The Legend of Swamp Ass and Other Tales of Football's Most Pivotal Partnership

Don BanksFeatured Columnist IOctober 4, 2017

Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning (18) and center Jeff Saturday (63) during an NFL football game against the Dallas Cowboys in Indianapolis, Sunday, Dec. 5, 2010. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)
Peter Steineck

To begin with, nothing happens on a football field until they assume the position and execute their singular maneuver. They are the team within a team. So calling the snap the center exchange seems apt, given that no two players exchange more information and communication than a quarterback and his center, sharing as intimate and quirky a relationship as there is in sports.

The partnership between QB and center is unique, pairing the often over-glorified face of the franchise with one cast in the obscurity and grunt work of the offensive line. But somehow, something about their yin and yang existence just works, creating a bond that sets the agenda for the rest of the offense. Show me a quarterback and center who aren't on the same page and I'll show you a dysfunctional team going nowhere.

"So much of a quarterback and center's job at the highest level is dependent on that relationship," said Super Bowl-winning ex-NFL quarterback Trent Dilfer, who played for five teams over the course of his 13-year pro career.

"I would say you talk to your center more than any other person during the course of the week. You really have to see everything through the same lens, because the quarterback and the center are dictating what everyone else is looking at when the ball is snapped. And when it's on, it's money. It's a machine. Because you start seeing things together that other people can't see."

If that all sounds cerebral, think again. Let's not forget we're discussing communication via the butt pat. There's no escaping juvenile humor when communication between two people revolves around one man repeatedly placing his hands beneath other's backside. 

"The sweatiness of the center's butt is important," former NFL quarterback and B/R NFL analyst Chris Simms said, somehow without giggling. "It goes overlooked, but when you're a quarterback and you're making your money throwing the football, swamp ass takes things to a whole new level.

"Our center when I was in Tampa Bay, John Wade, his nickname was actually Swamp Ass. In the Tampa heat, in games in August and September, it was torture. There were games I'd take the snap and get sprayed in the face by his butt sweat."

And, of course, there are personal boundaries that must be crossed, all in service to the job.

Peter Steineck

"The worst part is that you're not in pads all the time," Dilfer said. "Most of your practices, it's my fingers on your balls, because you have on gym shorts and a jock. You get very intimate with every part of their anatomy."

And you thought you had problems with your co-workers.

         

An old married couple in Indianapolis

It's hard to imagine anyone ever fitting together better than Peyton Manning and Jeff Saturday, who over the course of the 12 seasons in Indianapolis (1999-2010) became the game's quintessential quarterback-center pairing.

The 172 regular-season games they started together as Colts are the most in NFL history for a quarterback-center combination, besting the 1980s-90s Buffalo duo of Jim Kelly and Kent Hull (157).

"I have to say that record Jeff and I share as far as the most starts together, I'm quite proud of it because it was an accountability record," Manning said. "It meant that he and I were both there for the team every Sunday. We always wanted to answer the bell. So there is a bond there, and the quarterback-center relationship, it's a little bit different than quarterback-guard or quarterback-tackle."

When Saturday arrived in Indianapolis in 1999, Manning's second season, the quarterback asked for his locker to be relocated in the middle of the offensive line section, specifically next to Saturday's locker. 

"There's something about being closer to guys who are going to protect you, but really it was to be next to Jeff," Manning said. "Because I can't tell you how many conversations we had at our lockers while we were getting dressed for practice. I don't think I ever surprised Jeff with an audible or a protection change, because at some point along the way, he and I had talked about it.

"And the best thing about it, it didn't have to be that week. Maybe we talked about it in training camp, and it showed up in November. There has to be more of a relationship between a quarterback and his center than just in practice, or just in meetings. We sat next to each other on the plane on road trips, and that's another two hours spent together, watching some last-minute film. Those conversations helped us communicate better out there on Sunday. They helped us win a lot of games."

Manning trusted Saturday to make the blocking calls for the line, but there were still moments where breakdowns occurred and tempers flared between the two veterans. Late in their careers, they were likened to "an old married couple" by offensive tackle Charlie Johnson, per Joe Capozzi of the Palm Beach Post.

Manning recalled how the two got their wires crossed on a snowy day in Denver, and in the process, they proved just how far their comfort zone extended with one another. Perhaps even a bit too far.

"We used to have these code words for a snap count," Manning explained. "A lot of teams use Monday is on 1, Tuesday is on 2, Wednesday is on 3. Jeff and I always had a couple to call at the line of scrimmage. Tiger was on 1, because Tiger [Woods] was the No. 1-ranked player in the world, and Phil [Mickelson] was on 2. But our alternate code words besides that were—and you've got to be careful here—c--k was on 1 and balls was on 2.

