Long snapping, if you stop to think about it, is a pretty strange skill. Get down into a stance if you've got some space, and see how it feels to try one out. You've got to throw a perfect spiral, through your own legs, while bent forward on your haunches. And, of course, to successfully do it in the NFL, you've then got to be able to raise your head in time to avoid getting creamed by the behemoth coming across the line of scrimmage, intent on driving you several centuries back towards the Stone Age.
In spite, or perhaps because of the odd mix of athleticism and strength it requires, long snapping is an anonymous skill, even among most serious football fans. People who can tell you yardage records from decades gone by or rhyme off the top tacklers from their favourite team probably don't know many, if any, of the unknown men who help make good punts happen. Unfortunately for Travis Goethel, in the win-at-all-costs NFL, he's likely to remembered as the guy who made it important to have a good backup.
Goethel may never have been the NFL's Mr. Irrelevant, the dubious title bestowed on the guy taken with the final pick of each year's seven-round draft. He avoided that particular ignominy by more than a full round, plucked out of Arizona State by the Oakland Raiders with the 190th selection in 2010.
But sixth-round picks tend to make better punchlines than headlines, and Goethel got burned by one of the best comedic outfits in the business just days after being drafted when satirical newspaper The Onion suggested the Raiders planned to switch their late-round linebacker to "Bay-area realtor" instead. With a mix of eerie irony and alarming prophecy, Goethel was said to be satisfied with the switch, considering it a better fate than alternative new lives as "car dealer, casino greeter or long snapper."
Fast forward to this week and Oakland's opening game of the 2012 season, an all-California encounter against the San Diego Chargers, in nationwide primetime on Monday night no less, played before of a full house of frightening Raider faithful. Sometime in the second quarter, Oakland's two-time All Pro long snapper Jon Condo suffered a head injury and was knocked out of the game. And thus began Goethel's infamous time in the harsh spotlight of shame.
Goethel hadn't been a long snapper since his high school days in Southern California. And among his 52 Raiders teammates who didn't already have long snapper on their pro football resume, no one else had shown much skill at it when the coaches tried out some candidates in training camp, trying to figure out who might handle the role if Condo went down.
Early in the third, with the Raiders trailing 10-6, a penalty forced Oakland to punt around midfield. No doubt already tense, Goethel's challenge was made harder by the fact that he was throwing off the dirt infield of baseball's Oakland A's that covers the Coliseum field in early season NFL games, something he'd never had to deal with on any high school field. Goethel threw a ground ball snap back to punter Shane Lechler, who was tackled for a nine-yard loss. Given prime position, San Diego couldn't find the end zone, but came away with a field goal.
Oakland was halted around midfield again on their very next drive, but on the grassy side of the field at least. To make things even easier, Lechler stepped closer to Goethel, who fired off a solid spiral. But the Chargers broke through Oakland's line and Lechler was blocked for the first time in six years (coincidentally, about as long as he's been catching snaps from Condo). San Diego took over inside the 10 but still couldn't punch through, coming away with a chip shot field goal to take a 10-point lead.
There was more woe for Goethel in the fourth quarter. Lined up on the infield dirt a second time, he sent another bouncer back to Lechler, who fumbled it away. An Oakland lineman was able to fall on the ball, minimizing the damage. But for the Raiders, a third key opportunity to put an extra 50 yards between the opponent and their own end zone had gone to waste. San Diego booted its fifth field goal, and was untroubled by a late Raider touchdown in a 22-14 win.
Despite consoling words from Lechler and head coach Dennis Allen, Goethel made it clear how he felt about his experience. "Trust me," he said, "I wish it never happened."
Fortunately for Goethel, it may not happen again for a while, to him or anyone else unfortunate enough to wind up in the job. The Chicago Bears gave their backup long snapper, Matt Spaeth, a full slate of practice snaps this week. As for Oakland, they went even further, inviting six free agent long snappers to Wednesday's practice, then signing one of them to the practice squad in case Condo can't go in this week's game against Miami. The winning candidate, Nick Guess, had been looking for work after he was cut in training camp by, of all teams, the San Diego Chargers, who better hope they have a good backup.