The career of an average NFL long snapper is lengthy and anonymous. A snapping specialist can spend 10, 15 years with an organization without the majority of the team’s fan base bothering to learn hisname. The idea is that he's so successful at his one job, nobody even notices they exist.
Which is why Sunday night’s NFL debut for Cardinals long snapper Kameron Canaday had to be a nightmare. The Cardinals had valiantly driven to set up a game-winning field goal attempt, but Chandler Catanzaro hooked the 47-yarder well left. NBC’s announcers quickly identified Canaday’s subpar snap as part of the reason for the miss and Arizona’s loss.
Kameron Canaday, the rookie snapper ... You try to save a little money here and there, that snap was low and away and it just threw off the entire timing of that kick.
The implication was clear: The Cardinals’ decision to skimp on paying a few extra thousand dollars to find a quality long snapper had left them with Canaday, and Canaday had cost them their season opener. The cameras focused on the clean-shaven rookie from Portland State, the reason for Arizona’s shame.
Instead of decades of blissful anonymity, Canaday had achieved infamy just a few hours into his NFL career.
Why is Canaday on the Cardinals’ roster? And did his snap actually doom Arizona? Let’s find out.
Long snapping is harder than you think.
A long snapper has one job. Well, really, two jobs: To deliver the ball to the punter on punts, and to deliver the ball to the holder on kicks. (This is often also the punter.)
For a long time, teams asked somebody already on their 53-man roster to do this job — a backup linebacker or tight end.
But while a long snapper’s job is relatively easy in comparison to many football roles — they just have to master two motions and do basic blocking — it’s hard enough that somebody who doesn’t practice full-time might mess up.
If the snap is too slow, the kick could be blocked. If the snap is inaccurate, it could lead to a bad kick, or even worse, no kick at all, or a safety. If the snap’s spiral isn’t tight, the punter or holder could drop it. If the snap doesn’t rotate exactly 2.5 times in between the snapper’s hand and the holder’s hand, the laces of the ball won’t be facing in the right direction, which could cause the kick to spin off line.
Don’t believe the job is hard? Watch what happens when team’s long snappers get hurt. It often renders teams completely unable to perform any special teams plays.
So, teams decided it was smarter to use one roster spot just for a dude to long snap perfectly than to have a backup who considered it his second or third responsibility. I don’t have more recent stats, but, in 2013, long snappers played a total of two non-snapping downs in the entire NFL.
They rarely make more than the minimum salary. But if you don’t mess up, you can keep your job for years. Basically, coaches don’t have to worry about their snappers. And it’s possible not to mess up.
Retired long snapper Patrick Mannelly recalled being in college, counting every bad snap by pro snappers, so he could have an idea which teams might be willing to switch snappers in the next offseason. When he got the Bears job, he held onto it for 16 seasons.
So, if job security is so good, why are the Cardinals starting a rookie from a school I’ve never heard of?
In the past 20 years, the Cardinals have only had three long snappers: Trey Junkin did it from 1996-2001, Nathan Hodel did it from 2002-2008, and Mike Leach (no relation to the Wazzu coach) did it from 2009 until last year. But Leach retired this offseason. To demonstrate how long a snapper can play for: Leach started his college career at Boston University, which dropped its football program in 1997.
That left the Cardinals in the maybe twice-a-decade position of needing a snapper. The task of finding one fell to special teams coach Amos Jones. He’d never looked for a snapper in his NFL career: The Steelers already had one when he was hired, and the Cardinals already had one when he was hired.
Arizona decided they weren’t going to use a draft pick on a snapper. There was only one snapper invited to the NFL combine, Baylor’s Jimmy Landes.
So, how to decide from the hundreds of long snappers who didn’t get invited to the combine? Do you watch tens of thousands of kicks and punts from schools across the nation, putting a stopwatch to each snap and grading each one for accuracy? Most college snaps are successful — how do you even pick the best snapper by watching film?
Jones took a shortcut. There is one critical distinction between the job of an NFL long snapper and a college long snapper: In college, the offensive line can release downfield as soon as the ball is snapped, meaning teams often ask their snapper to run downfield and contribute in the quest to stop the punt returner. In the NFL, the entire offensive line is restricted from going downfield until the ball is kicked, making the snapper a part of the team’s blocking scheme.
