Sunday night, Seattle linebacker Bobby Wagner made football magic twice. In the second quarter of Seahawks-Cardinals, he leapt over Arizona’s long snapper to block a field goal.
And then in overtime, when Arizona lined up for another field goal, Wagner DID IT AGAIN:
He didn’t block the kick, but Cardinals kicker Chandler Catanzaro had never missed a field goal from under 30 yards before, and it’s likely that Wagner’s presence forced him to hook his kick to the left.
The dreadful game ended locked at 6–6 after 75 minutes of play, the lowest-scoring tie since the NFL instituted overtime in 1974. But lost in all the talk of whether or not this marked the nadir of professional football were two questions: How the hell did Wagner do that? And why the hell doesn’t he do it on every placekick?
Football is predicated on the premise that players can’t suddenly fly. Coaches strategize how to get players around opponents or through them, but rarely over them. Yet, Wagner and a few other players are changing that and wreaking havoc on football’s most reliable method of scoring points.
So Who’s Done It?
So far as I can tell, the line leap has been attempted nine times since the 2013 season.
First came Troy Polamalu. The probable Hall of Famer was brilliant at a lot of things, but most mind-boggling was his ability to perfectly time the opposing snap count. Sometimes, he’d jump over the opposing offensive line instead of trying to get around it, resulting in spectacular sacks. But field goals don’t have snap counts. When Polamalu attempted to sky over the line to block a game-tying extra point against the Ravens in 2013, he mistimed it and was called for being offside.
The next season, Daren Bates of the Rams attempted the jump against the 49ers and was also called offside. But he tried it again against the Giants and nailed it, blocking a critical fourth-quarter kick to give St. Louis a chance at victory.
Wagner wasn’t even the first Seahawks to do the jump. Kam Chancellor did it on back-to-back plays in the 2015 playoffs against the Panthers, although neither counted. The first apparently prompted a false start by a Panthers lineman, although upon rewatching the play, I think the referees were just startled by Kam. On the second attempt, Chancellor ran into Panthers kicker Graham Gano, negating his efforts.
During Week 6 of last season, Patriots everything man Jamie Collins swatted a Colts PAT in the dying seconds of a New England win.
(Side note: Within a few seconds of witnessing a play that had only happened a few times in NFL history, Cris Collinsworth quickly, 1. accurately remembered Jamie Collins’s record-setting combine broad jump, 2. accurately recalled another instance of a player pulling off the play, and 3. accurately explained the rule on jumping. He would do a better job writing this article than me.)
Then, a few weeks later, Chris Conte of the Buccaneers tried the leap against the same Colts team, although he missed the ball and got called for leaping.
Think for a second about the placekick: It’s the most singularly focused protection scheme of any play in all of football.
On a pass play, five offensive linemen (and maybe a tight end or a running back) try to protect a pocket for the QB. On a placekick, nine offensive linemen try to protect a single spot. That’s it. Even on the punt team, there are two objectives for the non-punters: Protect the punt and cover the kick. They don’t even worry about the second part on the field goal team.
However, there’s one glaring weakness in the placekick protection unit: the guy who isn’t a lineman. The long snapper has one job, and it’s to perfectly snap the ball on every field goal, extra point, and punt. It used to be that teams would just have linebackers or tight ends snap on these kicks, but the snaps are hard enough and important enough that teams decided it was wiser to hire a pure specialist to be perfect every time.
Except, since long snapping requires a very specific skill, they are not as strong as their fellow block-first linemates. You know this if you’re a Madden fan. The game just makes long snapping automatic, because nobody wants to lose to their friend on a bad snap. Instead, the long snappers are graded on their agility and blocking. They get the worst ratings in the game, which led to this fantastic piece of Early Sports Internet Humor.
The easy thing, then, would be to bulldoze the long snapper. But that’s illegal. Since long snappers are crouched over and looking through their legs at the snap, they are completely defenseless, and hits would result in serious neck and back injuries. In college, roughing the snapper is a foul, just like roughing the kicker or passer. The NFL has different rules, but the defense is not allowed to line up within a yard of the line of scrimmage between the snapper’s shoulder pads. The defense can hit the snapper, but the rule gives him time to adjust out of the incredibly vulnerable snapping position.
So how do you beat a formation that looks like this?
Looking at this screencap, it’s obvious. You go over it. The crouched position of the snapper leaves him low. And as Wagner noted after the game, some are lower than others:
Plus, while the rule about not lining up over the snapper might be good for the snapper’s health, it helps a potential leaper out by ensuring there’s always a clear runway to ensure an easy takeoff.
So How Does the Jumper Know When to Jump?
Surprisingly, it’s not magic.
An ideal field goal unit would be a study in unflinching repetition. The snap would be the same every time, the hold would be the same every time, and with those two elements in place, the kicker could repeat his kicking motion the same way every time without having to worry about anything else.
To foster perfection, field goal units begin with an identical routine before each kick. Here’s a look at a field goal the Cardinals kicked in Week 2.
