Spikes in value, hikes in pay
Traffic cops in the trenches, centers no longer are the league's 'Rodney Dangerfields'
Jason Brown's briefcase was the first indication that he was going to be all business when he made a free-agent visit to the St. Louis Rams in March. The team knew the 26-year-old center had everything they coveted for the position: agility, intelligence, leadership ability and a sturdy, 6-foot, 3-inch, 328-pound frame. What they couldn't have anticipated was his meticulous preparation.
After pulling a legal notepad and a ballpoint pen from that briefcase, the Baltimore Ravens free agent interrogated the team's officials like a defense attorney bracing for a career-making day in court.
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Scribbling notes furiously and firing questions rapidly, Brown drilled head coach Steve Spagnuolo and general manager Billy Devaney on every possible topic. He wanted to know the vision for the team and the best schools for his children. He asked why certain coaches were hired and how he could jump-start his community work.
"I've seen guys bring in briefcases before, but all they cared about was how much money they could stuff in them," Devaney said. "Jason obviously cared about more than just that."
Still, Brown did get paid -- to the tune of a five-year, $37.5 million deal with $20 million in guaranteed money. By making him the highest-paid center in football, the Rams told us just how much life has changed for players at that position. This used to be a job that often went overlooked, especially when it came to making big-time money and netting recognition. Now more centers are being treated as difference-makers in a league where left tackles have long been the stars of the offensive line.
Few jobs in the NFL have become more demanding over the past decade. Centers have to deal with defenses that can seem as complex as algorithms and defensive linemen who could dwarf a wildebeest. They also have to lead the offensive line and in some cases -- especially on teams that don't employ men named Brady or Manning -- alleviate some of the burdens on quarterbacks. In other words, these men make considerable contributions that often go unnoticed.
It's taken a while for the league to appreciate a center's value.
"There's definitely been a disparity in how centers have been treated in relation to other players in the league," said Brown, who spent his first three seasons as a guard in Baltimore before moving to center in 2008. "That's why I think there probably aren't too many centers who are upset about the deal I got. In fact, they probably love it."
More stock placed in the position
"The reason you're seeing centers gain more importance is that more teams are going to the 3-4 [defense] again," said Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome. "And you need to have somebody who can neutralize that nose tackle. If you don't, everything can get screwed up. Your running game won't be effective and you'll also have somebody in your quarterback's face on every play."
Newsome actually believes Brown's deal is only one recent example of the increasing value of centers. For one thing, Tampa Bay turned heads last offseason when it signed New Orleans Saints free agent Jeff Faine to a six-year, $37.5 million contract with $15.5 million in guaranteed cash. At the time, Faine was reportedly the highest-paid center in football.
The 2009 NFL draft also marked the first time two centers (Cleveland's Alex Mack and Buffalo's Eric Wood) were drafted in the first round since -- get this -- 1983. That fact is even more revealing when considering the pedigree of some of the game's top players at the position.
There are three current centers who have made the Pro Bowl despite not being drafted (Indianapolis' Jeff Saturday, the New York Giants' Shaun O'Haraand Denver's Casey Wiegmann). A fourth, six-time Pro-Bowler Matt Birk of the Ravens, was a sixth-round pick of the Minnesota Vikings in 1998. But these are just more examples of how teams now view the position. Fewer organizations think they simply can stumble into players with that kind of talent.
O'Hara actually played left tackle at Rutgers before moving to center for Cleveland in 2000. In the first start of his career, he faced a Ravens defense that eventually led that team to a Super Bowl victory months later. As O'Hara crouched down for his first snap and glanced up to see massive defensive tackles Sam Adams and Tony Siragusa in his face -- and menacing middle linebacker Ray Lewis behind them -- he wondered one thing: How am I going to get through this game?
Nine years later, O'Hara can laugh about that moment. He's seen how his job has evolved. So do Brown's agents, Kevin Omell and Harold Lewis, who were convinced their client would find a strong market for his services.
"The center had been perceived as the Rodney Dangerfield position of the offensive line for a long time," Lewis said. "But it's actually the most important position after left tackle. You're talking about a guy who goes one-on-one against a nose tackle. He's making all the reads along the line. And he's the guy snapping the football. He's doing so much more than a guard but it's always been an underappreciated position."
