How does a tightend who's never caught an NFL pass last seven seasons? By becoming the masterof football's overlooked art
After a runthrough the list of the top 500 players, aren't you curious about 501 through1,696? While I didn't rank every one of the 53 men on the 32 rosters, I didwant to single out a player who represents the unranked 70% of the NFL andembodies the notion that, in a league of stars who date Gisele B√ºndchen andhang with Kenny Chesney, there's a critical role for everyone on the roster.This player, given the symbolic ranking of 1,000, is Mike Leach, long snapperfor the Broncos.
The man who hikesthe ball on punts, and field goal and extra-point attempts might seem the mostreplaceable of players. But consider this: Over the last decade 24% of all NFLgames have been decided by three points or less, and a poor long snap can bethe difference.
In Week 16 lastyear, with 41 seconds left in a game at Denver, the Bengals got a bad snap on apoint-after attempt that would have tied the game at 24. A victory would haveensured Cincinnati a nine-win season and an AFC wild-card spot over 9-7 KansasCity. Instead, the Bengals finished 8-8 and stayed home. Such is the value of aplayer like Leach (left), who in 4 1‚ÅÑ2 seasons with Denver has made 641regular-season snaps, and every one was spot on; the only muffed exchange inthat time came when the holder turned his head away after calling thesignal.
A tight end andpunter at Boston University and William & Mary, Leach signed with theTitans in 2000. "One day [at training camp] I just picked up a ball andsnapped it to [punter] Craig Hentrich," Leach says. "The special-teamscoach, Alan Lowry, noticed something in that snap and told me, 'A tight end whosnaps can stay in this league a lot longer than a tight end who punts.'"
Though officiallylisted as a tight end, Leach has never caught a pass as a pro and has been onthe field for only 13 plays with the offense in his time in Denver. Instead, heruns on and off virtually unnoticed and handles the pressure with ease. SaysLeach, "I've just never let the moment get to me." Not even againstOakland in the snow three seasons ago, when Raiders tackle Warren Sapp tried toice him. "I was clearing the snow away from the spot where I was going tosnap,' " Leach says, "and he kept kicking the snow back on the spot. Iwas just kidding around, but I said something like, 'Don't make me come overthere and kick your ass.' "
As usual, thesnap was made and the kick was good.