Matt Birk announced his retirement today meaning that the 2012 season was the last for two of the NFL’s most prominent centers over the last decade and change.
Birk joins Jeff Saturday in hanging up his cleats. The Vikings and Ravens center goes out on top, having helped Baltimore to its second Super Bowl championship. It was his only ring despite having played for 15 years.
In addition to winning the Super Bowl once, Birk finishes his career with six Pro Bowl appearances. Saturday leaves the league after a 14 year career that was primarily spent in Indianapolis. He made six Pro Bowl appearances, though the last one this season (with Green Bay) was earned despite his having been benched toward the end of the season. Saturday adds two appearances on the Associated Press NFL All Pro First Team.
So, where do these two greats fall on the all-time list of NFL centers? Both of them were very good to great players but I’m uncertain whether they belong in the Hall of Fame. Using Pro Bowls as a comparative stat has its shortcomings because of fan involvement and all the guys these days who are getting appearances due to superior players pulling out of the game. But offensive linemen are particularly difficult to judge, so comparing their postseason profiles with respect to Pro Bowls and AP All Pro appearances with counterparts who were on the last three NFL All-Decade teams seems a logical place to start.
In that respect, both Saturday and Birk compare favorably to most counterparts who are not enshrined in Canton, but not so well against others who already have been inducted.
The centers on the Team of the 80s were two all-time greats. Miami’s Dwight Stephenson, whose career was cut short by a knee injury, and Mike Webster, who spent most of his career in Pittsburgh, both are in the Hall of Fame. Stephenson was a five-time Pro Bowler and a four-time First Team All-Pro. He was inducted in 1998, undoubtedly being forced to wait through four times as a finalist due to the brevity of his eight-year career.
Webster made an impressive nine Pro Bowls and was on the AP First Team list five times. He also appeared as the second team center on the team of the 1970s. I had the opportunity to watch him get inducted in 1997, a highlight of my writing career.
Saturday and Birk can go neck and neck with these two in Pro Bowls, but neither stacks up in the All Pro department. The comparisons are also mixed against the centers from the NFL’s Team of the 90s, which included Dermontti Dawson and Mark Stepnoski.
Stepnoski, the second team center, is not a Hall of Famer and my guess is he won’t be. He was a solid player, as evidenced by his five Pro Bowls. But he never made the All Pro’s first team and was only on the second team three times. So Birk and Saturday match up well with him. They don’t hold a candle to Dawson, however. The Pittsburgh center who succeeded Webster racked up seven Pro Bowls and six First Team All Pro appearances, which earned him induction in the 2012 Hall of Fame class. He stands far beyond Saturday and Birk in those postseason honors.
So what about the centers from their own era? Kevin Mawae was the first team center on the team of the 2000s. His postseason profile reads eight Pro Bowls and three First Team AP appearances. He’ll be eligible for the Hall of Fame in 2015 and one would think he’ll make it in eventually, though perhaps not as a first-ballot guy.
The second team center was Olin Kreutz, a guy I always thought was slightly overrated. Nonetheless, Kreutz posted six Pro Bowls and a single AP First Team appearance earned in 2006. So Saturday and Birk actually match Kreutz in Pro Bowls and Saturday beats him in All Pro appearances.
Another guy who I always thought was a pretty solid center was Tom Nalen, who spent 14 years anchoring the line in Denver. Nalen only scored five Pro Bowl appearances, but also added two First Team AP All Pro awards and has two Super Bowl rings too. So we’re starting to look at a decade where Mawae stands above everyone and then there are at least four legit candidates who can claim being the second best at the position.
My guess is that is going to hurt Birk and Saturday in their efforts to make the Hall at a position where only about a dozen players have been enshrined going back to the beginning of the Hall of Fame.
It was an era of solid, very good players at the position. But the only obvious “yes” of the so-far-unenshrined trio of centers on the last three All Decade teams is Mawae, in my eyes. None of these guys would be an embarrassing inductee into the Hall. But the likelihood is that all of the others blend together enough where they all come up short.