Peter Steineck

"So we're playing Denver in the snow and we're on the silent count, and a single tap is on one and a double tap means it's on two. So I called it on balls, but Jeff snapped it on one, on c--k, and we fumbled the snap. And it's snowy, and there's mud, and we're down there in this pile and it's like Trevor Pryce and all these big old D-linemen, and there's a scrum in there. But somehow I come up with the ball. Jeff said I had mud all over my nose, eyes and I can't even see, but all I'm doing is yelling at Jeff, going, 'Jeff, Jeff, it was on balls!' He's like, 'No, it was c--k!' And I go, 'It was balls, god dang it!' and these Broncos D-linemen are looking at us like these guys are absolutely nuts, these guys are crazy. Jeff and I laugh about that all the time."

But when Manning and Saturday's vast reservoir of experience together paid off in real time, in a big-game situation, it could silence a hostile crowd of 70,000.

"Maybe I'm a weirdo, but I used to get more excited for a six-yard completion when we had the protection fixed just right," Manning said, channeling his inner football nerd. "Maybe Baltimore was bringing some overload blitz and we got it all blocked up and we completed a six-yard slant route to Marvin Harrison. But there's so much work and time and process that went into that, so Jeff and I would kind of celebrate it, even if it'd be like, 'What's the big deal? You got six yards. It's 2nd-and-4.'

"But I took pride in that and Jeff did as well. We also knew that six-yard completion sent a message to the other team: 'Hey, we're on to you. That blitz got home against the team you played last week, but you know what? We studied that all week and we had a plan for you.'"

Saturday, a six-time Pro Bowl selection and two-time All-Pro who's now a member of the Colts Ring of Honor, offers one final coda on his famous partnership:

"With the old married couple thing, just remember: I'm the wife. Because I'm always right, brother.''

        

"It's like a dog sitting in the same spot every day"

Kevin Mawae manned center for three teams (Seahawks, Jets, Titans) in his underappreciated 16-year career, and he never had the luxury of working with the same quarterback for anything close to the tenure of Manning and Saturday. But be it Rick Mirer or Warren Moon in Seattle, Vinny Testaverde or Chad Pennington in New York, or Kerry Collins or Vince Young in Tennessee, the routine of getting to know a new quarterback's habits was roughly the same every time.

Peter Steineck

"Initially, you go through that dating phase, trying to figure out what each other likes, that kind of thing," Mawae said. "Then you kind of progress into the 'we're in a serious relationship' stage, where you have conversations about how we're going to do things. And then after you go through that stage, now you're kind of an old married couple and you know each other, and you know what he's going to say before he even talks."

In time, Mawae said he could tell which quarterback was underneath him without looking. "I could tell by his hands, his fingers," he said. "Just from the pressure they put on you. Some guys got longer fingers than other guys."

And sometimes, Mawae had to take a hands-on approach to a new quarterback, recalling the break-in period for snapping to Young in Tennessee. At Texas, Young played almost exclusively in the shotgun formation and wasn't adept taking the snap under center.

"For most centers, me included, my ball is going to hit the exact same spot every time," said Mawae, who spent this past summer helping coach the Vikings offensive line in training camp as part of the NFL's Bill Walsh Diversity Coaching Fellowship. "So it's up to the quarterback to know where that spot is.

"V.Y. wasn't used to being under center. So the first day I worked with him, I reached back and grabbed his hands and he was like, 'Whoa, what are you doing?' He was kind of shocked, like I was trying to mess around with him. But I was like, 'No, I'm telling you this is where the ball is going to be. If your hands aren't here every time, then we're going to have an issue. If you ask Jeff Saturday, he could tell you where the ball's going to hit him in the butt cheeks every time. It's like a dog sitting in the same spot every day."

Saturday was so consistent that Manning said he could "take a snap from him one-handed. I didn't even have to have that left hand there to sort of protect it. It was just there every time, just automatic."

Adds Saturday: "I got so comfortable with Peyton that I could tell just by his hand pressure when he was expecting the ball. You start to kind of feel [that it's] about to happen."

To hear Mawae explain it, there's an art to the snap. "The center wants to feel pressure on his butt so he knows the quarterback's there," said Mawae, who actually was a quarterback in high school. "Sometimes you'll get guys who are really light-handed and I'll actually squat down, I'll sit down on their hands. And they'll start to pull out and I'll say, 'Dude, I've got to feel you. I want you to put pressure up on me.' ... I want you to feel like you're lifting my butt up off the ground.

"And then there'll be guys who are reaching all the way to the front and all you're feeling is their forearm down your butt crack, and I'd be like, 'Hey, you're too far in there, you've got to back out a little bit.' You go through that process. It sounds like junior high stuff to say, 'Hey, you're too light on my ass, you need to put more pressure on it.' But that's how we talk."