The center of some problems
It's also a position that can create all kinds of problems when mistakes happen. Brown realized this during a game with the Browns last season. He became so immersed in trash-talking with an opposing interior lineman -- whom Brown won't identify -- that Brown decided to dominate the player just as the Ravens moved inside the 5-yard line. The only problem was that Brown delivered a sloppy snap on the next play, one that Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco fumbled just as Brown was crashing into his opponent.
Dwight Stephenson, a Hall of Fame center with the Miami Dolphins, had his own problems with the ball in a preseason game against Chicago in 1987. When he decided to get a jump on a run play, he unleashed a snap so hard -- and unexpected -- that it dislocated one of the fingers of quarterback Dan Marino. Fortunately for Stephenson, that moment never made the news.
But there were plenty of people who saw how the absence of injured center Nick Hardwick recently affected the San Diego Chargers. The Ravens beat San Diego 31-26 on Sept. 20, largely because linebacker Lewis knifed into the backfield unobstructed on a fourth-and-2 play and stuffed Chargers running back Darren Sproles in the game's final minute.
"That play was a direct correlation of the center and guard not communicating," said former Chargers left tackle and current SNY broadcaster Roman Oben.
"I could see if that happens on the road. But if that happens at home, where there's no crowd noise, that's a perfect example of what can happen when the center isn't in there. Ray Lewis made a great play but that wouldn't happen if Nick Hardwick was on the field."
Re-assessing the importance of center
Most people in the NFL can tell you exactly what it takes to be an effective center. Said Ravens offensive line coach John Matsko: "You need a smart guy with a big, thick body. He needs to be strong enough to move linemen off the ball but he's also got to be able to get depth on pass plays. He's got to be quick enough to move laterally and also get to linebackers at the second level. And he has to be a leader. Because he has to get all the people around him to trust what he's doing."
Fullbacks used to be at the bottom and the center was right there with them. If you had a small guy who could get people lined up, that was enough. There just wasn't a premium on talent at the position.” -- Rams general manager Billy Devaney
What many people can't do, however, is explain why the value on the position declined so much prior to this decade. Keep in mind, there wasn't one center listed among the NFL's 25 highest-paid players in 2000. While Faine ranked 14th last season with a salary of $13.1 million, New York Giants guard Chris Snee and Dallas Cowboys left tackle Flozell Adams were the only offensive linemen who made more in 2008. Offensive tackles and, more recently, guards have seen their salaries explode over the years. Meanwhile, the center largely had been treated like the kind of sensible purchase that could be found at the local Wal-Mart.
Part of the problem was that left tackles became more valuable -- basically because edge pass-rushers became more dangerous -- and that meant teams placed less emphasis on what happened in the middle of the offensive line. But outright neglect also factored into the issue.
"There were great players who played the position before I came along, guys like Mick Tingelhoff, Jim Otto and Mike Webster," Stephenson said. "But the position also got to the point where some teams thought you didn't need to be a great athlete to play it."
Added Devaney: "When you went into the offseason in years past and looked at what you needed to build a team, you placed a priority on every position. Fullbacks used to be at the bottom and the center was right there with them. If you had a small guy who could get people lined up, that was enough. There just wasn't a premium on talent at the position."
That attitude changed as the 1990s neared an end.
First, the zone blitz became a popular method for attacking offenses. That meant teams had to do more things to protect their flanks on passing plays and the center had to be able to block without much help. With the recent increase in 3-4 defenses, more interior linemen also started lining up head-up on centers as opposed to in the gaps, which limited the center's ability to reach linebackers on running plays.
After all those changes, some teams realized that having a bright player who weighed in the 260- to 270-pound range wasn't good enough for the position, especially since the salary cap kept expanding.
"I think the attention to the position started changing when I signed my first deal with the New York Jets," said Tennessee Titans center Kevin Mawae in reference to the five-year, $16.5 million free-agent deal he received in 1998.
"People thought [then-Jets head coach] Bill Parcells was crazy to pay that much for a center and a guy nobody knew. But a few years after that deal I told those guys that I made them look like geniuses."
Mawae eventually played in seven Pro Bowls and he also witnessed interesting changes in the position. One day during the 1999 season, he noticed that then-Jets defensive coordinator Bill Belichick was crafting a game plan to confuse the New England Patriots' young center, Damien Woody. Mawae never had heard of a coach spending any time on attacking the center. Over the years, Mawae realized just how ahead of his time Belichick was.
