Ever since he was selected in the fifth round of the the 2003 NFL Draft, Cleveland Browns long snapper Ryan Pontbriand has been the personification of questionable draft day tactics. The highest-drafted player of his position in the history of the league, the eight-year veteran has done nothing but quietly show up for work each and every day of his career, save for a five-game stint in 2005, while executing his job in exemplary fashion.
Sure, the position of long snapper may be up there with the individual responsible for breaking up the wedge on kickoffs and the guy who hands the quarterback the football during warm-ups when it comes to overall NFL sex appeal, but it is tough to argue that the Rice University product hasn’t been worth his weight in gold for a team that has not only had it’s fair share of field goal opportunities over the years, but has also frequented the emotionally crippling three-and-out, leading to a punt in the ever-popular game of field position. At least until he isn’t, as was the case on Sunday when the usually automatic center was the first domino in what would ultimately be a comedy of errors with the outcome of a football game on the line.
Maybe Alex Mack attempted to interlock his right leg with Pontrbriand’s left a split second sooner than anticipated. Perhaps there was movement up front that forced a slight inch of hesitation in the snapping motion. Free of a defender being lined up directly over him, Pontbriand is already viewing the world upside down if only for a few seconds, eying up this season’s target du jour in punter Brad Maynard prior to firing seven- or 15-yard spirals between his legs. Unfortunately for the team’s two-time Pro Bowler, he had to view the fallout of a botched game-winner with the crown of his helmet essentially resting on the earth, blasting Browns fans in attendance with a dunghammer of epic proportions*. He would spend the next several game minutes, which must have seemed like an eternity, with his eyes closed on the sidelines, helmet still on, knowing that his name would be prominently featured in columns retelling the prior 60 minutes of football.
No tables were ever set for for him on national signing day. Nary a discussion surrounding professional compensation. Heck, prior to a local comedian’s video, it’s worth wondering if some Clevelanders even knew Ryan Pontbriand existed. If anything, he’s merely been a referendum on the Butch Davis era as a whole; he wasn’t even the first center taken that year as Jeff Faine was selected just two rounds prior. His name rarely in lights, living predominantly as a novelty token of pride in the hearts of diehard Browns – our long snapper is better than your long snapper – Pontbriand is now faced with the weight of a loss, squarely on his shoulders, whether it’s wholly his fault or not.
“It was an inopportune time and I pretty much cost our team the victory,” said Pontbriand of the missed field goal. “I’m pretty numb right now. It’s pretty tough to handle.”
Both Pontbriand and Mack repeatedly stated that it will likely take a few cursory views of game tape to see exactly what occurred. Earlier this week, All-Pro offensive tackle Joe Thomas stated that the line had to do a better job of communicating, but this discussion was largely in the context of protecting quarterback Colt McCoy. In this instance, its something that is essentially taken over by muscle memory. As woeful as the Browns special teams has been this season, the troika of Pontbriand, Maynard and Dawson has been one of the only automatic features of the entire 53-man roster.
While adding salt to the gaping wound was not likely the goal of his postgame statements, Maynard – who did a remarkable job of fielding the four-hopper and getting it somewhat upright regardless of lace placement - called this loss “one of the lows” of his 14-year career. This is a man who was out of a job until friend and former teammate Richmond McGee sustained a back injury during on Opening Day. Dawson, conversely, was quick to come to his longsnapper’s defense; special teamers have to stick together after all. But this relationship goes well beyond being grouped in the same pod for practices on end – these two men have been hand in hand – or hand to foot – since Pontbriand’s arrival.
“Ryan tries to be the best and that’s why there is no one I’d rather have snapping to me than him,” said the point-producing Dawson. “Nobody works harder than he does. It takes quite a guy to step up [and accept blame] when we are not really sure what happened yet. For him to step up and [take the blame for the loss], it shows what kind of guy he is.”
Truth is, this lost can fall into the laps of many. Had the Browns been more aggressive in the red zone, the butterfly effect would have been monumental – this game, after all, does not exist in a vacuum. Had Josh Cribbs not had a very un-Cribbisan moment, fumbling the ball during a punt return, thus setting up a scoring opportunity for the opposition, the Browns would not have been forced to come from behind. Had Dick Jauron’s defensive line been able to pressure Sam Bradford in the first half, that touchdown pass to Brandon Lloyd may have never occurred. Heck, if TJ Ward had not sustained a litany of injuries the week before – even if he opted to not return following the dislocated finger, perhaps saving himself of several weeks of boot-wearing - Usama Young may not have been tasked with keeping Stephen Jackson from amassing 128 yards on the ground.
This week, the Browns will watch the game tape to see where the wheels began to fall off. While fans and game recaps throughout the nation will focus on the missed field goal, you can assure yourself that those in Berea will be looking at the first 58 minutes with even more intensity as there are multiple players who could have changed the outcome of the 13-12 loss on the shores of Lake Erie. Yet it is Pontbriand, a man who rarely gets asked questions, who is forced to provide the answers.
Such is the life of the best long snapper in the NFL.
*Thank you, Charles P. Pierce
Photo: John Kuntz / The Plain Dealer