Unlike a lot of the other positions I’ve done in this series, I found it fairly easy to select the five greatest centers in NFL history. Thankfully, I got this column finished without getting any gray hairs from contemplating my candidates. Here are my five greatest centers in NFL history.
Webster was a 6-1, 255-pound behemoth (at that time) who was the Pittsburgh Steelers’ fifth-round selection and the 125th player taken in the 1974 NFL Draft. A three-year starter and honor student in college, Webster adapted to the pro game quickly.
For two years, he split time at center with veteran Ray Mansfield while seeing some service at guard and special teams. However, with a start in the final game of the 1975 season, Webster began a string of 150 consecutive starts that lasted until 1986, when he missed the first four games with a dislocated elbow.
Webster, who hails from Tomahawk, Wisconsin, played more seasons (15) and more games (220) than any other player in Pittsburgh history. Webster, who was the team’s offensive captain for nine seasons, was considered to be the strongest Steeler and won the Ironman competition in 1980 to give credence to that belief.
Webster, who joined the team in the same year the Steelers won their first of four Super Bowls, also played in six AFC championship games. Pittsburgh won four of the six title games and Webster was an all-pro choice seven times who was selected to the All-AFC team five times from 1978 through 1982. He also played in nine Pro Bowls, the first five as a starter.
The Steelers made Webster a free agent in 1988 and he quickly signed on with the Kansas City Chiefs, first as an offensive line coach. But within a few weeks, Webster was back at his old center spot, starting all 16 games in 1989. He completed his 17-season, 245-game career after a final 1990 campaign with the Chiefs.
Stephenson, a second-round pick and the 48th player selected in the 1980 NFL Draft, excelled at center for the Miami Dolphins for eight seasons from 1980 to 1987. An All-America at the University of Alabama, the 6-2, 255-pound Stephenson lived up to all his advance notices as a Dolphin.
In just a few years, he was universally recognized as the premier center in the NFL. He earned both All-Pro and All-AFC recognition five straight years from 1983 to 1987 and was named the AFC or NFL Offensive Lineman of the Year in various major polls four different years.
Stephenson was selected for five straight Pro Bowl games, the first four as a starter. Injuries prevented him from playing in the 1987 and 1988 games.
Stephenson was the Dolphins offensive captain and his presence as the anchor of the offensive line was a major factor in the Dolphins’ record of allowing the fewest quarterback sacks in the NFL for six straight years. Stephenson was forced to retire when a major injury failed to respond. He was the starting center in the 1982, 1984 and 1985 AFC championship games and in Super Bowls XVII and XIX.
Langer joined the Miami Dolphins as a free agent in 1970, stayed with the club for 10 years through the 1979 season and then wound up his career with the Minnesota Vikings in 1980 and 1981. In his decade with the Dolphins, Langer developed from an obscure substitute to one of the finest centers ever to play.
Langer was named All-Pro and All-AFC six straight years from 1973 to 1977 and was also picked for the Pro Bowl six straight times. During that period, he started in three AFC championship games and Super Bowls VI, VII and VIII.
For two years, Langer saw only limited action as a guard and a special teams player, but in 1972, he switched to center, won the starting job and wound up playing every offensive down in Miami’s perfect season. Hard working and quick, Langer was a compact, low-driving blocker who had the strength to stymie bigger defensive linemen.
Langer played in 141 consecutive games from 1972 until a knee injury ended his Miami tenure with seven games left in the 1979 season. Early in the 1980 campaign, he was traded to the Vikings, with whom he played two more seasons.
Otto was one of football’s outstanding centers in both, the American Football League and in the National Football League from 1960 through 1974.
Otto joined the newly founded Oakland Raiders in 1960 and, for the next 15 seasons, he was the only starting center the Raiders ever had. He was one of only three players who saw action in each of his team’s 140 regular season games over the AFL’s ten-year history, and he played with such skill that in its entire history, the AFL never had another all-league center. Otto, who starred as a center and linebacker at the University of Miami in Florida, won All-AFL acclaim 10 straight seasons. He was All-NFL in 1970 and 1971, and then earned second-team All-NFL honors in 1972. Not surprisingly, he was named to the all-time All-AFL team following the 1969 season.
During his 15-year career, he participated in each of the nine AFL All-Star games that were played and in the AFC-NFC Pro Bowl the first three seasons that postseason classic was scheduled. Incredibly, Otto never missed a game in his entire career. When he retired following the 1974 season, he had started in 210 straight games in regular season but had played in 308 games as a Raider.
During that period, the Raiders, who had once been AFL doormats, rose to prominence. Oakland won seven divisional championships in an eight-year period from 1967 through 1974. The 1967 Raiders became AFL champions and played against the NFL’s Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl II, and although they lost that game, throughout his era Otto was a tower of strength as the anchor of the Raiders’ talented offensive line.
As a 20-year-old Green Bay Packer draftee, Ringo couldn’t believe his eyes when he arrived Packer training camp in Grand Rapids, Minnesota. Between being lonesome and all “the bigger players competing for the center job,” Ringo quit camp believing he didn’t have a chance to make the team. However, when Ringo returned home, he found out that he wasn’t welcome. As he put it, “They didn’t want a quitter. They said you should at least try.”
Despite his 211 pounds as a pro freshman, Ringo found his way back to Grand Rapids and the team … and, of course, the rest is history. Ringo played 11 years with the Packers and four more with the Philadelphia Eagles.
He made All-League seven times and played in 10 Pro Bowls. Never weighing more than 235 pounds, he utilized his speed and football intelligence to dominate his opponents. When coach Vince Lombardi took over the Packers in 1959, Jim was the only already-established All-Pro on the roster and Lombardi – ever the genius – built his offense around Ringo.
Lombardi was thankful for Jim’s speed; “A bigger man might not be able to make the cut-off blocks on our sweeps the way Jim does. The reason Ringo’s the best in the league is because he’s quick and he’s smart. He runs the offensive line, calls the blocks and he knows what every lineman does on every play.” It’s estimated that Ringo handled the ball (only the quarterback can match him) more than 12,000 times in his career, including around 1,000 snapbacks for punts or placekicks. And to think he almost quit football.
So there you have it – the greatest centers to ever lace up a pair of football cleats.