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Episode Transcript

Our story today is about specialization in the labor market. Exciting, right? It’s about one almost invisible job inside a highly visible profession that happens to be in the limelight this week, with Super Bowl LVI. Let’s start by asking: what is specialization, exactly?

Victor MATHESON: Specialization is one of the things that makes us rich. 

That’s Victor Matheson.

MATHESON: I’m a professor of economics at the College of the Holy Cross. I specialize in all things sports economics.

What does Matheson mean when he says that specialization makes us rich?

MATHESON: This goes all the way back to Adam Smith. Adam Smith said that specialization is the royal road to prosperity, because if people specialize, they can really get good at something. Adam Smith’s famous example was about pin-making, like straight pins that you put in a shirt. He said, “Look, 10 people in a factory making pins — not a very exciting job — but if they can each specialize on 10 different aspects of how you make a pin, a group of 10 workers in a factory in one day could make 48,000 pins. That means 4,800 pins per worker, while each of these individual workers, if they had to make these pins on their own, they’d be lucky to make maybe 20.”

Victor Matheson has his own favorite example of specialization.

MATHESON: I think back to the books and the T.V. series that were on when I was a kid, “Little House on the Prairie.” And Pa Ingalls — everyone was in love with Pa Ingalls because you’re like, “Oh, this guy can do everything — is there anything that Pa can’t do?” And it turns out Pa could do a lot of things, but he couldn’t do anything well. And his family was in poverty essentially their whole life, living at the edge of existence. We talk about the term, “this guy’s a jack of all trades.” But the reality is, being a jack of all trades kind of means you’re a jackass of all trades. 

That’s right. Victor Matheson just called the beloved Pa Ingalls a jackass. But he’s an economist, what do you expect? Here’s how Matheson describes his own work.

MATHESON: Economics is the study of the allocation of scarce resources across competing uses. And sports economics focuses on anything where we use this in the sports world. And of course, that can apply in specialty positions like the long snapper.

The long snapper. Do you know what a long snapper is? Even if you’re a football fan, you may not. And if you aren’t a football fan — well, no. You’ve heard of the quarterback, maybe the wide receiver and linebacker. But the long snapper? No. That is not a thing that people care about. Today on Freakonomics Radio: we’re going to make you care. We’re going to explain what the long snapper does and why his super-specialized labor is worth the investment:

Rich MCKAY: The downside is so high if you don’t do it accurately.

We’ll find out where long snappers come from.

Chris RUBIO: More and more, I’m starting to get middle school and even elementary school kids.

And: what it’s like to be a long snapper in the National Football League.

Reid FERGUSON: You have to fall in love with the monotony of the job. You have to.  

Monotonous perhaps but the pay is pretty good.

Kevin GOLD: Most of the veteran snappers, they make around 1.2 or 1.3 million a year.

And the job can hold some drama.

RUBIO: All hell broke loose. Oh my god, it was bad.

Everything you always wanted to know about a job you didn’t even know existed.

*      *      *

We’ll begin with Rich McKay.

MCKAY: M-c-K-a-y. I am the president and C.E.O. of the Atlanta Falcons. 

McKay has been around football his whole life. His father John was a legendary coach — with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the N.F.L. and before that, at the University of Southern California, where he won four national titles.

MCKAY: If you look at the history of long snappers, when my dad coached at U.S.C. and first got into the pros, the long snappers were backup guards. That’s who they were. And they weren’t great at snapping. And many a game was won or lost by a snap going the wrong direction.

Okay, let’s unpack what McKay just said on the off chance that you, dear listener, are not an aficionado of what we Americans call football — and what the rest of the world calls “American football” — since to them, “football” is what we call soccer. And honestly, “football” is a better name for soccer since in soccer you do mostly kick the ball, whereas in American football you mostly don’t kick the ball. You mostly throw it or run with it. But! — here’s the twist — the story we’re telling today does concern the rare occasions in American football where the ball gets kicked. Got it?

All right, here’s how American football works. Each team has 11 guys on the field at a time. The team with the ball is on offense, and those players include a quarterback, receivers and a running back, and a bunch of very large men — including the “guards” that Rich McKay mentioned — whose primary job is to block the defensive players. Another of these large men is called the “center”; he’s the guy who crouches over the ball on every play and snaps it between his legs to the quarterback. Spoiler alert: the center, even though he snaps the ball on every offensive play, he is not the “long snapper.” Okay? Just store that away. The mission of the offense is to run and pass the ball down the field and get it into the opponent’s end zone. That’s a touchdown. But the team that’s on defense is of course trying to prevent that. The offense and defense are essentially like two opposing armies in the old days; American football is very war-like, with much brighter colors and somewhat fewer casualties. Also: cheerleaders.

