The Vikings may have shed the Erhardt-Perkins offense with the addition of offensive coordinator Norv Turner, but they won’t let go of the greater Erhardt legacy, especially when it helps them. Football historians will note that former Pittsburgh Steelers center and current Hall of Famer Dermontti Dawson was the first pulling center the NFL had seen, something he petitioned offensive coordinator Ron Erhardt to allow him to do in a preseason game in 1992. Despite any issues that could have cropped up in the quarterback-center exchange, Erhardt greenlighted it. It changed the game.
Though Sullivan likely won’t reach the level of notoriety that Dawson did for his part in innovating NFL run blocking, he deserves consideration as the game’s best. The fact that he’s been asked to pull this year, just like Dawson, is just one of the many reasons he can provide tools that other centers can not. Beyond that, he’s one of the most cerebral and technically sound players the NFL has. Should he play at this level for a few more years, even if he doesn’t get the Pro Bowl or All-Pro recognition he deserves (he was awarded All-Pro recognition in 2012), he needs to be a serious contender for a spot in the Hall of Fame.
Before his All-Pro year started, Robert Mays at Grantland profiled why Sullivan is his favorite center:
No matter whom you ask, whether it’s coaches or teammates, the first answer anyone gives about what makes John Sullivan exceptional is the same — his mind. Sullivan went to Notre Dame after graduating from Greenwich High School in Connecticut; Musgrave still remembers recruiting him while he was the University of Virginia’s offensive coordinator. “He’s very sharp,” Musgrave says. “Nothing on the football field surprises John.”
That intelligence manifests in Sullivan’s preparation. Musgrave says that as Minnesota game plans on Monday and Tuesday, they do so at a graduate level, thanks in large part to his center. “He’s able to see the entire defense,” Davidson says. “He knows what to expect based on linebacker location, safety location, different alignments out of the nose guards. All the stuff that he can accumulate over the week, it all means something to him.”
Ask around and that’s what you’ll hear. The offensive line staff can’t get away from how ridiculously intelligent Sullivan is, and his teammates are the same. Brandon Fusco couldn’t hide how impressed he was with how intelligent Sullivan is. I asked him what made Sullivan so revered among the staff, and he said “[If] anyone who knew half of the mental side of the game there was in football… It’s unbelievable. He knows everything. It seems like he knows when blitzes are coming, what front we’re going to get. Where the O-Linebackers are going to be. Where the pressure’s coming from at all times. It makes our job, everything so much easier, just having him and his smarts.”
Charlie Johnson said likewise. “He’s super smart. Great football IQ. He’s able to see things in a defense that I don’t think most centers can pick up. He’s a guy who’s looking beyond the front seven. He’ll look at the safety rotations and stuff and he’s a technician. You hardly ever see him in a bad position.”
His backup agrees. Joe Berger, who has been in the league with four different teams (the Miami Dolphins twice), says that Sullivan “understands the game the best of of any center I’ve played with or behind or next to.”
For context, Berger was in camp with 8-year vet Jeff Mitchell, 8-year vet Seth McKinney, 7-year vet and Rimington Trophy winner (given to the best center in college football) Jake Grove, 5-time Pro Bowler and 2-time All Pro Andre Gurode (Berger was with the Cowboys for three of Gurode’s Pro Bowl years and one of his All-Pro years), and first-round pick and Pro Bowler Mike Pouncey.
Said Berger of Sullivan’s study habits, “He’s a student of the game, he knows what’s going to happen. He studies film. I think that that really helps his game out.”
As Jeff Davidson, the offensive line coach with the Vikings said to Mays, “I hate saying this for a guy that’s currently playing for me, but he’s one of the best I’ve ever been around, in that I truly believe that I could walk out of the room and he could run the meetings.”
Obviously, it takes more than a high football IQ to do well. Fusco, noted for his own physical play and aggressive on-field attitude, spoke out in favor of John’s physical abilities. While Robert Mays’ profile touches on hand strength and leverage, Fusco notes that Sullivan’s approach to blocking is distinct from other centers. After talking about Sullivan’s football intelligence, the former Slippery Rock center detailed what else makes the Minnesota lineman so great, “He’s physical. He’s not one of those laid back centers that’s going to wait for someone come into him. He’s going to attack them and get in their face.
“There’s not a lot of physical centers. He’s a bigger center in this league. With his size, he’s meant to be physical. The way he plays, he has an attitude for it. It makes him a great player.”
Sullivan isn’t just noted for his ability to win matches based on his leverage. Consistently around the league, you hear about his hand strength and ability to carry people out of the play. It’s difficult to disengage from him, and he’ll use players’ momentum against themselves.
