Replacing long snappers is tough in-game task
PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Long snappers are the most overlooked starters in the NFL until they mess up or get hurt.
The Philadelphia Eagles were down to the No. 3 guy on their depth chart after Jon Dorenbos broke his wrist and backup Brent Celek suffered a stinger in a 27-22 loss to Washington last Sunday.
Things got comical at that point.
Linebacker Mychal Kendricks decided to try out for the job on the sideline. Defensive end Bryan Braman also attempted a few snaps.
But versatile tight end Trey Burton got the call in a clutch spot in the fourth quarter. Burton’s snap sailed high, punter Donnie Jones reached up to make the catch and put it down in time for Caleb Sturgis to stutter-step and kick a 41-yard field goal that gave the Eagles a short-lived lead.
“Donnie made an unbelievable play,” Burton said. “He’s obviously really good at what he does.”
Celek’s only snap on a 50-yard field goal try was low and Jones couldn’t handle it. Neither Celek nor Burton knew kicking balls aren’t the same as game balls. They’re much slicker.
“I don’t know why they do that, but it was real waxy,” Celek said.
The Eagles signed Rick Lovato to replace Dorenbos, who had played in 162 straight games since 2006. Celek and Burton now plan to snap a little more in practice. They may even use kicking balls.
“I haven’t done it since training camp,” Burton said.
Lovato played two games for the Redskins last month after Nick Sundberg was injured. Washington’s emergency long snapper is backup quarterback Colt McCoy. He doesn’t fit the profile for the position, but McCoy volunteered for the job in the summer.
“I told them I could do it, which was a lie,” McCoy said. “I’ve never done it before. But when I went out to do it, I was good at it. I was serviceable. I’ve gotten a lot better ever since, and if they need me, I’ll step in and do it.”
McCoy also is the backup punter and holder.
“We tried everybody who had shoulder pads — everybody who was dressed,” Redskins coach Jay Gruden said. “He’s pretty good actually. Not much of a blocker, but he’s pretty good.”
The Ravens once turned to star defensive tackle Haloti Ngata after Morgan Cox tore his right ACL in a game in 2014. Ngata’s snap on an extra point was successful. Baltimore almost used running back Willis McGahee when Cox tore his left ACL in a game in 2010, but Cox finished the game out.
Most teams have more traditional backups — linemen, tight ends, linebackers.
Travis Kelce, a 2015 Pro Bowl tight end, is one of Kansas City’s backups. His brother, Jason Kelce, is Philadelphia’s starting center. But snapping the ball on punts and kicks is a different, tougher task. That’s why Travis Kelce is the Chiefs’ No. 2 guy on punts and fullback Anthony Sherman is the backup on kicks.
“The idea behind using both guys is that it’s so hard to be a snapper, to do a long snap and then shift to a short snap so I just wanted Kelce to focus on long snapping and then Sherman is another guy that we can use in a short snapping situation,” Chiefs special teams coach Dave Toub said.
Long snappers have to fire spirals to a punter standing 15 yards away and to a holder 7 or 8 yards deep. It requires speed and perfect placement because timing is crucial for kickers.
“Those guys are specialists for a reason and they’re so good and you don’t realize how bad you’re going to miss them until something like that happens,” Jets special teams coordinator Brant Boyer said.
Tanner Purdum has been New York’s long snapper since 2010. Jason Taylor, the six-time Pro Bowl defensive end, was Purdum’s backup that year. But Boyer wouldn’t reveal what the team would do in an emergency now.
“It’s a scary deal if you’re in our position,” said Boyer, who played with Eagles special teams coach Dave Fipp in college at Arizona. “That’s a doomsday scenario, for sure.”
NFL teams didn’t always dedicate a roster spot to a player who was only a long snapper. They used guys who also played other positions. Hall of Fame offensive lineman Bruce Matthews was a long snapper throughout his career for Houston/Tennessee. His son, Jake Matthews, is Atlanta’s starting left tackle and backup long snapper behind Josh Harris.
“I’ve been doing it since like peewee,” Jake Matthews said. “My dad did it forever in the league. That was one of the first things he taught us because it’s definitely got a lot value. It can take you a long way.”
That’s why Kendricks started practicing on his own earlier this season with the Eagles after his playing time on defense was reduced.
“The more you can do, the longer you can stay in the league,” Kendricks said.
The role has become so specialized that each team has a player who serves only as a long snapper. The Denver Broncos even have two long snappers on their roster because Casey Kreiter strained a calf a month ago so they signed veteran Thomas Gafford.
AP Pro Football Writers Arnie Stapleton and Teresa M. Walker and AP Sports Writers Stephen Whyno, David Skretta, Josh Dubow, Dennis Waszak, Dave Ginsburg, Steven Wine, Charles Odum, John Wawrow and Tom Canavan contributed to this report.
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