Anyway, the offense has four plays, or “downs,” to advance the ball 10 yards. They get a new “first down” every time they do that; but if they face a fourth down, they have to make a decision. They can run one more play in the hopes they get past that 10-yard mark. But if they fail, then they surrender the ball to the other team on that spot and the other team brings out their offense. What usually happens on fourth down is the offense will choose to kick the ball. There are two types of kicks. If you’re a long way from your opponent’s end zone, you will likely punt the ball to the other team. A punt is a capitulation; it means the defense has stopped your offense. This means bringing on a specialist, called a punter, who kicks the ball very high and very far, 45 or 50 yards, down the field to the other team’s punt returner. But if you’ve got a fourth down closer to your opponent’s end zone, you may try to kick a field goal. That means bringing on a different specialist — this one is not a punter, he’s a placekicker — and the placekicker tries to kick the ball through the big yellow uprights at the back of the end zone. A field goal counts for three points. Not as good as a touchdown, which is six points, but still very valuable. More than one third of N.F.L. regular-season games are decided by three points or less. You’ll also usually see the placekicker after a team scores a touchdown, kicking what’s called an extra point or a P.A.T. — point after touchdown — which counts for one point.

Okay, you got that? The unit that executes these kicking plays is neither an offensive nor a defensive team; they’re called special teams, of which the punter or placekicker are most critical. Rich McKay again:

MCKAY: If we were doing this podcast 15 years ago, you would have said to me, “Hey, who are the specialists on the team?” And I would have said to you, “The punter and the kicker.” And you’d have said, “Oh yeah, there’s two of them.” And then today, if you say to me, “Who are the specialists on the team?” I’d say, “The punter, the kicker, and the snapper.” 

The long snapper, that is. Unlike Pa Ingalls, the long snapper does just one thing. He doesn’t throw the ball. He doesn’t run the ball. He doesn’t kick the ball. He doesn’t play offense or defense. He doesn’t even snap the ball on regular offensive plays. All he does is snap the ball on punts, field goals, and extra points. On a punt, he snaps it directly to the punter, who stands about 15 yards behind the long snapper; the punter catches the ball around chest-high and kicks it downfield. The long snapper does now have a chance to run downfield and try to tackle the punt returner, but since there are other players on special teams who are much better at running and tackling, this rarely happens. On a field goal or extra-point attempt, meanwhile, the long snapper snaps the ball to the holder — who’s usually a punter or a backup quarterback; the holder is down low, one knee on the ground, about eight yards behind the snapper; he deftly catches the snap and places the ball on the ground at a slight angle for the kicker to kick, the laces facing away from the kicker, to minimize spin. So the long snapper will be on the field for maybe just eight plays a game, out of an average of nearly 80 total plays run by his team. And here’s the thing. An N.F.L. team is only allowed to have 48 players on its game-day roster. And yet every N.F.L. team uses one of those valuable roster spots for a long snapper. Is that really necessary? Is the task so difficult, the position so specialized, that it’s worth a roster spot for just that handful of plays?

MATHESON: Let’s do the numbers.

Victor Matheson again.

MATHESON: You’ve got 22 starters, 11 on offense, 11 on defense. You can have an entire backup crew on offense and defense, and that gets you to 44. Add a punter and a kicker — that gets you 46. Is having a third-string right tackle or seventh wide receiver worth more or less than having a guy you can count on getting that snap perfect every time? And what we’ve seen is pretty much every team says, “Yeah, the marginal value of that one play always doing well is worth that few times a game I wish I had some sort of a replacement on the defensive line.”

And Rich McKay again.

MCKAY: The downside is so high if you don’t do it accurately that you’re going to invest a player position in that. And we’ve done it as a league for at least 15 years.

Okay, let’s consider the downside of not having a dedicated long snapper. What happens, for instance, when your long snapper gets hurt during a game? Now, this doesn’t happen often. Even though football does produce a lot of injuries, the long snapper is by nature a low-risk position. Still, it does happen. Let’s go back to 2008:

Dick STOCKTON: A showdown in Pittsburgh — the Giants and the Steelers.

In the third quarter of this game, the Steelers had to punt the ball away to the Giants.

STOCKTON: That was a 50-yard kick by Mitch Berger.

The announcer Dick Stockton noticed something had happened on that punt play.

STOCKTON: And the long snapper Greg Warren is shaken up. 

Greg Warren, the Steelers’ long snapper, tore his A.C.L. while running downfield to pursue the punt returner, and he wouldn’t be back. Midway through the fourth quarter, the Steelers were deep in their own territory and they had to punt again. With their regular long snapper out, they turned to James Harrison — one of the team’s best players, but a linebacker, trained not in long snapping but in chasing and tackling offensive players. How did Harrison do?

STOCKTON: James Harrison, the new long snapper, snaps it out of the end zone for a safety, and the Giants have tied the score at 14, as Greg Warren was carted off.  

Harrison had produced what’s called a “botched snap” — the ball went clear over the punter’s head, and the Steelers went on to lose, 21-14.

STOCKTON: When people talked about this game coming in, do you think anyone talked about a long snapper injured, and then the backup long snapper, snapping it over the head of the punter for a safety — I don’t think that came into the analysis before the game started?

Troy AIKMAN: Yeah, I don’t think it did, Dick.   

For any coach tempted to use that final roster spot on another offensive or defensive player, this was the sort of nightmare confirmation of the long snapper’s value. But as Rich McKay was saying earlier, it didn’t used to be this way.

MCKAY: Sometimes they were centers, but they were usually guards. They had to be big guys. And they weren’t great at snapping. Then all of a sudden, somehow the tight end got in.

