The upside-down life of the Tennessee Titans’ All-Pro long-snapper

NFL

LONG-SNAPPING HAS been described as the most specialized, and most ignored, position in all of sports. And in the strange, upside-down world of the long-snapper, the better you are at your job, the more anonymous you become. Case in point: Although they are a critical component in punting, extra points and field goals in a league where field position and scoring is at an all-time premium (especially during the playoffs), long-snappers didn’t have their own official spot on the All-Pro team until last year. That inaugural All-Pro honor went to the Tennessee Titans’ Morgan Cox. After 11 years, four Pro Bowls and several historic field goals in Baltimore, the Tennessee native joined the Titans in 2021 as a free agent. Not that it upped his Q rating at all. “The motto with long-snapping is you want to go unnoticed, otherwise you’re not doing your job correctly,” says Cox. “I want people to forget my name because I’ve done my job so well, the ball’s just there and they just expect that it’s just going to be there all the time. So I take pride in going unnoticed. I’ve always said that I could probably walk through the stadium concourse in my helmet and jersey and pads and everybody would be like, ‘Why are you wearing number 46?'”

Still, few people in the history of the game have better insight into this weird but fascinating position and all the extreme mental and physical challenges that come with it. (For starters: they’re, um, inverted.) Which is why, leading up to the No. 1-seeded Titans divisional-round playoff game against the Bengals, ESPN Daily sat down with Cox to learn, well, everything, about the strange art and science of long-snapping.


HAVING A MOMENT: Few of us had any clue about how uniquely skilled and valuable these players were until Covid-19 sidelined a handful of starting long-snappers and the Colts, Cowboys, Bucs, Bengals and others had to scramble to find qualified replacements. Heck, this season, even the uber tight-lipped Bill Belichick gave an eloquent and passionate nine-minute answer when asked during a press conference about the importance and evolution of long-snappers. (Nine minutes!) A few years ago, Belichick confessed that securing a backup long-snapper was what allowed him to sleep well at night. The love of long-snapping runs in the family, apparently. Bill’s son Steve, a defensive coach with the Patriots, was a walk-on long-snapper at Rutgers.

No one appreciates long-snappers more than backup long-snappers, though. In 2010, Cox blew out his ACL against the Browns but decided to stay in the game to snap, especially after seeing how petrified Ravens running back Willis McGahee was at the prospect of filling in for him. “After I hurt my knee, he came up to me on the sideline and he was like, ‘Hey man, are you good? Are you good? Are you going to be able to snap?'” says Cox, who tore his other ACL in 2014. “He was freaking out that he might have to go in and snap.” The premium on scoring and the shrinking margin of victory in the NFL (this season the Titans outscored opponents by an average of only 3.8 points per game) has made extra points and field goals, and thus, long-snappers, even more like lawyers and umbrellas: no one really appreciates them until they don’t have one.


IN GOOD HANDS: Cox is so obsessed with his hands and his grip that even during the off-season he doesn’t like to use hand moisturizer. Seriously. “I can’t really use a hand lotion because I hate the feeling of not being like ready to snap a ball at any given time,” he says. “Even if it’s like, you know, March or April and I know there’s no game, for whatever reason I have to get my hands back to where I could snap a ball, like right away. It’s just like a mental oddity that I have that I need to be ready to snap at all times.” Likewise, Cox is very particular about his grip on the ball and before the game will even let the referee know how he wants the ball placed so the inflation valve will be in the center of his right palm. Much like a quarterback, Cox’s ring finger always goes across the second seam. He uses his left hand mostly as a guide, but just his fingertips and with his palm well off the ball, “almost like the way you’d hold a waiter’s tray.”

Cox thinks of his snapping motion as a pendulum, because the most simplified, streamlined kinetic movements are the easiest to replicate under the most stressful situations. “At the bottom of the pendulum is the fastest, most efficient time to let go of the ball,” he says. “And I’m always trying to think of the nose of the ball, because wherever I point the nose of the ball is where the ball is going to go.” And like a great free throw shooter, for Cox the follow-through is critical to good form. When a snap goes well, his thumbs will be pointing straight up in the air and the backs of his hands will almost be touching.


THERE WILL BE MATH: After 12 years in the NFL, Cox has long-snapping down to a science. On field goals he only has 0.7 to 0.75 seconds to get the ball into the holder’s hands. (A human eye blink takes 0.4 seconds.) And when the ball arrives the laces need to be at 12 o’clock, which is long-snapper lingo for straight up in the air so that when the ball is placed on the ground the seams are directly toward the goal posts. (Laces at 6 o’clock, pointing back at the kicker, are “a disaster,” Cox says, because if they catch on a kicker’s foot it drastically changes the direction of the ball.) In all, the field goal unit has between 1.2 and 1.3 seconds to get the kick off. So, to get the ball to the holder on time and in the right position, Cox knows that he must snap it at 35 mph with exactly 3½ rotations and with no target deviation. (Even having to reach a little for the snap can push the timing well past 1.3 seconds.)

