more position changes than would be expected, even for the exhibition season.
When the regular season began with a 0-51 loss to Cleveland followed by a 10-42 loss to Cincinnati, Dawson received much criticism for not protecting Bubby Brister in the defeats. His first season as the Steelers new starting center may have begun badly, but Dawson’s unique talents and leadership ability saw him overcome this initial adversity as Pittsburgh overcame their bad start to finish 9-7. A record good enough to see them go into the playoffs.
Tackle Tunch Ilkin was elected to the Pro-Bowl that season and playing with both Webster and Dawson is in an unique position to compare the two.
“Dermontti could just crank you,” said Ilkin. “He had the ability, the explosive strength and the athleticism to do it, to just knock guys out. He also had that stability to take on guys. He was strong enough to just absorb a 320-pound nose tackle and not give ground.”
Comparing Hall of Famers Webster with Dwight Stephenson, who played center for the Dolphins in the 1980s, Ilkin commented, “The argument used to be back in the early 1980s about who was better, Mike Webster or Dwight Stephenson. Dwight was a great center because he was so athletic. Webbie was a great center because he was so strong and tough and smart.
You put those two guys together and you have Dermontti Dawson.”
“He had all of the physical tools that were necessary – balance, strength, everything,” said CBS analyst Dan Dierdorf. “The one thing that always impressed me was his ability to handle a nose tackle by himself. The majority of centers who play the game almost always need some sort of a double-team, or a rub from the guard next to them. The great centers, and there aren’t many of them, block the nose tackle all by themselves, and Dermontti was one of those guys. That’s what makes him so special.”
“He was one of the best players we have ever played against at that position,” said New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick, who had to face Dawson twice a season when he was the coach of the Cleveland Browns in the 1990s.
“He had exceptional quickness. I think that really the measure of a center is his ability to play against powerful guys who are lined up over him and try to bull-rush the pocket and collapse it in the middle so that the quarterback can’t step up. Dawson had great leverage and quickness with his hands and his feet where he did a great job of keeping that pocket clean for Neil O’Donnell and those guys who played behind him.
The other thing that I think was a key to the Pittsburgh running game for years is when the nose tackle or the defensive tackle is offset to the play side. If you are running to the right and the nose tackle is lined up in the center-guard gap on the right, or sometimes even on the inside shoulder of the guard, that is a very hard block for the center to get.
Defensively, you feel like they should not be able to cut him off from the center position, but Dawson made that block consistently.”
Dermontti Dawson overcame playing in the shadow of the great Mike Webster; battled his way through his rookie training camp and regular season watching a fellow draftee take his role to relieve at center. He rose above a poor beginning to his pro career to set a new high standard for his position.
Dermontti Dawson is a worthy inductee to the Football Hall of Fame.
Dawson was a seven-time Pro Bowl selection and was a first-team All-Pro six times. He was also named to the NFL’s Team of the Decade for the 1990s.
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