The tight end is a hybrid position on the offense: big enough to block the defense but athletic enough to catch some passes.

MCKAY: They were viewed as being better athletes, viewed as having better hands. They could throw it back faster, because all of a sudden these special-teams coaches were back there actually timing snaps. Nobody timed snaps in the 60s and 70s. All of a sudden, they were timing snaps in the 80s.

The reason coaches started timing the snaps is that they wanted to get the ball back to the kicker as fast as possible to minimize the chance of a kick being blocked. Because as soon as the long snapper snaps the ball, the defense is trying to bulldoze the kicking team’s big guys and block the kick. That is a very costly outcome for the kicking team. So: the speed of the snap matters. But, as Rich McKay was saying, size was also important.

MCKAY: We had a couple of teams, what they were doing was they were actually putting two players and angling them at the long snapper. 

So picture this. You are the long snapper, bent over the ball, about to snap it between your legs to the kicker, while knowing that not one but two very large defensive players were about to crush you.

MCKAY: That long snapper was getting vised. And when he got vised, he got hit and absolutely — I don’t know if you’re allowed to say this on the radio? Can you say “ass over teacup”?

DUBNER: Anything.

MCKAY: He was ass over teacup. And then they tried to run right up the middle and try to block it. As soon as you looked at it, you said, “That’s not right.” 

Rich McKay is not just president and C.E.O. of the Atlanta Falcons. He has also been on the N.F.L.’s Competition Committee for nearly three decades, most of that time as its chairman. One role of this committee is to propose rule changes to improve the game — to make it more entertaining for fans but also safer for players.

MCKAY: Yep, we start with player health and safety, and I don’t say it in a way to make you guys feel better or think that that’s a good tagline or anything else. That’s just the truth. 

In recent years, the Competition Committee has adjusted a lot of rules, most of them having to do with how a defensive player can hit an offensive player. You can no longer “clothesline” a player or use what’s called a “horse-collar” tackle. Hitting above the neck is generally discouraged. Quarterbacks are particularly well-protected. So are wide receivers, as they’re often in what is called a “defenseless position” right after they’ve caught the ball. For years, the N.F.L. overlooked or played down the danger of concussions. McKay insists they’re working hard now to improve player safety, especially with technologies like the tracking chips implanted in players’ shoulder pads.

McKAY: We get data all the time. We know where the injuries are coming from. We know the types of plays. We have the engineers that are looking at load and capacity and the impact.

And what about those long snappers getting “vised,” as McKay put it? Well, that too wound up being addressed by the Competition Committee. In 2006, a new rule required that on field goals and extra points, the defensive players couldn’t line up directly across from the long snapper, but had to line up outside his shoulder pads. This allowed the snapper a split second to get upright after snapping the ball, and to keep himself from going “ass over teacup.”

McKAY: All of a sudden, we began to find teams that were going after the snapper on punts and so we said, “Okay, let’s extend this to the snappers on punts, too.” 

This rule took hold in 2010. Now the long snapper was protected on punts and kicks, at least to some degree.

McKAY: So now we’ve got them lined up where they’re supposed to be. But then their first step was to go for the head. These are people trying to make a difference. We said, “No, no, no. This is a defenseless player.”

So that prompted another rule change, in 2013, further protecting the long snapper by deeming him a defenseless player in the immediate aftermath of the snap. As with many rule changes — and this is something you often see with government policy — there were some unintended effects.

McKAY: I don’t think we designed it where — I know we didn’t, because I was in the room — we didn’t design it where we said, “Okay, you know what? This will make the snapper 225 pounds and they’ll be better cover guys.” That was never the intent. That has been one of the outcomes. 

What McKay is describing here is a shift in body type for the long-snapper position. No longer at risk of getting run over by defensive linemen, the long snapper didn’t need to be gigantic. Two hundred and twenty-five pounds isn’t small, but the average lineman in the N.F.L. weighs more than 300 pounds. And when McKay says a smaller long snapper will be a better “cover guy,” that means he’s more athletic and able to run downfield faster on a punt to try to tackle the other team’s punt returner. A 300-pounder can’t do that.

Louis-Philippe LADOUCEUR: I was a bigger snapper. I played at 275 my first few years in the league.

And that is — well, I’d like him to introduce himself.

LADOUCEUR: Yeah. So my name is Louis-Philippe Ladouceur.  

Ladouceur is a Montreal native who just retired after long snapping 16 years for the Dallas Cowboys. But even a Cowboys fan will not know him by that name.

LADOUCEUR: It was Lou. It was Louie. It was L.P. Captain Lou. But L.P. was usually the one. And I would never even get a last name. It was just L.P.  

DUBNER: And how was your last name pronounced when it was pronounced? 

LADOUCEUR: So when I went to school at Berkeley, there was a high school coach at a neighboring school. He had the exact same — L-A-D-O-U-C-E-U-R — and he said Bob “Lattiser.” So I’m going to do L.P. “Lattiser.”  

DUBNER: So you are in one sense, Louis-Philippe Ladouceur from Montreal and in the other sense, you’re L.P. “Lattiser” from Fort Worth — same person, though. 

LADOUCEUR: Yeah, same guy. 

DUBNER: Just want to make clear in case anybody was trying to track you down for unpaid parking tickets.