Peter Steineck

   

"I don't have to text-message him at the end of the night"

NFL locker rooms are inherently cliquish, and offensive linemen are usually the most self-contained segment of the roster. They famously stick together like elephants. But the quarterback-center relationship still cuts through those barriers, and many passers consider their center to be their best friend on the team.

"The relationship between the quarterback and center is always great because it's like the ultimate man's relationship," Simms said. "There's no bullcrap. He's your BFF on your team and I don't need to stroke his ego or make him feel like he knows I really still like him. I don't have to text-message him at the end of the night like you might have to do with some diva receiver. You're friends without being friends almost, if that makes any sense."

Centers, said Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Fouts, are invariably the most interesting guys in an NFL locker room. "And they are the most intelligent, other than the quarterback," quipped Fouts, the former San Diego Charger and current CBS analyst. "All of them are really unique guys with outside interests."

The contrast between the fame of the quarterback and the anonymity of the center creates a blend that meshes well, Simms said.

"The center is usually kind of a selfless guy who's just happy to be with what I call the herd of cows, the offensive line," Simms said. "They graze together over in the corner. But it's the perfect working relationship, because I knew no matter what, if we're at practice and I motherf--ked the center and told him how s--tty he was, he's going to go home and take that personally as a professional. But not personal between me and him."

Even when they're not together, quarterbacks and centers stay connected, Dilfer said, defending each other's views in their separate meeting rooms. Don't even think of trying to come between the only two guys who handle the ball on every offensive play.

"The center has got to be your voice in the O-line meeting room, saying, 'No, no, no, we can't do that,' or, 'I know Trent doesn't like it that way,' or 'That's not what Trent's seeing,'" Dilfer said. "And the quarterback has to represent the O-line in his meeting, because sometimes you get the crazy OC [offensive coordinator] who's not in the O-line room and he'll start telling you to do all these things. And you're like, 'Whoa, whoa, whoa. I know our O-line can't do that. I know they'd rather block it this way.' There always has to be that collaboration."

Jeff Saturday became so accustomed to playing with Peyton Manning that he would know when to snap the ball without Manning calling for the ball.
Jeff Saturday became so accustomed to playing with Peyton Manning that he would know when to snap the ball without Manning calling for the ball.Larry French/Getty Images

When the connection between center and quarterback is good, the rest of the offense is along for the ride. The center puts the line in the best possible position with his blocking calls, and the quarterback gets the play call and any other necessary info to the skill-position players.

"When it all comes together, it's awesome," Dilfer said. "There's so much anxiety going in to play a really good team on the road when the conditions are terrible, and you know 65 snaps are going to be high anxiety. And it's really up to the two of you to make sure it's not high anxiety for the other nine guys. They can't do their jobs well unless the quarterback and center nail theirs."

There are even times when a center has to rescue his quarterback during the course of a game, shouldering some of the responsibilities that would normally fall to the offense's most pivotal player. Dilfer recalled a game with Seattle in 2004 in which starting quarterback Matt Hasselbeck was injured, forcing Dilfer into the lineup at home against Arizona in a critical Week 16 game the Seahawks needed for their playoff hopes.

But Dilfer suffered "massive back spasms" late in the week and missed practice Friday. By game day, his condition had not improved, but there were no better options, so he played.

Center Robbie Tobeck was able to make the play calls for Trent Dilfer when he was struggling to play through the effects of painkillers.
Center Robbie Tobeck was able to make the play calls for Trent Dilfer when he was struggling to play through the effects of painkillers.Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

"I had to get a Toradol shot and take two Vicodins just to get the spasm to go away," Dilfer said. "But the game starts and I'm loopy going to the line of scrimmage. The cocktail was wrong. I'm barely calling the plays in the huddle and we go to the line of scrimmage and I can't identify anything.

"But [center Robbie] Tobeck turns around, says, 'We got you.' And he and Hutch [offensive tackle Steve Hutchinson] start doing my job for me, calling out all the safety positions. They even audibled for me at the line of scrimmage. They carried me through the first quarter until I started sweating it out."

The Seahawks won 24-21 and went to the playoffs at 9-7, winning the NFC West.

"When ... you're on the same page with your center and he has your back and you have his, it's a true synergistic relationship," Dilfer said. That's why if a center gets hurt, you usually cut a bunch of things back. To run the whole breadth of the offense with a new guy? That doesn't happen. There's too much going on."

         

Touching me, touching you…good times never felt so good?

The comfort level between a quarterback and his center is partly underscored by the cold reality they share a level of contact that no two other players do, which can produce its share of bathroom humor.

Nice meeting you. Now bend over.

"We're all junior high kids at heart, and we'll still play junior high jokes on each other," Dilfer said. "There's been plenty of times where my center pissed me off and I'd give him a little flick where he doesn't want me to flick him, just to wake him up."