Back then, the Cardinals’ holder was Drew Butler. His routine to call for the snap is as simple as can be. He holds his fist up as a target, looks at the kicker, and when the kicker is ready, he turns his head back to the snapper. The head-turn serves as a signal to the snapper that he’s ready for the ball, and away they go.
But Butler got hurt a few weeks into the season. He was replaced as punter and holder by Ryan Quigley. Here’s Quigley signaling for a snap for the Jets last season.
Quigley’s call has way more steps than Butler’s. After getting the ready-to-kick signal from the kicker, Quigley looks down at the spot where he plans on placing the ball, then looks up at the snapper, and then raises his hand as a signal for the ball.
Since Quigley’s routine is predictable, takes a relatively long time, and has an easy-to-spot tell, it gives players like Wagner a chance to execute the leap. At the instant Quigley dips his head, Wagner begins charging.
Before Sunday night, Quigley had probably never considered whether his routine was too predictable — if anything, “predictable” would’ve seemed like a good thing. He always gave the snapper an identifiable signal, and he always got himself ready to catch and place the ball.
But on Sunday, that consistency was a double-edged sword, and Wagner capitalized on it twice.
In the 2015 playoffs, the Panthers’ holder was Brad Nortman, and his routine was as methodical as Quigley’s. He turned his head back to the center, waited for about half a second, and then raised his hand as a signal. At the head-turn, Chancellor launched forward like a missile:
Surely, Nortman knew at this moment that Chancellor was reading his tic, but there was nothing he could really do about it. That was the signal he and the Panthers had used for an entire season. Changing on the fly could lead to disaster. So he did the same thing again, and so did Chancellor:
If You Know When the Snapper’s Going to Snap the Ball, Why Not Do This Every Time?
Well, first you need someone athletic enough to safely launch over the snapper and then keep running. Wagner and Bates both said after their respective plays that they hadn’t actually practiced jumping the snapper. It’s too risky:
Without practice, the timing is hard to nail down — even if you know the kicker’s routine. If you know it’ll be 0.8 seconds between the head-turn and the snap … how far do you stand back to run to the line of scrimmage in 0.7 seconds? Even Polamalu messed this up, and Polamalu was a snap-count genius.
Then there’s the issue of actually clearing the snapper. There is a very-rarely-called foul known as “leaping” in the NFL rulebook, and it applies to only one specific scenario.
Players who start at the line of scrimmage are allowed to jump, and they do so on every kick. But more than 20 years ago the rule was modified: if you jump from more than a yard beyond the line of scrimmage, you have to make sure you don’t land on anybody, or it will be a penalty. Really, the penalty should be called “landing” instead of “leaping,” because the leap is perfectly legal — the dangerous (and illegal) part is falling on top of somebody.
This caused some drama Sunday night: Wagner grazed his opponent while flying over the line, but the NFL notes that there is a distinction between merely touching someone and landing on him.
Leaping comes with a huge penalty of 15 yards and a first down. So if you can’t perfectly execute a jump over another human being — A THING THAT IS HARD — you might cost your team quite a lot. When Conte attempted to jump the Colts’ line last year, it turned fourth-and-10 into a fresh set of downs, and moments later the Colts scored a touchdown.
How Do You Stop the Leap?
For one, holders can use quicker patterns. Butler’s simple head-turn doesn’t leave enough time for a run-up. Or they can use verbal cues, like the Steelers clearly do:
You can barely even see any movement on the body of holder Jordan Berry, but you can see that his upper body does move a little bit as he speaks out loud to the snapper.
But most holders have a cue. It’s just the nature of the routine.
Could they change things? Yes. If a team really wanted to prevent getting blocked like this, it’d ask its holder to alternate his signalling in some way. Sometimes, take a long pause after turning your head before signalling, sometimes signal immediately. In the same way a snap count keeps non-Polamalus from knowing when the ball is going to be snapped on regular plays, this could make the leap more difficult to execute.
But I’m not sure it’s worth it. Over the past four years, there have been thousands of field goals and extra points attempted, and under 10 attempts to block them by leaping over the line. Even then, only three or four have been successful — depending on how you count the Wagner non-block.
Except, when the play is executed perfectly, there’s really nothing the placekick unit can do about it. And while the risk of penalties will deter teams from attempting it in the vast majority of situations, sometimes it’s worth the risk.
Wagner’s second jump was on a chip-shot game winner. The potential penalty was tiny: if Wagner got flagged, it would merely set up another chip-shot game winner. The reward was enormous: Wagner’s jump turned a loss into a tie, and almost turned it into a win.
The majority of these attempts have come in situations like this, where a penalty meant nothing: Polamalu and Collins leapt on late-game PATs, where a penalty would have only set up a PAT from slightly closer. Bates’s block against the Giants came with the Rams needing to produce multiple scores in a minute. Chancellor’s attempts came with four seconds left before halftime.
Unless teams start rostering designated leapers, practicing the move during the week, and deploying it in every game, I wouldn’t ask holders to mess around with their routine. Precision is too important on placekicks, and the jump is such a rare, difficult play that it’s not worth risking that precision. But when the leap does happen — and in critical situations in which teams have nothing to lose, it will happen — the placekick unit will be helpless to stop it.