So, as Louis-Philippe was saying, he was on the big side for a long snapper, around 275 pounds. His first N.F.L. season was 2005 — before the rule changes that protected the long snapper.

LADOUCEUR: My first few years in the league, most of the time I would just get crushed, and there’s nothing you can do. 

So he appreciated the new rules.

LADOUCEUR: Because you’re not getting whiplashed and guys just bulldozing you, and so that helped. But then by doing that, you invited some snappers that weren’t as big, that couldn’t block as well, to come into this league as well. 

Rich McKay again:

MCKAY: All of a sudden our rule changes came, and here come a bunch of different players.  

But it wasn’t just the body types that were different; as the modern game sped up, the demands of the long-snapper job were also evolving.

MCKAY: Now they’ve got to throw the ball back there. They’ve got to throw it faster. They’ve got to be more accurate because the guys are coming off the edge fast. And they’ve got to be able to cover on the punt. And so there is a little more to the position than just throwing it back there. 

In other words, the job was becoming more specialized. Less Pa Ingalls, “jackass of all trades,” and more Adam Smith pin-factory worker. And the specialization of the long-snapper job led to further specialization, in the form of the long-snapper agent.

GOLD: Yeah, I think the niche of representing long snappers kind of found me. 

That’s Kevin Gold.

GOLD: I am an attorney and also an N.F.L. agent or what they call a certified contract advisor. I’ve done over 100 contracts for about 30 different guys, the vast majority of which are long snappers.

As Gold said, this specialty found him.

GOLD: When I came out of law school, I wanted to be an N.F.L. agent. I’m in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and there happened to be a player at a small Division Two school called Shippensburg University. And he had this unique skill, which is he could snap the ball to the punter very fast and he could snap it to the holder on field goals and extra points with perfect laces so the kicker could do their job. So he became my first client and honestly I didn’t know much about the position. I didn’t even know that N.F.L. teams really used guys just to do this role. 

Not only had N.F.L. teams started using guys just for that role, but occasionally they would spend one of their valuable college draft picks to select a player who wasn’t a quarterback or a linebacker, but a long snapper!

GOLD: Patrick Mannelly was one of the first pure snappers to be drafted just to snap by the Bears, back in the late ’90s.  

Patrick Mannelly played 16 seasons for the Bears without a single botched snap. If you ever find yourself in a situation where you need to prove that you understand the art of the long snap, just intone those two words: “Patrick Mannelly.” The award for the best collegiate long snapper is called The Patrick Mannelly Award. (There is no award for best N.F.L. long snapper — at least not yet.) Following Patrick Mannelly’s success in the N.F.L., it is now common for one or two teams each year to use a draft pick on a long snapper. Kevin Gold says N.F.L. teams have fully bought in to the value of the position.

GOLD: Games got to be so close and often decided by an extra point or three points that teams decided, “If I have one guy and this is their sole job, and if they could do it 100 percent accurately, I’m going to dedicate a roster spot.” So you’re talking about a player who’s going to play 8 to 10 plays a game, but you’re buying peace of mind.

And there was one more consequence of the specialization of the long-snapper position.

MATHESON: The entire kicking game is just so much better today than we’ve seen in the past. 

That, again, is the economist Victor Matheson.

MATHESON: Today, about 80 to 85 percent of field goals are made. That’s way up from the old days when you just took anyone you wanted off the roster and made them a long snapper. That’s in part because of specialization of the kicker himself — but it’s also the fact that the entire kicking game is much more practiced, and much more efficient now.  

Now, you may be thinking — Victor Matheson is a bright guy, for sure, but he’s also a sports economist. I’m not 100 percent convinced he’s right. I’d like to hear from someone closer to the game.

Ben VOLIN: I have a question that’s a little out of left field. 

At a press conference this past season, the Boston Globe football reporter Ben Volin had a question for Bill Belichick, head coach of the New England Patriots.

VOLIN: Is long snapping that difficult that you need to use a roster on one player who does only that? Can’t you just cross-train a few guys to do long-snapping and then have more flexibility with that roster spot?

Belichick is widely considered the best coach in N.F.L. history, as well as an historian of the game. He’s also famous for hating press conferences; he will dismiss a particularly ill-informed question with a grunt, a scowl, or maybe one syllable. But in this case — the question of whether a long snapper is worth a roster spot! — Belichick spoke for nearly 10 minutes.

Bill BELICHICK: It’s an interesting conversation — one that’s really traveled that long and winding road from when I came into the league. And that whole unit has really evolved into a specified snapper, a specified kicker, a specific punter, and generally the punter as the holder — so the three of those guys could work together all practice because they’re all available. 

Belichick also happens to have graduated from Wesleyan with an economics degree. What he’s describing here is what an economist might think of as a positive externality of specialization; in this case, each specialized player in the kicking game can make the others better because they have more opportunity to practice together.

BELICHICK: Going back to when I first came into the league, you worked on field goals, and it was maybe five minutes because that was the only time the starting center and backup quarterback were available to practice that. And the accuracy of the place kickers, which has gone up dramatically — part of that’s the surface, part of that’s not kicking outdoors. Part of it is the operation between the snapper, the holder, and the kicker. If you go back, you see balls rolling back and the holder coming out of his stance to catch the ball — and the kind of things you see at times in a high school game. There’s just a much higher level of skill, which there should be, in the National Football League.