Hall of Famer Dan Fouts and his centers would prank each other during the snap, even during a game.
Hall of Famer Dan Fouts and his centers would prank each other during the snap, even during a game.Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

So does it ever get easy for a quarterback and center to share that first awkward moment of introduction, the one that happens when they're not even facing each other?

"No, it really doesn't," Simms said. "That first snap from a new center is always awkward. It's 'Hey, what's up? How you doing?' as you're feeling weird for where you're placing your hands.

"It's the weird thoughts that go through your head the first time you put your hands under a new center and go, 'Oh, OK. Gee, this guy's got a pretty big crease up there.' Or sometimes, you put your hands under a new center and go, 'Man, it's like perfectly flat. I can't even tell where his butt crack is.'"

Saturday admitted that in some "moments of levity," he farted on Manning. "Oh, absolutely, yeah, you're going to drop one on his hands when he puts them up under there. There's all kind of stuff we did. But it's not an everyday thing. At least I didn't have (swamp ass). I'm a pretty dry guy, a very hygienic young man. So there were not too many bad days for old No. 18 back there."

Fouts said back in the day, he too feared the dreaded pass-gas-on-the-passer treatment from his centers in San Diego.

"The biggest threat a center can give to a quarterback is he's going to fart on your hands," Fouts said. "And they always do that once a year. But just once. Because a quarterback's comeback for that is to call a play on two and pull out on one, so the center's snapping it up into his balls. They never do it again."

Almost every quarterback B/R talked to for this story copped to having made their centers change into clean, dry pants at halftime on game day, or even in practice, in an effort to minimize the swamp-ass syndrome and keep the ball grippable.

"I made [Wade] change at practice and then I made him change at halftime during a game, and he hated me for it," Simms said. "There'd be a point toward the end of the first half during a hot game in Tampa where he would snap me the ball and it might as well be a wet watermelon out of a water cooler.

"I don't have a whole lot of fart stories, but there were times where I smelled the back of my hand after practice and I'd be like, 'Holy s--t, don't do that again. Let me wash that before I ever do that again.'"

Chris Simms found it could be a challenge to take the snap from center John Wade in the Florida heat.
Chris Simms found it could be a challenge to take the snap from center John Wade in the Florida heat.Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images

Dilfer recalls a graphic tale not for the squeamish, from a Seattle road game against Washington in 2001, when Tobeck was sick and played through a stomach virus he got from his daughter's horses. Early in the game, which Matt Hasselbeck started at quarterback, Tobeck had an emergency. On the field. In his pants. With nowhere to hide.

Herein lies the stuff of quarterback-center legend.

"Robbie's really sick and it's coming out both ways by the time we start the game," Dilfer said, still laughing at the memory 16 years later. "Matt starts the game, but in the first quarter, Robbie s--ts himself right on the field. It's in his pants and he can't go change. It is what it is. We're playing a football game. And if you remember, Matt used to lick his fingers like [Brett] Favre did, because Matt did everything Favre did, from when they were together in Green Bay. So Matt's licking his fingers and realizes Robbie s--t himself. So Matt panics, and now he's a mess.

"I'm dying on the sideline, and I'm telling [coach Mike] Holmgren, 'Dude, your boy is freaking out because Robbie s--t himself and can barely stand up. And Matt's got s--t on his hands and he's licking his fingers. I mean, this is not going well.'"

For once, Dilfer admits he didn't mind being the backup quarterback that day.

"Well, that's where it gets good," Dilfer said. "The first half is a debacle, Matt played terrible, and Holmgren just shreds everybody at halftime and puts me in the game. So I look at Robbie and say, 'You change your frickin' pants right now. Go sit in the bathroom and don't come out until you're clean, if I'm going to play in this game.' Sure enough, he changed at halftime and we came out and actually played pretty well."

The Seahawks still lost 27-14.

Hasselbeck confirms it went down exactly that way and still laments that Holmgren didn't have the shotgun formation in his playbook back then, especially on the road with a loud crowd, when a silent snap count was necessary.

"I got benched at halftime because of an interception that slipped and a fumble [thanks, Bruce Smith]," Hasselbeck wrote via text. "But my hands were so slick from all the sanitizer I was using all game. It's funny now, but it wasn't ideal at the time."

The one-of-a-kind relationship between quarterback and center tests friendship—and boundaries of taste—like none other. And for those who can make it work despite the hijinks and hardships, their teams follow, no matter how swampy the conditions.

              

All quotes were obtained firsthand.

Don Banks has covered the NFL since 1990, both as a beat writer for newspapers in Florida and Minnesota, and as a senior writer at Sports Illustrated for 16-plus years. He currently freelances and lives in the Boston area. Follow him on Twitter, @DonBanks.