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Why NFL teams still can’t live without a long snapper

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How football’s ultimate one-trick ponies have kept a foothold in a league that demands versatility now more than ever.

Getty Images, SB Nation illustration

One of the worst long-snapping catastrophes in NFL history happened on Oct. 26, 2008, in Pittsburgh, across 11 minutes of clock time.

With three minutes left in the third quarter, the Steelers’ starting long snapper, Greg Warren, tore his ACL while covering a punt. Like every team in the league, the Steelers carried just one snapper on their roster, plus an emergency backup from another position who would try to snap if the starter got injured.

The Steelers tried to avoid going to their backup. The down and distance on their next fourth down gave them a chance to go for it instead of demand a long snap for a field goal or punt. But a few drives later, with seven minutes left in the game, they had a fourth-and-22 at their own 18-yard line, leading by two points. They had no choice but to bring out the backup, James Harrison, who’d never had to do this in a game before. He failed.

Harrison’s snap went a full 28 yards in the wrong direction. It bounced through the end zone for a safety, tying the game. Eli Manning led a game-winning touchdown drive after the free kick that followed. And that’s basically Hannibal Lecter to an NFL general manager.

The fear of a similar fiasco is the basis for every NFL team carrying a dedicated long snapper into every game. If he gets hurt, disaster can strike, so teams definitely aren’t going into Sundays without a dedicated snapper as their Plan A at the position.

“I’ve watched teams when they lose that guy in-game, and it is panic mode,” 49ers GM John Lynch told SB Nation. “It’s certainly important.”

Long snappers have more of a foothold in the NFL now than ever — even as the sport has gone in a direction that could’ve killed off the position.

Each of 32 teams sets aside a spot on the 53-man roster for a guy whose only job is to snap the ball on field goals, extra points, and punts. This is new. Until around the turn of the millennium, it was more common for teams to use a backup tight end or linebacker as their long snapper.

It’s been more than a decade since the multi-position snapper went extinct. It’s an odd clash that the position has trended away from versatility just as the rest of the league has moved hard toward it. The more players can do, the more value teams can squeeze out of them. But snappers have survived as the ultimate one-trick ponies.

No team’s primary snapper took a single offensive or defensive snap in 2017.

Long snappers have thrived for a few reasons. The biggest is a healthy fear of what happens when someone whose full-time job isn’t long snapping gets pressed into it. But logistics, convenience, and a cottage industry of long-snapping development have contributed to this weird position maintaining a niche in this cutthroat league.

The biggest thing about long snapping is that most people can’t do it.

Every 8-year-old who’s ever played a game of catch in the front yard has squatted down, turned around, and attempted to fire a snap 20 yards. The result is usually a ground ball or a pop-up, sprayed wildly in some direction other than straight.

“I do get that question a lot of, ‘Oh, it’s not that hard to snap,’” says Brett Goode, a free agent who’s been the Packers’ long snapper for the last 10 seasons and snapped at Arkansas before that. “Then I give ‘em my ball, and they throw it end-over-end.”

A long snap isn’t supposed to look like a kick. It’s supposed to look like a throw, traveling in a tight spiral. And it’s supposed to be fast.

Chris Rubio is the country’s preeminent trainer of long snappers. He estimates he’s worked with about 1,000 college snappers and eight who are in the NFL. He says a well-executed snap on a field goal takes no more than 1.25 seconds from the snapper’s first flinch to the ball leaving the kicker’s foot. On a punt, it shouldn’t take more than 1.9 for the ball to be airborne, with 0.75 allocated for the snap itself.

“And just to have some kid come in there and do it, it’d be like asking the dunk champion, ‘OK, all of a sudden now, I also want you to be our free-throw shooter contest guy,’” Rubio says. “That’s what I compare it to always. I’m teaching these kids to be professional free-throw shooters. Don’t do anything else. Don’t do layups. Don’t do fade-aways.”

NFL players are better than kids snapping for fun in a backyard. But the vast majority of them could never get off a good snap in a game.

Every team has an emergency backup who plays another position. Most would be at significant risk of doing exactly what Harrison did 10 years ago.

The Chiefs’ backup snapper is Travis Kelce, a star tight end who works on long snaps in practice from time to time. Kelce is one of the more athletic tight ends to ever play, but the organization has little confidence in his snapping skill.

“It won’t be pretty, but they’ll have emergency ability to come in,” general manager Brett Veach explains. “So Travis does that. And every time in camp, he does great. We get to a mock game or whatever, he’s awful. So you’re gonna have to hold your breath.”

Why couldn’t an NFL team just force some player to really hone in on his long snapping and get him to the point where he’d be good enough to fire off eight or 10 snaps a game against live competition? Then, a team could save a roster spot and find some marginal advantage elsewhere.

Veach acknowledges that some tight ends or linebackers have the skill to be “kickass snappers,” but the modern workflow of an NFL team means tapping that potential would hurt them elsewhere. Teams have their specialists go off into their own world during practice, and if emergency snappers were snapping regularly, they’d lose reps at their primary positions. The league’s collective bargaining agreement also limits some practice time.

“So if you had a linebacker that did it, he would have to stay and practice,” Veach says. “He’s not gonna be able to just leave and practice snaps. So, it’s specialized, and they do their own thing. You’ve gotta have a good one.”

On almost every subject, teams have varying beliefs about strategy and philosophy. But the belief in a solo long snapper encompasses the whole league.

