In news that should have shocked nobody, the Steelers signed Colin Holba, their sixth-round pick out of Louisville and presumed long-snapper of the immediate future, to a four-year rookie contract on Thursday.
I say “presumed long snapper of the immediate future” because, seriously, when a team picks a long-snapper in the sixth or any other round of any draft, it should be assumed he's earmarked to take the incumbent’s job...like right now.
Obviously, it’s not going to be quite that easy for Holba, who is the only player at his position picked in the 2017 NFL Draft. But if he can do at the pro level what he specialized in at college—snapping to the holder on extra points and field goals, and snapping to the punter on punts—he’ll have a pretty decent chance of making it out of training camp.
Of course, a long-snapper’s job involves a little more than just snapping. For example, on a punt, he must execute the snap, block while the punter is punting, and then immediately scramble downfield and get in position to make a tackle.
When you put a long-snapper’s overall job description into proper context, it might make it easier to understand where Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin were coming from when they drafted Holba.
“Again, not many come along who are that size who are competent snappers,” said Colbert on May 1, of the 6-4, 248 pound Holba. “It’s really a supply-and-demand issue.”
Yes, much like most other positions in the NFL, long-snappers must be bigger, faster and stronger than they are at the college level.
“In college football, most long snappers are walk-ons. And because of their rules—there are different rules as to how you can defend them and block them after the snap—they have a lot more liberties than we do in the NFL,” Colbert continued to explain in a quote courtesy of PennLive.com. “So a lot of the college snappers are these 6-1, 215-220-pound guys, which would really have a hard time snapping and blocking in our league.”
OK, I hear you, Kevin; that all makes sense. However, when you consider there are 32 employed long snappers in the NFL each season—the vast majority of whom found work out of college as UDFA’s—it makes one wonder if there really is a supply-and-demand issue.
Take Steelers current (and some would say doomed) long-snapper, the veteran Greg Warren, who came to Pittsburgh in 2005 as an undrafted free-agent from North Carolina and has been here ever since.
Like most long snappers, Warren, 35, has gone about his duties without much fanfare (well, except for his appearance at the two-minute mark of the Steelers version of the Call Me Maybe video from 2012).
Does anyone notice long-snappers? Sure, but only if they or James Harrison screw up.
James Harrison? That’s right.
During a game against the Giants in Week 8 of the 2008 season, Warren suffered what turned out to be a season-ending knee injury, and Harrison was tabbed as the emergency long-snapper for the rest of the day. If you’ve ever watched the team’s official Super Bowl highlight video from the ‘08 season, you may remember a scene on the New York sideline in which Justin Tuck, the Giants Pro Bowl defensive end, is informing his teammates that Harrison is Warren’s replacement at long snapper and that it probably would be a good idea to force a punt deep in Pittsburgh territory (probably the only time in his career that an opponent wished for Deebo to enter a game).
New York did force a punt, and the result was a bomb that sailed over Mitch Berger’s head and out of the end zone for a safety, two points that proved to be critical in a 21-14 loss at Heinz Field.
Soon after Warren’s injury and the Harrison fiasco, Jared Retkofsky, a 2007 undrafted free-agent out of TCU who was working as a furniture mover after spending his rookie season bouncing between the Steelers and Seahawks, was signed to be the team’s long-snapper for the remainder of the year and earned himself a Super Bowl ring in the process.
According to his Wikipedia Page, Retkofsky signed with Pittsburgh again at the tail-end of the 2009 season, after Warren suffered a second straight season-ending knee injury.
Just to show you the life of anonymity that's the career of an NFL long-snapper, when Retkofsky was signed to replace the injured Warren the first time, I lost track of things and thought he was still the long-snapper for many years after that (even up to and beyond the Call Me Maybe video).
So if players like Retkofsky are floating around in the real world and can be signed off the street (or a moving van) the very second when someone gets hurt again, why did the Steelers feel compelled to draft Holba?
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t place great importance on every single round of the draft—especially the sixth round—but what were the chances that Holba would be scooped up by another team before hitting the UDFA market?
And what were the chances that a huge bidding war would ensue for his services?
Shortly after Holba signed his rookie deal, the Steelers posted the transaction on their official Facebook page, complete with the heading “Signed!” or something to that effect. When you think about the “Joe Who?” headlines that followed Chuck Noll’s first round pick of legendary defensive lineman Mean Joe Greene in 1969, we sure have come a long way in terms of hyping each and every draft pick.
But having said all of that, like any other play in football, a special-teams gaffe can cause a player to live in infamy—think Scott Norwood’s missed field goal in Super Bowl XXV, Tony Romo’s botched hold on a field-goal attempt in a playoff loss to the Seahawks in 2006 or—yes—Trey Junkin’s errant long snap on a possible game-winning field goal attempt in a Giants’ 39-38 loss to the 49ers in an NFC Wild Card game following the 2002 season.
In other words, if the last big headline for Colin Holba happens to be about him signing his rookie deal, and he goes on to have a lengthy career spent mostly in anonymity, it will have been a sixth-round pick well spent.