O'Hara: This season will be unlike any of the previous nine for Don Muhlbach

Posted May 27, 2013

Established as one of the NFL's best long snappers as he enters his 10th season in Detroit, Muhlbach will be working with a new punter, holder and kicker in 2013

Don Muhlbach's job is a snap, but that doesn't mean it's easy.

In a sport that abounds with specialists -- kickers, punters, return men, nickel backs, third down pass rushers, third-string quarterbacks who hold clipboards -- Muhlbach's job might be the most highly specialized of all.

Don MuhlbachLS Don Muhlbach (G. Smith/Detroit Lions)

Muhlbach is the Lions' long snapper, and he has established himself as one of the NFL's best as he enters his 10th season in Detroit. His one job is to snap the ball for punts, field goal attempts and extra points. There is no margin for error. A bad snap that leads to a blocked punt or a missed field goal or extra point can result in the margin of defeat.

As a former long snapper once said: "When you hear the crowd go 'oooh,' you don't have to turn around to see if it was a bad snap."

Because of the speed on his snaps, Muhlbach was dubbed "the Nolan Ryan of long snappers" by Matt Millen when he signed him midway through the 2004 season as an injury replacement.

The nickname has stuck, and it's well deserved. An eight-game fill-in job became a career. Muhlbach's snaps on punts and placekicks are fast and accurate. Last season, Muhlbach was recognized for his expertise by being named to the NFC Pro Bowl team.

Muhlbach's perspective while doing his job is different than any other player. He has an upside-down view of his craft -- bent over, head down, and snapping the ball through his legs.

Muhlbach's 10th season will be unlike any of the first nine. For one thing, he's working with an entire new set of hands and legs, with a new punter, holder and kicker from last year.

And for the first time at any level, Muhlbach will snap to a left-footed kicker. David Akers was signed in April to replace Jason Hanson, who retired after 21 seasons as a Lion. Sam Martin, drafted in the fifth round to be the new punter, also is the holder.

Left or right or right doesn't seem like a big difference, but Muhlbach and Martin are going through an adjustment period in the offseason workouts.

"Visually, it's just backward," Muhlbach said after one of last week's OTA practice. "But it's the same snap, same distance. There's no excuse for it (a bad snap) being backward.

"You've just got to get it right."

Getting it right, even when it's left, requires practice.

Muhlbach knew that the first time he snapped the ball without Hanson standing to the holder's left.

"I've never had a left-footed kicker before," Muhlbach said. "The first few times I'd get down, it was like, 'you're on the wrong side; no you're not.' It's more visual. You're still aiming at a knee. You're still putting it there.

"It's not that big a deal. That's why we have the offseason, so you can work on it and get it. Hopefully, you all won't notice when we get out there for real."

And Martin quickly learned that Muhlbach's "Nolan Ryan" reputation was well earned. The first time he caught Muhlbach's snaps, Martin didn't think he'd have to play deeper or tape a sponge to his palm to handle the speed, but there was a distinct difference from anything he'd handled at Appalachian State or in his offseason workouts as he prepared for the draft.

"I might have to put it in there," Martin said, joking about using a sponge. "He's fast. He's accurate. The field-goal snaps are unbelievable. He's the best I've ever seen."

Martin had never held for a left-footed kicker before the Lions drafted him. For a right-footed kicker, Martin extends his right arm to catch the ball and spots it with his left hand. For Akers, it will be the opposite -- catch with the left arm extended, spot with the right hand.

Martin is right-handed, so spotting with his right hand will be easier, once he has fully made the adjustment.

Martin did his own scouting before the draft. The Lions brought him in for a visit. They hadn't re-signed either punter from last season -- Ben Graham or Nick Harris -- so he knew there was a strong chance they'd draft a punter.

When Akers signed with the Lions more than two weeks before the draft, Martin began practicing with a left-footed kicker.

"I started working on it, just in case I ended up here," he said. "It's definitely an adjustment, but now I think if I had to go with a right-footed kicker, that would be weird."