Fusco said it simply, “I think he’s by far the best center.”
This is a fact that has slowly been recognized by people who follow football. Before the 2012 season, John Clayton referred to John Sullivan as a “journeyman” center, a reference not to whether or not he’s traveled among teams (he hasn’t), but a mediocre make-work talent level. But that year he agreed to a contract extension and earned his All-Pro recognition, though he was already coming off of a season where Pro Football Focus ranked him as the third-best center in the NFL.
In 2012, they gave him top billing.
Though his 2013 was a struggle to start the season, he still ended up as their third-graded center with an incredible second half of the season—one which would have ended up with a 16-game grade that was the best grade a center put together in the past five years and the third-highest in PFF history (stretching back to 2007). Even knowing he had a down year, he graded negatively in only four games. All of that comes with just his after-snap performance—it doesn’t even take into account how well he sets up the offensive line.
This all matches Dawson’s strengths, but what stood out was his ability to be an effective pulling center. Sullivan is doing that again, after he did it much more often at Notre Dame. His ability to pull and get into space to block is a big advantage. He pulled quite a few times in the Vikings’ game against Oakland, and Sullivan was as excited as anybody to install this new wrinkle in the Vikings offense, despite being a little rusty.
“I did it a lot in college. I was really familiar with it. I haven’t done it in a while. It’s a part of this offense that makes us more dangerous,” he said. When asked if there were issues re-adapting to a scheme that has him pull, particularly in regards to footwork, Sullivan acknowledged the learning curve but dismissed its importance in the long run.
“I need to embrace [it] and that I need to get it done. Ultimately it’s about the scheme, not the individual player. Whether or not you’re comfortable with what you’re doing, you’ve got to get the job done,” he said. About the footwork he said, “It takes a little bit to get the footwork right and even then it’s never perfect. You’re constantly having to make improvements. You think you’ll have something figured out and then something else goes. That’s why we’re out here practicing every single day.”
The ability to pull the center is something that coordinators love to have. Grantland noted Chip Kelly’s offense doing it as part of a wider set of innovations he’s pioneering into the league. While we’ve seen centers pull before, small wrinkles like these can add up to an even more innovative run offense than the already effective one the Vikings have.
There’s a very good chance that who pulls is determined by the front. In stretch plays with a pin-and-pull concept, like the play above seems to be, the center can often make a “me” or “you” call depending on whether or not the nose tackle is playside (in this case, heads up on the center is playside) or on the backside of the play. Against different fronts, you can expect the backside guard (Brandon Fusco in this case) to pull.
There’s a lot more involved in this than just whether or not the nose tackle is head-up over the center. As Johnson said, “There’s a lot of different things—whether he’s covered or uncovered, where the ‘backer is lined up. Depends on the look you get from the defense.”
Sullivan echoed the flexibility that a pulling center provides as a running option. “It’s just creating angles on a defense. Generally when you’re pulling, it’s because there’s somebody with a better angle down blocking, and therefore you’re walling off a defense in a certain way, just creating running lanes. So as long as you’re athletic enough to do it, it’s a great option and a great weapon.”
Those leverages are difficult to map out without a blackboard to diagram, but the angles created by the offense against the defense is the biggest reason he’s been asked to pull.
Pulling centers is no longer rare like it once was, but adding this to his resume only strengthens his case as the best in the game. The Vikings won’t necessarily integrate this into their game once the regular season starts—it’s why they practice it—but it certainly makes the team more dynamic.
Recognition is something Sullivan deserves, but it’s not something he craves. As Mays wrote:
It isn’t in the quality of play from each man but in how that play will be recognized. Offensive linemen are almost universally unheralded, but Sullivan remains the overlooked of the overlooked. After two years as arguably the league’s most effective center, he has yet to be selected to a Pro Bowl. He was voted All-Pro by the Pro Football Writers Association in 2012 but snubbed by the AP. Nowhere is the NFL’s dispersal of accolades more broken than for interior offensive linemen, where name recognition trumps all else. (An example: Jeff Saturday, who was relieved of his duties as the Packers’ center last season, was invited to the Pro Bowl.) For the past two seasons, Sullivan has been its chief victim.
Sullivan sounds resigned when discussing it. “I’d love to go to the Pro Bowl,” he says, “but the Pro Bowl system is what it is. When I retire, I’d like to be a guy that my teammates all say, ‘We could count on him.’” It’s a platitude, but it’s true. A center is responsible for everyone around him.
They said the same of Dawson. For now, Sullivan is fulfilling his responsibility admirably.