Traffic cop, play-starter, road-grader, pass-protector
Today's defenses are so complex that teams need talented centers to cope. For example, once Brown breaks the huddle on a typical play, he usually has about 15 to 20 seconds to: 1) identify where the "mike" linebacker is on defense so his teammates know where to slide the pass protection; 2) determine the blocking assignments for his fellow linemen; 3) re-adjust those assignments when the defense changes its initial look; 4) assess where the safeties are rotating (since their positioning can tip off a blitz); 5) pay attention to the quarterback's cadence; 6) ignore all the chatter around him; 7) snap the ball and; 8) execute his assignment.
Those responsibilities sound overwhelming, but Brown gained plenty of experience against the Ravens' defense in practice last season.
Newsome said that task was like Brown "facing a pop quiz" every time the center came to the line of scrimmage.
"I know I can never be off my game," Brown said. "I have four other players depending on me and that means I can't just know 50 percent or 75 percent of the defenses. I have to be on point and assertive in my line calls. I have to do my due diligence when it comes to studying. There are a lot of things that go on in a center's head."
You can not be a mental midget and play this position. These guys can determine where the blitz is coming from on one day and then they can do the New York Times Sunday crossword puzzle after that.” -- Titans C Kevin Mawae on his fellow centers
Brown's peers agree.
"When I first started playing, it used to be that a 3-4 team stayed in that all game long and a 4-3 team did the same," O'Hara said. "Now they mix things up all the time."
Added Mawae: "You can not be a mental midget and play this position. That's why all the guys I know who play center are smart. Jeff Saturday is bright. Shaun O'Hara is bright. Matt Birk is a Harvard graduate. These guys can determine where the blitz is coming from on one day and then they can do the New York Times Sunday crossword puzzle after that."
Just as critical to a team's success is finding a player who can deal with all the oversized interior linemen in today's league.
Last year's Pro Bowl roster alone revealed the challenges that centers face. It included: 350-pound Shaun Rogers from Cleveland; 350-pound Albert Haynesworth from Tennessee (who now plays in Washington); 360-pound Kris Jenkins from the New York Jets and 317-pound Pat Williams from Minnesota.
Their objectives might best be summed up by Williams: "I'm a straight a------ when I'm out there because it's my job to take the center out of the game."
To understand how hard it is to block these players, consider what happened to the 6-4, 289-pound Mawae in a matchup with Jenkins on Sept. 27. Jenkins charged into Mawae with such a fury on one pass play that Mawae was 10 yards deep in the backfield after it ended.
The major reason the Rams went after Brown was to avoid those kinds of moments. As Rams guard Richie Incognito said, "Jason brought a physical presence to our offensive line. You can have two good guards but if your center isn't strong, you won't be successful."
The role that centers play in helping their teammates also is an easy thing to miss.
For one thing, the success Flacco enjoyed in his first NFL season might not have happened if Brown hadn't led such a strong offensive line. The same is true of Jets rookie signal-caller Mark Sanchez this season. Having a Pro Bowl center like Nick Mangold has made the rookie's life much easier.
"It means a lot when you have a center who can direct traffic," Flacco said. "Because when you have a good player in there, he can make everybody else play better."
Added Birk: "Because the game is more complicated, you have to do more to help the quarterback. The fewer things the quarterback has to do -- whether that means me having to pick up protections so he can focus on the coverage -- the more it's going to help the offense overall."
The Ravens credit Birk for helping their young offensive line jell but Brown has been just as essential to the Rams so far.
"We wanted to build this team from the inside out," said Rams head coach Spagnuolo. "And he was a great place to start."
The problem for most teams, however, is that there is a shortage of centers with that kind of potential.
That's the biggest reason why Brown's deal might be a harbinger for centers entering the open market down the road.
"It will be hard for a center who's been to two or three Pro Bowls to not want that kind of money," Newsome said. "Jason hasn't been to any and he already has it."
That doesn't mean we can expect a day when a center will be the foundation of a franchise or the first pick in the draft. But there is a sign of hope for the position now that men like Brown are finding more value for their services.
As Brown said, "You have to be a complete player to play center today. If you don't have the whole package at this position, you definitely will get exposed."
Senior writer Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com.
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