BERA -- Only the Cleveland Browns can make a folk hero out of their long snapper.
And the Browns did it by releasing him.
Back in 2003, Ryan Pontbriand cackled long and loud the day he was drafted by the Browns in the fifth round. He sounded as shocked to be taken by Butch Davis as fans and media were to hear of his selection. Long snappers are found, not drafted, but Davis and then-snapper Ryan Kuehl -- then the best in the league -- didnt see eye to eye so Davis let Kuehl go and Pontbriand drafted.
Pontbriand eventually became the best, and justified the draft choice by being as dependable as any player on the team -- to the point that he went to two Pro Bowls.
Until this season.
For whatever reason, Pontbriand lost it, and when he dribbled a snap in Sundays loss to Cincinnati on what could have been a go-ahead 55-yard field goal, the Browns had enough. Two weeks earlier against St. Louis, Pontbriands bad snap had hit Alex Macks foot, which resulted in another potential go-ahead field goal late in a game going awry.
The entire picture was too much for the Browns. Tuesday they released Pontbriand, a move that unleashed a torrent of emotion on the talk-show circuit, as callers and hosts wondered if Pontbriand had been made a scapegoat.
Many wondered how a couple mistakes could cost a player his job and wipe out a successful career, especially when so many Browns have made mistakes all season long -- including wide receiver Greg Little, who dropped five passes in Cincinnati.
Coach Pat Shurmur said Pontbriand was not scapegoated.
Hes not the reason we won or lost games, Shurmur said Wednesday.
Shurmur did not pour dirt on Pontbriands grave, instead merely saying the team had tried a number of things to get Pontbriand out of his self-described slump.
We just felt it was time to make a switch, Shurmur said.
Shurmur also said there was no greater message involved.
I dont want to send messages to players thru media or basically thru actions just to send a message. were trying to win football games the best we can.
Place-kicker Phil Dawson said he had no sense of Pontbriand being scapegoated, either.
Its tough, Dawson said. Ive been with Pont longer than anybody and no one has contributed on the field more to my career than him. It was a little strange to be out there without him, but its how this business goes.
Rarely are snappers noticed -- unless they fail.
Pontbriand had struggled all season. In Cincinnati a couple were high and wide. In other games, hed not snapped well. Holder Bryan Wagner saved several kicks with a deft touch in catching and placing the ball.
Too, Pontbriand plays a position where coaches have little or no patience. Dawson often says the last kick is the one that matters. The same is true of punters and snappers. Those three positions are on the field 10 times per game, and if they make a mistake they are in trouble. If they repeat a mistake, they are released.
(Pontbriand) was aware of the issues and doing everything he needed to do to fix it, from going out and snapping hundreds of balls to snapping at home to watching film, Dawson said. He responded the way you hope any pro would, and for whatever reason it didnt work this time.
The reason those three positions are given little leeway? The infrequency of their appearances magnifies any mistake, and their positions are seen as replaceable. Teams always believe they can find a punter or snapper because their jobs are the same regardless of the team. Replacing a receiver and asking him to learn an offense is a lot more complex.
Losing the chance for two wins because of snaps is big to any team. For a good team, it could be the chance between making and not making the playoffs. For a struggling team like the Browns, it makes the losses that much tougher.
Pontbriand gave the Browns nine excellent years. He was as dependable as any player on the team. Had all the Browns done their jobs as well as Pontbriand, there would have been winning seasons among the past 12.
But his release from a bad team comes down to realities. And the most brutal is that when a team is held together by baling wire and string, things fall apart pretty quick if one of the strings breaks.