MCKAY: So it’s a really good question, and it’s a good answer by Coach Belichick.

That, again, is Rich McKay.  

MCKAY: Go back and forget the snapper for a second. The kicker became specialized first, then the punter. Remember that the punter in the 50s was not a punter. He played another position — always. You would have many a game where there would be three or four really bad punts, and the reason was that player was actually playing in the game, got beat up a little bit, hadn’t practiced all week doing it, and all of a sudden, he’s got to make something happen. So kickers first, punters second, snappers third. And special teams got better every time one of those became specialized, because Coach Belichick did nail it on the head: that little trio is over there, I’m not sure who those guys are because they’re always hanging out together. It’s snap, hold, kick, and they practice it every day, and that’s why you don’t see the errors in it very often.

FERGUSON: It’s immensely important. 

And that is Reid Ferguson, the current long snapper for the Buffalo Bills.

FERGUSON: The fact that we can basically spend — I’ll take just a normal Thursday practice, for example — we’re out there for an hour-and-a-half, two hours of practice, basically together for the whole time, either warming up and practicing for a field goal period or a punt period, or we’re on the side talking through how the period went, things we can work on. It’s just a constant, never-ending form of self-improvement, if you will. I mean, it’s thousands of hours of practice, is really what it comes down to. 

DUBNER: Do you feel underappreciated considering how hard it is to be that consistently good? 

FERGUSON: When you accept this lifestyle and this position, you have to fall in love with the monotony of the job. You have to. You have to fall in love with chasing that perfect snap.  

You have to fall in love with chasing the perfect snap. With the monotony of the job. You have to accept the long-snapper lifestyle. Who knew it was a lifestyle? At the very least, the job does require a certain humility.

RUBIO: No one knows his name. No one wants to know his name. No one should know his name, except for his girlfriend and his mom and dad.

That’s Chris Rubio.

RUBIO: They just want to get that job done. And that’s what the coaches want. They just want basically a Honda Accord. It’s not the flashiest. But you know what? That damn thing’s going to go for 300,000 miles and it’s going to keep on running forever.

Chris Rubio is a — well, it’s hard to describe.

RUBIO: I’m kind of like a private football coach. 

But a private coach who coaches only long snappers. Not in the N.F.L. or even in college.

RUBIO: I would say I’m kind of like the middleman. 

If you were to render the long-snapper industrial complex as a supply-and-demand chart, Chris Rubio would indeed be right in the middle of it. Coming up: what he looks for in his recruits:

RUBIO: The dumber a long snapper, the better. 

And: what you should look for in the Super Bowl, especially if you like to place a bet now and again. Also: more than you ever wanted to know about long-snapping technique. Seriously. And if you want a somewhat broader Super Bowl primer, check out Episode 275 from our archive; it’s called “An Egghead’s Guide to the Super Bowl.”

*      *      *

I am going to tell you the names of the long snappers for the Cincinnati Bengals and the Los Angeles Rams, the teams playing in Super Bowl LVI. For the Bengals: it’s Clark Harris, a 13-year veteran. And for the Rams: Matthew Orzech, who’s in his second year as a full-time long snapper in the N.F.L. If everything goes well, you will not hear their names during the broadcast. If you do hear their names, it likely means they’ve made a terrible mistake — a botched snap that may result in a blocked kick, or worse. Remember that Steelers-Giants game from 2008?

STOCKTON: James Harrison, the new long snapper, snaps it out of the endzone for a safety.

Chris Rubio has seen this kind of thing several times. 

RUBIO: The most prevalent I remember was a Raiders game, probably 10 years ago now, where their starting long snapper got a concussion or something right out of the gate and all hell broke loose. I mean, they had the linebacker come in and it was just, oh my god, it was bad, my phone blew up that night. 

Rubio’s phone blew up because he is a reliable trainer and supplier of long snappers. Here’s how he explains his job to a stranger.

RUBIO: I’ll say, “Okay, do you know anything about football? You know the guy that kicks the ball or punts the ball?” And they’ll go, “Yeah, yeah, I know that guy — the kicker, the punter.” “I teach the guys who snap the ball to those people. So you probably don’t know anyone that I know. And all you’ve ever seen of a long snapper — that’s the people that I teach — is their butt. And if you hear their name, they’re doing terrible.” 

Rubio was himself a long snapper in college, at U.C.L.A. Like many people who play the position, he didn’t set out to do so.

RUBIO: I get to high school and the coach goes, “All right, Rubio, what position do you want to play?”

This was in California in the early 1990s.

RUBIO: And I’m super naive and I go, “Quarterback, obviously.” And he looks at six-foot, 250 pounds — this is not a good-looking 250 pounds at this point — and he goes, “Rubio, you’ll never touch the football again.”

But it turned out that Rubio — while not quarterback material — was very good at long snapping — a position that’s sometimes called “upside-down quarterback.” Because you have to throw the ball fast and accurately backwards in a perfect spiral while hanging crouched over the ball, head down, butt in the air. Rubio long-snapped through most of high school and for three seasons at U.C.L.A., where he never botched a snap.

