Being a center in the NFL is a pretty thankless job. Probably not as thankless as punter or his cousin the long-snapper, but the closest that a center gets to being on a highlight reel is when the quarterback is touching his undercarriage while we're all pretending like the quarterback isn't nestled softly into his nether regions.
But this isn't a regular team or a regular offense, especially not as the Seahawks enter 2012. One of the centers main duties is to be a pseudo-leader for the quarterback and to be the "quarterback" of the offensive line. While left tackle is the most important position on most lines because of his need to block the quarterback's blind side, center doesn't just take a backseat to it's importance. While Walter Jones was one of the greatest players to ever step on a football field, the reign of the Seahawks offense in the mid-2000s wouldn't have been the same without the presence of Robbie Tobeck.
And while most 26-year-olds wouldn't have to take on the "veteran leadership role" of many teams, Max Unger's experience and age should come to be very valuable for this offense. An offense that is going to look to Russell Okung to stay healthy and consistent in his third year, as probably the only player more talented than Unger on the line. An offense that might ask a quarterback with anyone from 0 to 2 career starts to be the signal caller. An offense that has brought in undrafted free agents, seventh rounders, and players dispatched from other teams to compete for spots on the line around Unger.
There have been many disappointments in terms of healthy offensive lineman for the past few seasons, and while Unger is no exception in that category, he was one of the few bright spots on that side of the ball last season.
Unger missed basically all of 2010 with a broken toe but once he was healthy and Tom Cable was brought in to run the unit, he's been a beast that you can lean on. Clare Farnsworth wrote about it this morning:
"When I got here, we made some decisions – in terms of people that were here; those who weren’t going to be; and then those that were, but were they in the right spot," Cable said. "I kind of just drew on my past with Max. I thought three years ago when he came out that he’d be a terrific center. So we put him there from Day One and his development has been second to none on this team."
That's pretty high praise but could anyone disagree with it?
Unger had started 13 games as a rookie at right guard and 3 games at center that season, marking the first time since 1992 that a rookie offensive lineman had started 16 games for the Seahawks. Then he missed a whole season and when he got back, his new coach told him that his days at guard were over so he better master a new offense and a new position. How did he do?
I'm not going to sit here and pretend that I can highly evaluate the play of offensive lineman. When the games are going, I'm paying more attention to the wide receivers, the running backs, the girls, the wild and wacky fans. If anything, the deeper you go into that line, who the hell knows what's going on. Instead I'll be smart and refer to Ben Muth on Football Outsiders and his Word of Muth series on the Seahawks offensive line for 2011:
I’ve complimented Unger a couple of times in this column, and everything I’ve said before remains true. He still excels at reaching nose guards on zone plays (both inside and outside) and he’s pretty good once he gets to the second level. My biggest critique on Unger is his pass blocking. It seems like there are times he over-commits to certain rushers and misses guy that replace their rush lane. I’ll see him chase or block a defensive tackle with a guard for too long, while a defensive end or linebacker loops inside unblocked. I’m convinced Unger has the tools to be really good, but he needs to play within himself a little more to reach his full potential.
For a player to come off of a missed season, in a new offense, with almost no off-season to prepare, Unger elevated his game to being maybe one of the best centers in the NFL. This is really no surprise considering that he was a Freshman All-American at Oregon and then later a regular All-American before becoming a second round pick. But it is a surprise considering the eventual path that he took to get there.
Unger will be entering his fourth season in Seattle and his second season as Cable's man in the middle, but also the last season of his contract. It will be interesting to see how he plays, if and when he gets re-signed, and what his new market value will be if he were to elevate his game to being a Pro Bowl center. I do believe that he can become that, and there's little standing between him and that now if it's true what Tom Cable said about his development over the last year.
Certainly, he isn't the most recognizable Seahawk and he never will be, but considering all of the shifting and auditions that are going around the offense right now, he might be one of the most important. Let's all take a moment to appreciate Max Unger.
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