“You can train people,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera says. “But again, it’s about experience too. Snapping for the very first time, it’s a big deal.”

Most players would have no interest in long snapping, anyway. Rubio recalls a conversation with a team’s backup snapper at a wedding a few years ago, when the snapper summed up his mindset about the position:

“Please, God, don’t get injured, don’t get injured, don’t get injured, because I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing when I go in there.”

There are more capable long snappers in the world than ever, but changes in the college game have made it hard for NFL teams to evaluate them.

Every major college program has a long snapper whose sole job is long snapping. As in the NFL, it wasn’t always that way. Long snappers now turn out at camps across the country, the most prominent of which are Rubio’s. When he started with a camp in Las Vegas 14 years ago, he estimates 15 snappers showed up. The same camp now gets about 350 a year, and that’s one event in a series that travels all over the country.

“It’s just a specialized — very, very specialized — position,” Rams general manager Les Snead says. “It’s interesting, having a kid who plays high school football, and their snapper on the team’s gonna end up going and playing in college football. But all the camps he attends, it’s almost like a golfer.”

Rubio estimates 35 to 40 percent of FBS programs now offer scholarships to incoming freshman long snappers. Most schools take them as preferred walk-ons, but most put their starting specialists on scholarship by the latter years of their careers.

The challenge for NFL teams is finding snappers who know how to block. In the last few years, almost all college teams have transitioned to a spread punting scheme. They scatter their blockers and coverage men horizontally, which usually means there’s not a rusher for the long snapper to block. The snapper, then, gets a free release downfield:

The spread punt is less common in the NFL, where blockers keep closer splits and funnel rushers more toward the middle. Most professional snappers have to put their heads up and block someone almost as soon as they’ve released the ball. Rushers can’t line up directly over the snapper’s head, but they still run right at them:

“The NFL teams are having a hard time finding a guy who can do what you need to do, which is snap and block and get downfield,” Kevin Gold, an agent who represents a handful of snappers, says. “So it’s the blocking component to me that really separates the college guys from the pro guys.”

The average NFL snapper in 2017 was 6’2.5 and 244 pounds. Rubio says if he were building a snapper from scratch, he’d be about 6’4 and 235. Just one was under 6-foot. FBS snappers ranged between 6’6 and 5’9, per Gold’s research at Longsnap.com.

All of this makes for the sport’s weirdest job market, where long snappers have both more and less job security than anyone else.

When Gold adds a rookie to his client list every few years, he breaks it down for the player’s parents.

“Your son is trying to almost become President of the United States, or almost become elected a U.S. Senator, because they’re trying to get one of the hardest jobs in the world,” the agent will tell the snapper’s mom and dad.

There are 32 of these jobs, but Gold only sees two or three come open most seasons, despite many snappers working on one-year deals.

On the other hand, if you have a long-snapping gig, you can keep it for years just by not messing up. It’s not uncommon for a snapper to play his entire NFL career with one team. The average pro experience for a snapper in 2017 was nearly six seasons, about twice the overall average career length. The average annual salary was a shade under $800,000, according to Spotrac, with the highest snapper pay at $1.4 million.

Still, long snappers live a tenuous football life. If they throw more than one or two bad snaps in a season, they’ll be cut. If they create a smidgen of an off-field issue, they’ll be cut.

“I always said that I can’t get in trouble, where a stud athlete, he can get in trouble,” Goode says. “I can’t get in trouble for PEDs. There’s so many things that as a snapper, you can’t do, because a team’s pretty much not gonna let you have a four-game suspension. They’re just gonna move on.”

And the job security that comes with not messing up is not absolute. Teams might cut long snappers just because they want to get younger and cheaper. The minimum salary goes up with experience, from $480,000 for a rookie to at least $790,000 for four-year veterans.

“It’s a double-edged sword where, yeah, the guys are getting better, and you can lock up your job security,” Rubio says. “But the problem is coaches will look at someone and say, ‘Well, damn, this other kid’s just as good, and I can save half a million dollars.’”

The league has never cared more about long snappers. It’s also never had to care less about any one snapper in particular.

Out of more than 330 players invited to the 2018 NFL Combine, just one was a long snapper — Oregon’s Tanner Carew. The league needs one guy to send snaps back to the other specialists who show up, but it never invites more than a tiny handful. The demand isn’t there, and there’s not a lot for teams to evaluate from snappers at the combine anyway.

“I can tell you, we don’t have him in our 60 interviews,” Lynch, the 49ers’ GM, says. “But, you know, I marvel at those guys.”

Carew relished being the only snapper in Indianapolis, even though it was Mississippi State’s Hunter Bradley who eventually became the first one picked in the 2018 NFL Draft when the Green Bay Packers took him in the seventh round.

“You know you’re competing with other guys that aren’t here, but it is an honor to be the only one here,” Carew says. “But yeah, it’s good. It is different. It is different than another position in football.”

Snappers are one of football’s greatest contradictions. They’re the most replaceable and the least replaceable players in the game. Their entire object is to last as long as possible by getting noticed as little as possible, because if people know your name, you probably did something wrong. There’s no choice but to embrace how different you are.

Goode has lived by a bit of advice that a former snapper once gave him.

“I got my spot on that bus. When you say that with a roster of 53, and most of my career it was only 45 people dressed, and they changed it now to 46. It’s very special to have your seat on that bus, and, yes, it is a little lower-key than other positions, but that’s kind of what I enjoyed,” he says. “I didn’t need to be in the spotlight or anything else like that.”