RUBIO: I’d been doing really well, and I go up to Terry Donahue — he’s chewing his little Dentyne gum, and he’s got his Ray-Bans on. I said, “Coach,” and he kind of looks at me. “Yes, Rubio.” I said, “Coach Donahue, I don’t know how I’m doing. You don’t ever talk to me.” And he takes off his Ray-Bans, stops chewing his gum, he goes, “Rubio, if the head coach never speaks of the long snapper, the long snapper is doing perfect.” And we literally never spoke again until I graduated.

DUBNER: And were you okay with that?

RUBIO: Hell, yeah! As long as I know what the criteria is, I’m fine with that.

Rubio hoped to long-snap in the N.F.L., but it didn’t work out.

RUBIO: Yes, I had a couple of teams looking at me, but in between my junior and senior year I damaged my back pretty darn well.

Rubio played before the rule changes — in both the N.F.L. and college football — that were put in place protect the long snapper. Which meant he was routinely getting vised.

RUBIO: They would literally just get the biggest, angriest, meanest human being on the defense, and they would line up and just destroy you before you even get your head up.

Rubio earns his living these days with a company called Rubio Long Snapping. He is essentially the master of a long snapping network; he maintains this network by conducting training camps for long snappers and would-be long snappers.

RUBIO: I’ve been in Florida, state of Washington, California, Texas, North Carolina and Georgia, then Illinois. Two big Vegas events — and then long snappers come to me. I instruct them, I rank them. I give them a personal player profile on the website, YouTube videos, all that good stuff. And then the coaches use my rankings for recruiting. So an Alabama coach or U.C.L.A. coach — they’ll contact me, “Rubio, I need another kid. Here’s what I’m looking for.” They have to trust me, and I have to be able to be trusted.

Rubio estimates he has trained more than 1,000 long snappers who went on to play in college, some of whom also went to the N.F.L. College coaches want a good long snapper, but they also don’t want to spend much time finding one — and they may not know much about long snapping anyways. So they’re happy to rely on Rubio’s rankings. So what does Rubio look for in a long snapper?

RUBIO: Number one, a big head. I’m talking physically, the larger a human being’s head, the better long snapper they’re going to be. Second, the bigger the butt, a better long snapper they’re going to be. That’s to do with power. Longer arms, that helps. And fourth, and usually the most crucial part, the dumber a long snapper, the better.

DUBNER: Because why?

RUBIO: Because the smarter long snappers overthink everything. And it’s not hard — we’re bending over throwing a dead animal really fast backwards. So when they’re in the middle of a pressure-filled situation, it’s just muscle memory. It’s simple.

DUBNER: Describe one of your training camps — and just so I understand, it’s only long-snapping going on? There’s no other football happening? 

RUBIO: God, no, I don’t have that much time. Are you kidding? I barely can cut down what I’m talking about to the five hours.

DUBNER: But if I’m a stranger, and I just wander into this long-snapping camp —

RUBIO: You’d be so confused. Because you see 50 kids all bent over snapping. Even if you knew football, you’d be like, “There’s no way this dude’s running a long-snapping camp.” And if you didn’t know football, you’d be like, “What the hell is happening here?”

DUBNER: These are high-school players you’re working with, correct? 

RUBIO: It actually started as high school. And now more and more and more, I’m starting to get middle-school and even elementary-school kids

DUBNER: Get out of here. 

RUBIO: It’s actually pretty smart because it’s one of those weird positions that you can work on and not be a giant or physically massive or strong. What I always say is if I can get these kids pre-puberty and I can get their form down — because that’s the most important thing with snapping, is their form — if I can get that down and then puberty comes, it’s basically just dropping an engine into the car. And then it’s like, “Oh my gosh, I’ve got this fantastic form. And now look at I’ve got a V12 engine.

GOLD: I always tell high-school students, “Learn to long-snap because No. 1, it could get you a college scholarship.”

That, again, is Kevin Gold, the agent who represents N.F.L. long snappers.

GOLD: Because Alabama and L.S.U. will give scholarships to long snappers. And if you can snap two, three, four years in college at a top level, then you have a good chance to either be drafted by the N.F.L. or get a shot after the draft through what we call an undrafted free agent. 

The trajectory Gold just described is the precise trajectory followed by someone we met earlier.

FERGUSON: Reid Ferguson, long snapper for the Buffalo Bills.

When Ferguson was in high school, in Georgia, he attended several of Chris Rubio’s long-snapping camps.

FERGUSON: Yeah, so he ran Alabama, L.S.U., Tennessee, Oregon and maybe a handful of others. He really started the process of training guys and planting them at colleges and having coaches actually reach out. He was the guy who special-teams coaches in the N.C.A.A. called to recruit a snapper. “Hey, I’m looking for a big guy. Hey, I’m looking for a smaller, faster guy.” And he said, “Okay, well, this guy is four-star snapper. This guy is a three-star snapper. He’s way more athletic, but he’s not as good a snapper.”