Because weather, humidity and altitude affect the spin of the ball, pre-snap Cox slightly adjusts the distance between himself and the holder to ensure 3.5 rotations. (This must be what Cox’s former coach, John Harbaugh, meant when he said the long-snapper has “relentless attention to detail.”) So it makes sense that Cox isn’t a believer in the cliché that playoff football is a game of inches. “It’s more like millimeters,” he says, “a blade of grass, that’s the difference in games a lot of times, that little amount of space.”


THE UPSIDE-DOWN WORLD: George Malcom Stratton was an American psychologist who pioneered the study of perception in the early 20th century by outfitting subjects with special glasses that turned everything they saw upside down. Stratton found that after some initial disorientation, in time the subjects’ brain and vision adjusted to everything being upside down and they were able to function normally while theoretically upside down. Essentially, that’s what happens with NFL long-snappers: like astronauts, gymnasts and Shaun White, they’ve been inverted so long it becomes normal.

“I’ve never thought about it, to be honest with you,” says Cox. “Like, why is my holder hanging off the side of the Earth? It’s just one of those things you get used to over the years.” The only thing Cox worries about is being inverted too long, which is why he always waits to get the cue from his holder before starting his snap sequence. “You don’t want all the blood to rush to your head,” he says. “If I go down too early and grab the ball, I can literally feel my head filling with blood. I’ve been down there for 20 or 30 seconds before and I’m still able to snap it, but it’s not ideal. You’re thinking more about: ‘How long have I been upside down?’ Rather than, ‘This is where the ball needs to go.'”


K BALLS: As if long-snapping wasn’t hard enough, teams use specially prepared “K balls” that are extremely slick and typically inflated to the max (13.5 PSI) for added distance. NFL rules allow teams 45 minutes before games to prepare kicking balls in order to smooth out the tacky bumps in the leather of the regular game balls that quarterbacks and other playmakers prefer because of the added grip. It’s usually done by a member of the equipment staff using a wet towel and a brush with coarse horsehair bristles and then marking the ball with a “K.” With a smoother surface the balls are better for kickers but considerably harder for long-snappers and holders to handle, especially in bad weather. (Just ask Tony Romo.)

“Talk about getting into the weeds on stuff,” says Cox. “Quarterback balls typically have all these dimples that are much more raised and even pronounced. Kicker balls are almost the exact opposite. And there’s a certain technique on how teams prep kicker balls. They’ll basically grind down all of those dimples. You talk about an art form. There’s guys that are really well known for being able to work a kicking ball in. But what it does, it doesn’t exactly lend itself to throwing the ball.”


FOOTBALL FIDGIT SPINNERS: Even during a busy game, Cox is likely to go 20 minutes or more between snaps. In the playoffs, that’s a long time to be standing in the freezing cold thinking about how there are up to 100 million people watching as you put the team’s fate in your hands. Think of it this way: While leading the Chiefs to a win in Super Bowl LIV, Patrick Mahomes threw two interceptions and no one batted an eye. But if the Chiefs’ long-snapper had two wild snaps in the Super Bowl he’d be a meme right now.

In long-snapping, being able to handle that kind of pressure is almost as important as technique and training. That’s why so many long-snappers become great at ball tricks. Cox can spin it like a basketball on his finger, bounce it off the ground and back into his hand and he’s been working on the Aaron Rodgers’ classic arm flip and catch. “It’s just about passing the time and doing something with my hands, rather than just sitting with my thoughts,” says Cox. “The most you can stay out of your head the better. When I was in college, the snapper ahead of me told me that I could never be a long-snapper if I couldn’t learn to spin the ball on my hand.”


OH YEAH, YOU ALSO HAVE TO TACKLE: As if performing one of football’s most specialized and thankless tasks weren’t enough — again, inverted and with zero room for error — long-snappers are also expected to contribute downfield on punt coverage. The first punt Cox covered in college (at Tennessee) was a touchdown return by Cal’s DeSean Jackson. “I didn’t get within 10 yards of him,” Cox admits. Over the course of his pro career, though, Cox has averaged about one tackle a year, which is downright respectable.

Cox is something of a legend among long-snappers for his 2012 posterization of Cleveland All-Pro kick returner Josh Cribbs, a picture-perfect, open-field tackle that appeared to knock the ball and Cribbs’ helmet loose. There’s just one tiny catch. “The way everything funneled, I just happened to be in the alley where he was running through,” Cox says. “And, just like you practice in Pop Warner, I duck my shoulder and wrapped him up. I get up and I see that his helmet is knocked off, the ball’s loose and we had jumped on it. And I’m like, ‘Wow, but there’s no way I did that.'” Indeed. Cox hit Cribbs low and didn’t realize that at the exact same time his teammate, Ravens linebacker Dannell Ellerbe, delivered the hit up high that removed both the ball and the helmet from Cribbs’ possession. “But in the newspaper the next day, the front page of the sports was me tackling Josh Cribbs and his helmet starting to fly off,” says Cox. “Someday I’m going to show my grandkids that picture and be like, ‘Look what the old man used to do back in the day.'”

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