SAN JOSE — “I don't think people give long snapping the credit it deserves.”
We hear you, Broncos punter/holder Britton Colquitt. What good is the mania of Super Bowl week (and especially “Opening Night”) if it's not able to shine the light on some of the participating teams’ unheralded contributors.
Which brings us to... the long snappers.
Wait! Don’t go! This is important.
Sure, a botched snap or a misplaced hold is not likely to be the difference in Sunday’s Broncos-Panthers clash, but one still could be. Just ask the Vikings, who watched their season end against the Seahawks in the wild-card round, when Blair Walsh hooked a 27-yard field goal wide. Replays of the shank zoomed in tight on the hold from Jeff Locke, which failed to get the ball's laces turned out, the universally preferred setup.
The kicker usually bears the brunt of the blame in these situations, though Locke heard ample criticism following Walsh’s miss. But it all starts with the long snapper, whose job, it turns out, is not quite as simple as it might appear.
“It's probably on me to get enough rotations so that when [the holder] catches it, the laces are out,” said Denver long snapper Aaron Brewer. “I think it's like three-and-a-half rotations. I hold the back of the ball, I don't hold the laces on field goals. When I snap to the punter, I hold the laces.”
We're already well beyond the territory of “put your head down and snap the ball, dummy.”
“People don't understand the lean of the ball—the angle—is more important than the laces,” Carolina punter/holder Brad Nortman said. “If I put it down and the angle is wrong, that’s way worse than the laces being in. If I put it down at the right angle with the laces in, he (Graham Gano) usually can make it.”
Usually isn't a word that ... uh ... usually flies when it comes to special-teams success rates. An extra point, field goal or punt gone awry can swing an entire game. When those plays break down at the snap, all hell breaks loose.
Pop quiz: Who are Morgan Cox and Jon Weeks? If you answered “This year's Pro Bowl punters,” there is at least a 50% chance that you are either Morgan Cox or Jon Weeks. Those two—Cox from the Ravens and Weeks from the Texans—were added to the Pro Bowl roster late as part of the game’s rules that demands each head coach hand-pick a long snapper.
It is a subtle reminder that not everyone can do the job. Even in a sport with highly specialized roles, the long snapper fraternity is a small one.
“That's a hard thing to do, to be so consistent when you know here's a 300-pounder about to run you over,” Colquitt said. “It's definitely a tough skill.”
Still not all that invested? Look, it's understandable. The best long snappers in the NFL toil in near-complete anonymity. Ask a random person to name someone who holds on kicks and you might get “Lucy from Peanuts”as a response.
These guys just don't move the needle much, especially not when Super Bowl 50 boasts Cam Newton, Peyton Manning, Von Miller and numerous other legitimate stars. This might not help the Long Snapper Legend grow, either: of Colquitt, Brewer, Nortman and Carolina long snapper J.J. Jansen, it is Colquitt who has the most tackles this playoff season. With one.
“He does?” a laughing Nortman asked when presented with that stat. “Wowwwwww. He must be booking it downfield to get those stats.”
Said Jansen: “Hopefully, Brad doesn't need to make any tackles, so I can lead [him] or we can tie with zero. If I need to make a tackle, so be it.”
In fairness, none of these players are on the roster to fly around after the football. If they were, they would be part of the kickoff coverage teams or the actual defense. Nortman put it best in a response to a question from SI's Maggie Gray on Monday: “I'm not a football guy.”
For Brewer and Jansen, tackling is a distant third to a successful snap and getting in the way of a rushing opponent.
“My job on a punt is to free up the guards, free up our personal protector,” Jansen said. “I want to put them in good positions, so I want to set picks, I want to get them free.”
The NFL made that aspect somewhat easier prior to the 2013 season, when it made it illegal to line up someone directly over the snapper on kicks. “They used to just put the biggest guy ever over the snapper,” Brewer said. “They do different things now, try to get you with speed or whatever.”
Jansen countered that the new rule hasn't impacted him much, save for one key element: “The only difference is I hurt less after games.”
Even when the job is done well, there isn't much glory to be had here, save for maybe a random fumble recovery. Kids don't grow up pretending to be long snappers on the playground. Jansen actually admitted during media day that his real dream throughout childhood was to play in the World Series.
Somewhere along the line, those destined to be long snappers pick up the job, often on a whim. There are roster spots to be had for anyone who turns out to be adept at it, both on the college level and in the pros.
Every once in awhile, games will rest in their hands, for a split second, whether or not we notice them. Frankly, they would prefer we didn't.
“People only notice,” Brewer said, “when it goes wrong.”