Reid Ferguson was a five-star snapper in Chris Rubio’s rating system. Here’s the letter that Rubio wrote to college coaches on Ferguson’s behalf before his senior season in high school: One of the most dominant long snappers I’ve ever had with me. He has exceptional form, and his body is perfect for Division-One long snapping and beyond … Moves well, and he is thick … When he snaps, people notice … Terrific work ethic.” Reid Ferguson wound up going to L.S.U., Louisiana State University, one of the top teams in college football. By then, his younger brother Blake was also snapping in Chris Rubio’s camps.

FERGUSON: My brother started when he was in seventh grade. 

And a few years later, when Reid Ferguson was done at L.S.U. and was trying to catch on with an N.F.L. team, Blake Ferguson replaced his brother as the long snapper at L.S.U.

DUBNER: Was it a scholarship for you or your brother? 

FERGUSON: Yes, both of us. 

DUBNER: Full ride? 

FERGUSON: Yes. 

DUBNER: For a long snapper?

FERGUSON: Yes, sir. 

Blake Ferguson also made it to the N.F.L. — as a 2020 draft pick by the Miami Dolphins. The Dolphins play in the A.F.C. East division of the N.F.L., same as the Buffalo Bills. So 50 percent of the long snappers in the A.F.C. East are Fergusons who trained with Chris Rubio and graduated from L.S.U. on a full scholarship. You can see why young football players, and especially their parents, would be willing to travel to and pay for Chris Rubio’s long-snapping camps — not just for the instruction, but for the chance to be promoted by an expert with top-tier connections to the college and professional long-snapping network. This network, by the way, happens to be overwhelmingly white. Around 60 percent of the N.F.L.’s players are Black. Black long snappers, however, are practically nonexistent. Chris Rubio again:

RUBIO: I have a couple Black long snappers. I don’t know why there aren’t more. I really don’t. It just seems to be one of those positions. I have no idea why. 

And Rich McKay of the Atlanta Falcons.

MCKAY: No, it’s a good question, and I wouldn’t have known that until you said that. I couldn’t even venture a reason. 

And here again is the long-snapper agent Kevin Gold:

GOLD: The interesting thing is my very first client, Rob Davis, is an African-American long snapper, and one of the last. Ed Perry used to snap for the Miami Dolphins. And then African-Americans kind of disappeared. And I’m not sure that there’s a reason. A lot of times players snap because they can’t do anything else — no offense — on the football field, so it becomes a position of default. So it’s possible that that it doesn’t necessarily attract African-American snappers.

As occupations go, long snapping is about as reliable as it gets in professional sports.

MATHESON: It’s the oldest average position in the N.F.L.  

That again is the sports economist Victor Matheson:

MATHESON: The average long snapper has lasted six years in the league. That’s significantly more than an average N.F.L. player, who has about a three-year career.

Long snapping is also, on average, the lowest-paid position in the N.F.L. — although “lowest-paid” is relative. Most long snappers earn the league minimum; that’s currently $660,000 a year for a rookie, with escalations for every additional year of service. Reid Ferguson, for instance, who just completed his fifth full-time season, is now earning over $1 million a year.

FERGUSON: Yeah, 1.2, 1.3, something like that. You’re on it.

DUBNER: Let’s say I came down from some other universe and I didn’t know much about the economy or sports or whatnot. And I hear a teacher gets paid $50,000. Police officer, maybe $60,000. And then the long snapper for the Buffalo Bills gets $1.3 million. But there’s supply and demand. So do you think that you — in the whole ecosystem of professional sports and the N.F.L. — do you think that you as a long snapper are overpaid, underpaid, or paid just right?

FERGUSON: That’s a great question. In our ecosystem, guys reset the market every couple of years or every year, maybe. So I think in our long-snapping ecosystem, nobody’s really going to break the bank. It’s really just a rising tide lifts all boats.

DUBNER: What would you be doing if you weren’t playing in the N.F.L. now?

FERGUSON: I originally wanted to be an F.B.I. agent. That was Plan B for a long time. But at this point, I feel like I’ve saved up enough money to where I kind of don’t have to worry about finding something immediately.

Ferguson may have several more good earning years ahead of him.  

FERGUSON: My internal goal is to set the most consecutive games played (a) for a snapper and/or (b), for the Buffalo Bills. So 15, 16 years, if that’s what it takes me to get there, I’d love to play as long as I can keep the job.

You may recall that “L.P. Lattisser,” a.k.a. Louis-Philippe Ladouceur, kept his job with the Cowboys for 16 seasons. How is this longevity possible in such a physical game? For one thing, long snapper is a relatively safe position, especially with the protective rules the N.F.L. added some years back. You just don’t have as much opportunity to get hurt as someone who’s running with the ball or trying to tackle the ball carrier. But Victor Matheson says there’s another reason; he says teams don’t have much incentive to bring in a new long snapper very often, especially because they are relatively low earners.

MATHESON: Once you have a player that you can trust, it’s hard to break into that market — especially because this is a market that people generally do the job perfectly until they don’t. And because so few mistakes are made, that doesn’t leave a whole lot of openings for people trying to break in.

