(A note from Jack: Right around the same time that I was finishing this story, the Hall of Fame announced its semifinalists. I did not see the list until after I published this piece. As a result, it is already old! Ah well. Unfortunately, Olin did not make the list of semifinalists, which is here. Please enjoy this article as a time capsule for a short-lived, bygone era.)
When Kevin Mawae was named a finalist for the Pro Football Hall of Fame Class of 2018, Olin Kreutz was one of his biggest supporters.
Mawae did not get in last year, and this year he and Kreutz were joined by three other centers as modern-era nominees for the Class of 2019. When the selection committee announces its list of 25 semifinalists later this month, I’m hoping to see both men on the list.
Unfortunately for all five nominees (Mawae, Kreutz, Ray Donaldson, Tom Nalen and the late Kent Hull), center is an underserved position in the Hall. Here are the modern-era centers to reach the round of 25 or beyond since 1999:
- Kevin Mawae: eligible 2015 — semis 2015, 2016 — finalist 2017, 2018
- Bruce Matthews: eligible 2007 — HOF 2007
- Dermontti Dawson: eligible 2006 — semis 2006-2008 — finalist 2009-2011 — HOF 2012
Matthews didn’t even play center the majority of his career. Prior to him, Dwight Stephenson went in his 6th year with the Class of ‘98, Mike Webster went in ‘97 in his 2nd year of eligibility and Jim Langer went on the first ballot in 1987.
That’s five centers elected since 1987, including Matthews. Offensive tackle gets a lot more attention, with 10 in that time including four first ballot. We’ve had nine guards in that time, plus Matthews, with three first ballot, or 10 and four with Matthews.
And yes, you might say that there are twice as many tackles and guards as there are centers, but there are not necessarily twice as many HOF tackles and guards. You rarely see an o-line with two HOF-level tackles or two HOF-level guards. The center is a standalone man and the only player who is guaranteed to touch the ball on every play. That number — five in 30 years — definitely feels light.
Okay, on to this year’s class
We have basically three rounds of cuts:
- From 102 modern-era nominees to 25 semifinalists
- From 25 semifinalists to 15 finalists
- And from 15 finalists to the Hall of Famers (this will include a cut from 15 to 10, but this will all be on one day)
Here is my spreadsheet that I use to manage my process. I’ll talk you through how I’ve come to the conclusion of including both Mawae and Kreutz in my top 25.
Mawae is the best of the bunch. I have Kreutz, Nalen and Hull in a bunch after Mawae, followed by Donaldson. If we voted for HOFers strictly on a “yes” or “no” basis with no number restrictions each year, I would vote Hull, Kreutz, Mawae and Nalen “yes” and Donaldson “maybe.” So I’m removing Donaldson first.
When I got started, I knew that I want to move Mawae at least into the top 15. He is the next center who I think should go into the Hall. That leaves Hull, Kreutz and Nalen as three guys to order. I decided that the top man in this group would go into the top 25 with Mawae, for one simple reason that actually seems like a negative, and that is this: there is no prize for top 25.
Therefore, to me, I think you should use the rounds between 102 and 5 to do two things:
- Honor guys with your vote to survive a cut
- Leave guys in another round to create a ranking system AND to continue the debate about a certain player
Wait, are there other Hall-worthy centers not nominated this year?
There are! Three actually: Matt Birk, Jeff Saturday and Mark Stepnoski. Here is how those three stack up with our five nominees:
- Birk: 15 seasons, 6x PB, 1x AP1, SB champ (‘12 Ravens)
- Donaldson: 17 seasons, 6x PB, 0x AP1, SB champ (‘95 Cowboys)
- Hull: 11 seasons, 4x PB, 2x AP1, 4x AFC champ (‘90-’93 Bills)
- Kreutz: 14 seasons, 6x PB, 1x AP1, NFC champ (‘06 Bears), All-2000s 2nd team
- Mawae: 16 seasons, 8x PB, 3x AP1, All-2000s 1st team
- Nalen: 14 seasons, 5x PB, 2x AP1, 2x SB champ (‘97-’98 Broncos)
- Saturday: 15 seasons, 6x PB, 2x AP1, SB champ (‘06 Colts)
- Stepnoski: 13 seasons, 5x PB, 0x AP1, 2x SB champ (‘92-’93 Cowboys), All-1990s 2nd team
Again, on a strict yes-no vote on these guys, I think I would put in everyone except Donaldson and Stepnoski, since I lean toward the All Pro-1 selections. But I could be talked into them.
Alright, let’s break it down — Hull, Kreutz and Nalen
I’ll do this based on their strengths, listed alphabetically:
- He was the center for a team running a ton of no-huddle, and the degree of difficulty of being the center for the K-gun is high.
- He was the starter on a team that reached four consecutive Super Bowls.
- Three of his offensive teammates (Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas, Andre Reed) are in the Hall, and he was arguably the 2nd most valuable (after Thomas).
- Undisputed leader of an offense that was, in several iterations, lesser than the team’s load-carrying defense. He was considered an even leader with the defensive leaders, despite playing offense.
- Lone offensive common thread for four playoff teams in the 2000s, including a Super Bowl runner-up, with basically four different starting quarterbacks.
- Helped three running backs gain a total of six 1,000-yard seasons.
- Peaked as the NFL’s best center and named to the 2000s All-Decade team, whose voters are the HOF selection committee.
- 2x 1st team All Pro in an era with Dawson and Mawae.
- As Denver’s starting center from 1995 to 2007, led the way for six (6!!) running backs gaining a total of 11 1,000-yard seasons, including 1998 league MVP and HOFer Terrell Davis.
- Starter on 2x champ.
And at last, my order for 2019
Kreutz first, then Nalen, then Hull. I would also put Birk and Saturday ahead of Hull too, but behind Kreutz and Nalen.
Once my order was in place, I moved Kreutz on to the top 25 with Mawae. Once we vote in Mawae, Kreutz to me is next man up.
Now, of course, if you don’t agree with my order of the centers, then that’s something we can debate. What should not be under debate is that making an effort to honor the greatness inherent in each position in football is the best use of the Hall of Fame, all things being equal. (In other words, last year it made sense to put in two middle linebackers and two wide receivers, so that’s what they did.)
In an era with Kevin Mawae, Olin Kreutz’s peak was as the best center in football. He reached six straight Pro Bowls, meaning he was both great and consistent. He was a respected leader and captain and helped his team reach one Super Bowl, one other NFC championship game and win four divisions, doing so with four quarterbacks, three running backs and two head coaches.
When Brian Urlacher was inducted into the Hall this summer, he thanked six teammates. Five were on offense. The sixth was Olin.
“Olin Kreutz — the toughest person I have ever met and one of the hardest working people as well,” Urlacher said. “OGK played his heart out. Injuries did not matter. He played through them. Olin was the best center in the league and he made me a better player and competitor. We all looked up to you Olin.”
Chicago fans know what Urlacher is talking about. So did opponents. And so do, I suspect, the members of the selection committee. I look forward to seeing Olin in the semifinals this year, and in the Hall of Fame in the years to come.
Jack M Silverstein is Windy City Gridiron’s Bears historian, and author of “How The GOAT Was Built: 6 Life Lessons From the 1996 Chicago Bulls.” He is the proprietor of Chicago sports history Instagram “A Shot on Ehlo.” Say hey at @readjack.
If there were no voting restrictions and you just voted "yes" or "no," would you vote for Olin Kreutz for the Pro Football Hall of Fame?
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Which modern-era nominee center for the PF HOF Class of 2019 was the best?
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