By: Jason Sarney
The Miami Dolphins franchise has certainly been known for its quarterbacks historically, with Hall-of-Famers Dan Marino and Bob Griese. A bit later, areas of the field like defensive end took center stage, with players like Doug Betters, Jason Taylor and then Cam Wake. Linebackers Nick Buoniconti and Zach Thomas are Dolphin legends, and who could neglect to mention the Marks Brothers at wide receiver, along with Hall-of-Famer Paul Warfield and Miami great Nat Moore.
In their history, the Dolphins have nine players inducted in the NFL Hall-of-Fame, with arguably another on the way; one of the best linebackers the game has ever seen in #54. When looking through the history of the Miami greats, whether it's the Hall-of-Fame of the NFL or Hard Rock Stadium's Ring of Honor, there is an area of the field that is not as recognized as it should be in my opinion. It also happens to be one of the most important positions for a team.
The importance of a dominating and savvy center is of paramount importance, especially for a young quarterback. The center is the anchor of the offensive line, an area of the field that used to be reserved for NFL royalty in Miami. The current group of Dolphins needs an anchor to solidify the protective front on offense.
One of the reasons the pair of Super Bowl teams in 1972 and 1973 was so dominant was because of players like Larry Little, Jim Langer and Bob Kuechenberg on the offensive line. Langer was the Dolphin center from 1970 to 1979. He was immortalized in Miami on November 19th, 1990 in the Dolphins Ring of Honor, three years following his enshrinement in Canton. He was an All-Pro from 1973-77, and a six-time Pro Bowl selection (five times as a starter). Amazingly, in a ten-year period from 1970-79, he played in 128 straight games.
Langer retired in 1981 following a stint with the Vikings, having finished up his legendary Miami career in 1979. In almost unheard of positional continuity, going from one Hall-of-Famer to another at center, Dwight Stephenson became the man in the middle for the Miami offensive line in 1980. Many football writers have called Stephenson the best center of all time; he spent his entire career in Miami and made five straight Pro-Bowls. Of his eight seasons, half of them resulted with him as a 1st team All-Pro. Miami selected Stephenson in the 2nd round out of Alabama, and once settled in, he became one of the best to ever wear Orange and Aqua.
While the 70s and 80s were held on lock down by these two stalwarts, Dolphins fans should always remember the gritty, tough, cerebral play of the mid-1990s/early 2000s Tim Ruddy. A life-long Miami Dolphin drafted in 1994, Ruddy was the main man for Dan Marino and well as Jay Fiedler on those early 2000 teams. In a word, Ruddy was “nasty.” A 2000 Pro-Bowler, Ruddy was also a 2nd-round pick; he was Scranton, PA born, Notre Dame educated, and Miami made. Ruddy played through pain, specifically knee injuries, and only missed four games in his 10-year career. He was named a Miami Dolphin All-Time Top 40 player.
Don't take it from me, take it directly from Ruddy's teammate and QB, Fiedler himself. "Ruddy’s gentle nature and personality off the field was a bit of a facade covering up a tough, aggressive competitor on the field."
In a recent conversation with the former Miami signal-caller, Fiedler continued to praise Ruddy. "Highly intelligent and a great communicator getting line calls out quickly across the line. He was both stout versus the bull rush and nimble enough to pull and pop from the center position."
Unfortunately, post-Ruddy, the center continuity took a hit for nearly a decade until Miami drafted another perennial Pro-Bowler in the University of Florida’s Mike Pouncey. The recently-retired former Dolphin and Charger, Pouncey was a Pro-Bowl center for the Dolphins in 2013-2015. He was also versatile; in 2014 he played right guard all season. Injuries and internal management changes and choices derailed what could have been a longer and permanent run for Pouncey in South Florida, yet he will always be a respected fan favorite.
In the 47 years from Langer’s first season through Pouncey’s last in Miami, these four centers made 15 AFC Pro-Bowls. There is one center and a back-up per conference, unlike the multiple slots for receivers or runners, so it’s particularly remarkable that the Dolphins had this type of excellence at one position through five decades with four players.
Who is next?
Will it be a free agent like Green Bay’s Corey Linsley? How about prospects Creed Humphrey or Landon Dickerson in April’s draft? One way or the other, Miami needs its next center for the 2020s; the next anchor to send this Dolphin offense on a wave of success.
Who will it be?
There are risks that are involved with these three names. A heavy payday for Linsley, or a draft pick in the top-50 in a guy like Humphrey, as well as a player like Dickerson who is coming off of a season-ending knee injury. The Dolphins front-office will be inordinately busy evaluating the risk/reward of players in free agency, draft and or trading.
Whatever happens is anyone’s guess, but mine is that a center will be invested in for the long haul in Miami Gardens.