Best of Fundamentals: The Snap

Originally posted here on March 4, 2013

The snap is not found on a winter jacket. Nor is it a dance move inspired by Legally Blond. In football, the snap is one of the most important exchanges that happens in game.

If you’re not watching closely, it might seem as if the quarterback has the ball in his hands from the start of the play and just does with it as he pleases. But this is not true. Thecenter – literally the guy in the center of the offensive line – has the ball at the beginning of the play. He sets it on the ground and puts his hand on it like so:

photo source

(Team choice completely unbiased.)

Once he gets set, he’ll tilt the ball at a bit of an angle so that he can get a good grip. If at any point the center’s head is lined up ahead of the football, that’s an encroachment penalty, which would back the offense up 5 yards.

Types of Snaps

The action of a snap never changes: one player is going to “hike” the ball between his legs to another player, which essentially means that the ball is going to go from in front of him to behind him. How that happens depends on the play at hand. Generally, there are two snaps that happen in classic offensive formations:

1. Under Center

If the QB takes the snap under center, he’s literally standing right behind the center, with his hands in a personal location under the center’s rear end. Here’s Joe Flacco and Matt Birk getting to know each other a little better:

photo source

2. From the Shotgun

In the shotgun formation, the bonding session between quarterback and center is eliminated. The QB is lined up a few yards behind the center, and the center hikes the ball back to him from the line of scrimmage. Here’s Tom Brady and Dan Koppen embracing their personal space:

photo source

Just to be confusing, there’s also a few other forms of snaps to add to the list:

3. Direct Snap

Sometimes, teams run a special formation called the Wildcat formation in which a player other than the quarterback (usually a running back) receives the snap. When this happens, it’s called a direct snap.

4. Indirect Snap

Or, the sneaky version of the direct snap. In this snap attempt, the quarterback is standing next to or near a running back and from all appearances it looks like the QB is going to be the one receiving the snap. But what actually happens is the center snaps the ball to the running back while the quarterback fakes that the snap either went over his head or was fumbled. This happens most frequently in punting situations when the offense wants to try to convert the down rather than continue with the punt.

5. Long Snap

Centers don’t get to have all of the fun. The Special Teams unit – the unit responsible for kicking plays – employs a specific player just for snapping the ball called the longsnapper. It’s his job to make those long snaps effectively every time. (He can usually also be a backup offensive lineman if need be.)

Bad Things That Can Happen

In every snap’s life, a little rain must fall. Snaps can be fumbled – when the football gets mishandled and leads to a failed secure exchange between QB and center. There can also be illegal motion, encroachment, or false starts at the time of the snap – when players are not set, lined up correctly, or moving too soon when the ball is being snapped. If the ball isn’t snapped before the play clock expires, that’s a delay of game penalty and will cost the offense 5 yards. There are a litany of other rules regarding what happens surrounding a snap, but those are three situations you’ll see more than most.

Snap Counts

If the center snapped the ball on the same signal on every play, the defense would catch on quickly and be able to anticipate the snap, therefore getting the fastest possible start. To keep the defense from gaining any advantages, quarterbacks use a snap count, or a designated signal (either verbal or nonverbal) on which he wants the ball to be snapped. Teams often try to confuse a savvy defense by using a hard count – a fake snap count designed to draw the other team offsides.

Questions, comments, concerns, something I left out? You know where to find me!

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