Pavelle: Why Don’t Guards Double As Centers?

I’ve been putting some time in to get ahead on next year’s Big Board, and just finished compiling my initial list of interior offensive linemen that Pittsburgh might want to target in the first 3-4 rounds of the 2021 NFL draft. I figure that Matt Feiler has earned his big payday and may be the most certain departure out of all the Steeler free agents, which leaves a hole. Kevin Dotson has played so well I feel comfortable with next year’s starting Guards, but who will be the depth behind them? Besides that, we all know that both Pouncey and Villanueva are getting on in years, and I’d say it’s 50/50 either Chuks Okorafor or Zach Banner will ride off into the sunset too.

Thus, the Steelers are facing a mini-crisis coming up for their offensive line in the next offseason, and a pretty significant one over the next two. The team started to fill that pipeline last year (Dotson), but it is a process we can expect to continue. The future holes will be for a starting center and maybe a starting tackle, with immediate needs for quality depth at guard, and arguably at center.

So… It turns out that the top three Centers are massive young men compared to the average at their position. Creed Humphrey (fringe 1st, 316 lbs.), Josh Myers (solid 2nd, 312 lbs.), and Landon Dickerson (same, 325 lbs.) are all accomplished centers, but could easily start in the NFL at Guard as well. Alas, but there are no hyperathletic pulling centers who could reproduce what Pouncey has provided for so many years. But there are some superb guards like Wyatt Davis (who Kyle Crabbs called, “a destroyer of worlds”) and Trey Smith (who has all-star levels of raw talent and may be even better as a human being).

Could one of those guards move in to play center, just as the crop of centers can move out to play guard? Or maybe DeCastro could do it, since he certainly has the brains and the veteran savvy to make all the line calls? Why not?

At that point I realized that I didn’t have an answer. I can “feel” how tackle is different than playing guard. It’s sparring in a boxing ring instead of brawling in a phone booth. Tackles need extra length, and especially better mobility in order to turn that extra space into an advantage rather than another way to get beat. Some Tackles can move into guard because they brawl as well as they box, but that rarely works in the other direction. Got it.

But why should centers and guards be so different? Isn’t it a phone booth either way? The essential skills would be explosive burst moving forward on running plays. Quick hands on pass plays. The ability to cooperate with your buddies to either side. And ideally, but not necessarily, the mobility to pull on running plays without needing the lateral smoothness of a tackle. Anchor and low center of gravity are mandatory. and then it comes down to things that help but can be compensated for, such as length, grip strength, leg drive, physical width, and the basic athleticism to learn essential technique like rolling your hips through the blocks.

The only differences I can see come down to making the line calls, and the physical act of hiking the ball. The first one makes sense… except there are a lot of guards who possess more than enough smarts and savvy to handle any above-the-neck duties you could ask for. DeCastro graduated from friggin’ Stanford! And who hasn’t been impressed just listening to Ramon Foster? As for hiking the ball… come on. Seriously? There is a genuine trick to long snapping, like throwing a good knuckleball. Some people have the knack, but most people do not. Hiking the ball just isn’t that hard. You can do it. I can do it. And certainly any professional athlete can do it.

So why don’t guards backup at center the way centers back up at Guard? I called in to the Tunch & Wolf show Thursday morning just to ask the question. This is the answer I got from Wolf (who only played Gguard) and from Tunch (who started at center, but made his career as an all-star Tackle).

  1. They agreed that I understood the physical skillsets. Guards and centers really do have the same kind of physical talents, while Tackles require something a little different.
  2. Yes, guards need to worry more about pulling and getting to new locations on the field. They are tasked with trying to ‘win’ on every play. Centers win when they manage to just break even, especially if they do it without any help from their friends.
  3. But it seems that playing center is WAY more complicated above the neck than just making the line calls. It begins with the fact that things go faster as you move closer to the ball, and thus the required play speed is a tiny bit quicker for centers than it is even for guards.
  4. But centers have to deal with that speed while also making the line calls.
  5. And they have to make those line calls against defenses that deliberately shift as the clock winds down in deliberate efforts to cause confusion.
  6. And then they have to get the snap done right every single time, lest they cause disaster, and receive the sort of scorn heaped on Pouncey for a few bad snaps last year (and that resulted in one center on another team getting benched in 2020).
  7. And they have to do it while facing 350-lb. monsters right over their nose.
  8. And they need to do the other OL things at the same time, like timing/coordinating their motions forward, back, right, and left with the snap, the communication duties, the teamwork with their Guards, the instructions from their QB, and all the shifting variables.

It turns out that NFL guards need to be physical monsters and brilliant athletes. It really is as tough as we like to imagine. But playing center is much more about immediate mental and physical reaction time. Centers need to do a lot, and they need to do it instantaneously and correctly every time because they are the only offensive players on the field who never miss a single snap. It’s the strain on the nerves and the brain that’s different, not the physical talents.

So no. Even the best and most intellectually gifted guards, like DeCastro, probably can’t play center as well. Alas.

FWIW, this also explains why pulling centers are so rare, and why men like Dawson and Pouncey earn such renown. You can be an All-Pro center by just breaking even on every play. That is what the current crop are aiming to do. A center who can do all of the above, and also pull like a guard, creates a blocking mismatch. Teams with a player like that can use entirely different blocking schemes from those where the center is “only” a mobile pivot point. When it works, they can manage to put an unexpected big guy out in space against a smaller defender, all but guaranteeing a significant hole to run through.

A day when you learn something new is a good day indeed. And I did, so this one wasn’t all bad.

And, alas, I’m going to have to apply an unfair discount to Davis, Smith, and the other pure guards of this pretty talented class. They aren’t what the Steelers are going to need. A center who can back up at either guard position? Great! No discount at all. A Guard/Tackle hybrid player with a skill set like Feiler’s? Wonderful. A pure tackle like Okorafor or AV? Same. There are lots of spots in the OL pipeline that want to be filled, but we can’t beat the system by moving a guard that one step further inside.

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