Rather than spend an entire summer watching tape to determine the objectively best snapper in college football, Jones limited his search to the roughly 10 schools that employ an NFL-style punter scheme where the snapper stays in to block. From a smaller pool, Jones found Canaday, a third-team FCS All-American, and Danny Dillon, who played at Campbell.
The two became friends, spending all August snapping alongside each other, but Canaday won the gig and the money.
Jones’ restricted search had two big benefits: It saved his team a lot of man-hours, and it gave the Cardinals someone who already knew how to do what they wanted.
Did they find the best long snapper available? Probably not. There are no reliable recruiting rankings of high school long snappers — each camp offering to train your kid to be good at long snapping for money releases its own rankings saying their kids are the best — but I doubt the nation’s most talented snappers wound up at Portland State and Campbell.
I hate to downplay the Portland State Vikings, a program I have praised, but there’s a numbers issue here. Power teams have 85 scholarships to give, and can generally devote one to a long snapper. Portland State is in the second tier of college football, and only has 65. I’d guess our nation’s best snappers are at the big schools, the ones Jones overlooked.
But if Canaday did his one job perfectly every time, it wouldn’t matter.
So, was Canaday’s snap bad?
It’s obvious that something goes wrong in between the ball leaving Canaday’s hands and Catanzaro making contact.
Holder Drew Butler had to knock the ball out of the air to control it, whereas the holder is supposed to field the ball cleanly. But is that because of a bad snap or a bad job holding by Butler?
It’s the snap. Look at where Butler holds up his hand as a target to Canaday:
And look at where he catches it:
It’s only off by a couple of feet, but in a job where you’re supposed to be perfect every time, a couple of feet is a lot.
Because the snap is so far outside, he has to shift his whole body forward to catch it. That’s bad because the kicker needs the holder to reliably place the ball in the spot he’s aiming for. The more he moves his body, the more difficult that is.
And because the snap was so low, Butler had to knock it to the ground to control it:
Butler actually does a really impressive job. In spite of the problematic snap, he manages to gets the ball up and in the position Catanzaro needs it to be in, tilted properly, and with the laces out.
But according to Chuck Zodda of Inside The Pylon — I pay a lot of attention to special teams minutiae, Chuck REALLY pays a lot of attention to special teams minutiae, so follow him on Twitter if you like special teams minutiae — there are two things wrong.
The whole thing took slightly longer than expected. A usual snap-to-kick is 1.2 seconds. This took 1.4.
And the placement of the hold was off by juuuuuuuuuust a little:
In short, low snap, Butler does well to recover, misses spot by maybe an inch, causes foot wrap by Catanzaro which draws ball due to spin— Chuck Zodda (@ITP_ChuckZ) September 12, 2016
It’s possible for a kicker to adjust to a slightly longer snap-to-kick process, and it’s possible for a kicker to adjust to a slightly misplaced ball. In spite of a slightly inaccurate snap, Catanzaro could’ve hit this kick.
But both problems force a kicker to act slightly differently. A kicker’s job is to be perfect and replicate a specific, incredibly precise motion. Any sort of improvisation is bad, and this snap caused improvisation.
Canaday blamed himself for the miss:
Snap was low on FG attempt. LS Kam Canaday: "I wish I could've given my kicker something to work with." K Chandler Catanzaro: "It's on me."— Darren Urban (@Cardschatter) September 12, 2016
One slightly inaccurate snap should not define Canaday. He would not have earned an NFL job if he were not excellent at long snapping.
We can’t blame Canaday for having nerves, playing a large role in a game-winning attempt on national TV in his very first game. But long snappers can’t afford to have nerves. They have the NFL’s strangest job. Perfection is attainable, and comes with airtight job security. But anything less can see them fired in a moment.
Eventually, Kameron Canaday will become anonymous. The question is why. If the Cardinals hang on to Canaday, he could snap well there for years, achieving flawlessness in silence. But it would cost them virtually nothing to kick him to the curb, and if they believe Canaday’s inconsistency could cost them games, that’s what they will do.
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