With the start of the 2021 regular season just weeks away, staff writers at The Athletic embarked on a fun NFL 100 countdown, highlighting the 100 greatest players in NFL history.
On Friday, the first Pittsburgh Steeler appeared in the countdown, as The Athletic Pittsburgh’s Mark Kaboly highlighted the path of one Pro Football Hall of Famer Dermontti Dawson, who not only revolutionized the center position after taking over for fellow Hall of Famer Mike Webster, but changed the trajectory of the Steelers’ rushing attack overall.
For his efforts on the field and his overall accolades, Dawson cracked the NFL 100 at No. 99 overall, edging out Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ former star linebacker and fellow Hall of Famer Derrick Brooks.
The Athletic is attempting to crown the 100 best players in the history of the NFL, from its inception in 1920 until now, thanks to an idea from fellow The Athletic writer Joe Posnanski, who completed the Baseball 100 last summer. The Athletic’s panel to determine the 100 best players in league history consists of Steelers’ beat writer and Pro Football Hall of Fame voter Ed Bouchette, along with former NFL managing editor Lisa Wilson and Pro Hall of Fame voters Jeff Duncan, Dan Pompei and Mike Sando.
Seeing Dawson on the list was a bit surprising, considering centers can often be overlooked, but when looking back on Dawson’s career, his inclusion in the NFL 100 is warranted, considering he completely changed the game at center, allowing the Steelers to pull him out into space and do some things differently along the interior of the offensive line that other centers in the game simply couldn’t do, leading to the Steelers turning around their moribund rushing attack and rebuilding the Steel City’s reputation in the Bill Cowher era.
Dawson would have been an Olympic athlete in track and field if not for a fateful run-in with the high school football coach one day in the hall, eventually setting off a career that saw him play at the University of Kentucky, and then become a second-round draft pick of the Steelers in 1988. In 1989, Dawson then replaced the legendary Mike Webster at center and played in 170 consecutive games from 1989-99.
The Steelers’ great proceeded to rack up six All-Pro selections, was a member of the NFL All-Decade Team for the 1990s and later became the fifth center inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2012.
“He redefined the position. … When you look at the numbers we had in the running game, everything we did worked from the inside out, and to have a guy like Dermontti and such stability, that was a staple of every offense we had,” former Steelers coach Bill Cowher said prior to his Hall of Fame induction.
Dawson played a key role in helping the Steelers’ rushing attack transform under Cowher, suggesting to the then-head coach and fellow offensive coordinator Ron Erhardt that he could pull on certain running plays, unlocking a completely new wrinkle to the rushing attack. With Dawson pulling and handling some guard responsibilities inside on certain runs, the Steelers finished in the top 10 in rushing eight times from 1992 to 2000, including No. 1 rankings in 1994 and ’97 and a No. 2 ranking in ’96. The Steelers also featured four top-10 rankings in total offense during that same span, Kaboly writes.
Dawson holds a special place in Steelers’ history, including a spot on the franchise’s All-Time team, putting him right up there in Steelers’ lore with those from the 70s.