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The NFL's secret disaster scenario is an injured long snapper

We don't think about long snappers a lot, because their job seems easy and they rarely get hurt. But if they're unable to play, we realize how tough their job actually is.

Sunday afternoon, the Raiders scored a touchdown to take a 15-12 lead on the Broncos and made the odd decision to go for a two-point conversion. Fans were upset, since there's pretty much no reason being up five is better than being up four, whereas there's a pretty big reason being up four is better than being up three. However, an explanation came shortly: Long snapper Jon Condo had hurt his shoulder recovering a fumble, and wasn't available to make the snap on the extra point.

This, however, led to a new wave of confusion. Why didn't the Raiders have somebody besides Condo capable of snapping the ball on the extra point? How does an NFL team not have a backup at every position -- especially one seemingly so simple as the long snapper, who just has to snap the ball? Why couldn't the team's starting center go in and snap -- that's what centers do, right?

In the wake of that confusion, I would like to take a moment to appreciate the long snapper. The long snapper has what appears to be the easiest job in football. They only play for a few snaps a game, and when they do, they have one job. And it seems like a simple job: They just throw the ball between their legs.

But what long snappers do is actually rather difficult. It only looks easy because NFL long snappers often go entire seasons without a bad snap. But their job is so different from everybody else's, when they get injured, there is often nobody on the roster capable of filling in. In fact, it's often disastrous:

  • In 2012, Oakland's Jon Condo got a concussion and had to leave the team's Week 1 game against San Diego. Travis Goethel, a rookie linebacker who hadn't snapped in a game since high school, filled in. He failed massively. His first snap skipped to Shane Lechler, who bobbled it and was tackled. On the second, Lechler lined up just 12 yards back to make the snap easier, but the punt was blocked. On the third, the ball bounced multiple times and was never cleanly fielded. San Diego would kick three field goals after the snapping failures, and won by eight points.
  • In 2008, Pittsburgh's Greg Warren tore a knee ligament against the Giants. Multi-time Pro Bowl linebacker James Harrison filled in, his first ever game action at snapper. His only snap sailed over punter Mitch Berger's head for a game-tying safety. The ensuing free kick gave New York the ball at their own 47-yard line, and they scored a game-winning touchdown on the short field.
  • When long snappers do get injured, teams often go to great lengths to avoid playing their backups. Washington's Nick Sundberg broke his arm in 2012 during the first half of a game against the Saints. He PLAYED THE SECOND HALF, because a long snapper with a broken arm is often better than a non-long snapper with two completely intact arms.

Sometimes, emergency snappers do fine. Haloti Ngata successfully snapped on an extra point after Baltimore snapper Morgan Cox tore his ACL. College long snapper Jared Allen has filled in a few times with no problems. Rob Ninkovich, who was once used primarily as a long snapper by the Saints, subbed in for an entire game for the Patriots against Green Bay in 2014. But the situations where long snapper injuries go smoothly are about as common as the ones where it leads to chaos.

I don't mean to say long snappers are irreplaceable in general. There are a lot of capable long snappers, and only 32 NFL jobs. But if a snapper gets hurt in the middle of a game, there generally isn't anybody to turn to.

A team with an injury at most positions will still try to do the same things, just slightly worse. Every team has a backup quarterback who plays quarterback in practice day in, day out. Kickers aren't great punters and punters aren't great kickers, but if a kicker or punter gets injured, the other guy typically can fill in passably well. Even in freak situations where every last offensive lineman on a team gets hurt, a team will turn to its blocking tight end, whose job is primarily blocking anyway, to play lineman.

Nobody has a job similar to what the long snapper does. No, not even centers. The shotgun snap is a rather light one-handed toss. A long snap is a two-handed throw. They're not the same motion at all. And the cost of a failed snap is rather high. If the snap is too slow, the kick will get blocked, which is a very bad situation. If the snap isn't accurate enough, there won't be a kick at all, which is even worse. A team without a long snapper might not be able to execute any of its special teams plays at all, which could cost them huge swaths of field position and many points.

This is why long snapper became a full-time job in the first place. It used to be that NFL teams would give long-snapping duties to a "regular" player -- typically a linebacker or tight end. But unless a player practices snapping full-time, mistakes will be made. And mistakes by snappers can be bad. It's much safer to have one guy who does it right all the time. The problem with that is, teams are now often left with one capable snapper and 52 guys who haven't had to do it in a game since high school or college.

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