In other words, once a long snapper has mastered the technique, he becomes increasingly valuable to the team. His skills don’t deteriorate year-to-year as much as a player who relies on running fast, throwing far, or hitting hard. All the long snapper does is bend over and snap the ball. How hard can that be? And because of the hyper-specialization that Victor Matheson and Bill Belichick talked about earlier, the long snapper has a lot of time to keep mastering his technique, to fine-tune the details. Chris Rubio again:

RUBIO: How fast is their snap going? Does it look smooth? Is the spiral going well?

And Reid Ferguson:

FERGUSON: For a punt, I need to make sure I hit him in a certain window so he knows every time he goes out there for a punt, this snap is going to be in this general area. So that’s one less thing that he’s got to think about.

RUBIO: I call it the Rubio Zone — basically the lowest rib to mid-thigh, armpit to armpit. The punt is more of a caveman-type snap, where I say, don’t snap it to the punter, snap it through him.

But it’s different for a field goal or a P.A.T., where you’re snapping to the holder who’s just eight yards away.

RUBIO: The P.A.T. is a little bit more finesse, where you don’t want to burn it at him, so then you’re just basically flicking it back with your arms.

FERGUSON: Correct. The most important thing would be to make sure the laces are correct every time, because if they’re faced back at the kicker, you know that affects the kick.

LADOUCEUR: I wanted to be accurate with my laces.

And “L.P. Lattisser”:

LADOUCEUR: That means when the ball hits the holder, the laces are already facing forward, so all the holder has to do is put the ball down to the spot.

DUBNER: Can you explain that? Because I — to me, that sounds impossible.

LADOUCEUR: At eight yards, you know exactly how many rotations it takes to get to the holder’s hand. And so the way you place your hand on the ball — you have always exact same rotation that lands into the holder’s hand.

DUBNER: That means you also need to be exactly consistent from snap to snap, velocity, etcetera?

LADOUCEUR: Correct. So it would always be the same target, same velocity, same follow-through. You’ve got to release the ball the exact same spot every time between your legs.

DUBNER: And does that mean that different long snappers have slightly different techniques?

LADOUCEUR: Correct. I always put my right hand on the laces just like I throw a football. There’s some long snappers out there that have to put their right hand on one of the leather panels. And then I always played with distances. So I knew if it was cold, my ball wouldn’t rotate as much. I can move the ball up and back out of my stance to have — instead of exactly eight yards, I’d be like at seven-and-three quarters. I’ve been playing a long time and there’s ways to move the line of scrimmage. Come on now.

DUBNER: So what you’re saying really is that the long snapper is the most vital member of any football team?

LADOUCEUR: I wish it was so. No, we’re there to make sure that the kicker has the cleanest operation possible so he can do his job.

DUBNER: Okay, I understand why special teams are important. I understand long snapping is sort of an art form. But still, I come back to the question: is it really worth a roster spot? Couldn’t another player also learn to be perfect at long-snapping, a player who can also play an offensive or defensive position?

LADOUCEUR: Well —

DUBNER: I realize I’m asking you to disavow your entire livelihood, but —

LADOUCEUR: Yeah, I mean, it’s a great question. You know, the punt snap at 15 yards is not a natural snap for a center. The longest snap a center will do is a shotgun snap at maybe five yards. The field goal, it’s timing. We’re — it’s a good question. I wouldn’t have had a job if it weren’t for the specialization of long snapping.

I promised at the start of this episode that we’d make you care about a football position you probably didn’t even know about. I hope we succeeded! If not, maybe it’ll help you think about specialization in some other labor market — maybe your own. It happens in pretty much every corner of the economy. A new technology comes along — the smartphone, for instance — and we immediately worry about all the jobs and functions it’s replacing, which is worth thinking about, for sure. But over time we see all the new jobs and functions this technology makes possible, jobs we couldn’t have imagined would even exist. Who gets your vote for the long snapper of the smartphone economy?

If nothing else, the next time you watch a football game — maybe it’s the Super Bowl, or maybe it’s a high-school game — you’ll have an inside detail to pay attention to. And to appreciate — if not as a feat of great athleticism, then at least as a textbook case of specialization in the labor markets.

And if you really care about the long snapper position now, let it be known that DraftKings, the online sports-betting company, has — at our request — created an unusual proposition bet for this year’s Super Bowl, available in certain states where sports gambling is legal, but not all. This bet isn’t about whether or not there will be a botched snap — that would be cruel. This bet asks: “Will a long snapper record a tackle or an assist?” As you recall, the long snapper does run downfield on a punt to try to tackle the punt returner or at least assist in the tackle. All this season, the Rams’ long snapper Matthew Orzeck had one tackle; the Bengals’ snapper Clark Harris had just one assist. So you should be able to get some nice long odds on this bet.

*      *      *

Freakonomics Radio is produced by Stitcher and Dubner Productions. This episode was produced by Ryan Kelley. We had help this week from Jeremy Johnston. Our staff also includes Alison CraiglowGreg Rippin, Zack Lapinski, Mary Diduch, Rebecca Lee Douglas, Morgan Levey, Jasmin Klinger, Eleanor Osborne, Emma Tyrrell, Lyric Bowditch, Jacob Clemente, and Alina Kulman. Our theme song is “Mr. Fortune,” by the Hitchhikers; the rest of the music this week was composed by Luis Guerra. You can follow Freakonomics Radio on Apple PodcastsSpotifyStitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.

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