Even before he snaps the ball and crashes into large humans, a center in the National Football League must read the defensive front and make calls that dictate his fellow linemen’s blocking assignments.
Seahawks center Max Unger encountered a bit of a problem against the Vikings on Sunday as it can be hard to point out blocking responsibilities when the middle finger of your right hand is bent perpendicular to its neighbors.
And that’s not considering the difficulty of snapping a football with a dangling digit.
Asked about it in the locker room Wednesday, Unger acted as if he had forgotten about it. What, this? He lifted a distended middle finger, which was taped to his index finger for support.
“I’m not the first one to deal with this, and I’m sure I’ll not be the last,” Unger said. “This is the NFL, you deal with this stuff all year.”
Asked to give a description of the finger’s appearance, Unger was brief: “Not pretty.”
Unger was clearly angry when he came off the field and was forced into the locker room for an X-ray, and even more agitated when the X-ray machine was on the fritz, forcing him to miss a couple series. Eventually, the finger was manipulated into place and Unger returned to finish the game.
In his fourth season out of Oregon, Unger has performed so well that he was the lone Seahawks player listed on Peter King’s mid-season All-Pro team for sportsillustrated.com.
Unger didn’t seem to know about that recognition, either, and responded with laughter. “No way … really?”
None of this, however, is a surprise to the Seahawks staff and front office. General manager John Schneider arranged a four-year, $25 million contract extension for Unger this summer, which made him among the highest-paid centers in the league.
Since then, Unger seems to have brought even more passion to his leadership role. It’s to the point that coach Pete Carroll often calls the offensive line “Max’s Guys.”
“He’s a really bright football player, he’s got a great competitiveness to him that makes him want to know everything that’s going on for everybody,” Carroll said Wednesday. “He’s really the captain of that line. (With) all the calls and the complexities that are there, you’re looking for a guy who will take care of that accountability, and he’s done a great job of that.”
Unger takes part in extra meetings with line coach Tom Cable, and quarterback Russell Wilson, to master the intricacies of each week’s game plan.
“Part of it comes with playing the position,” Unger said, his central location on the line making it a natural spot from which to direct traffic. “It demands a pretty good understanding of the offense and an overall knowledge of the scheme.”
Unger is still in the process of maturing into the center position, having played right guard as a rookie and been sidelined with a foot injury all but one game his second season.
“Where it starts to become really fun is when, as a group, you’re more aware of what you’re doing aside from just your specific assignment,” said Unger, when asked of his development. “You get a greater understanding of the offense and what you’re trying to accomplish with the game plan, and I think that’s what we’re all growing into now.”
You see, linemen tend to give answers in the plural even to “singular” questions.
Despite some injuries and position juggling across the line, Max’s Guys have blocked well enough that the Hawks are seventh in the league in rushing average and have allowed a reasonable 15 sacks in nine games. At this point last season, they’d given up 28 sacks.
“It was a pretty big point of emphasis,” Unger said of reducing the sacks this season. “We broke them all down and watched them all.”
The lowlight film of sacks this season is a much shorter reel. And part of that is due to the awareness and leadership of Maxwell McCandless Unger.
“He studies hard, does his homework, and makes all the calls,” guard Paul McQuistan said. “He’s our guy.”