It’s considered one of the more rudimentary plays in football — the center-quarterback exchange.
After all, kids execute it on a playground from a young age, often as the quarterback barks out signals that have little meaning.
Centers at football’s upper levels are almost always judged on their recognition of defenses, run blocking and pass protection. Naturally, those are vital.
Taken for granted, however, is the snap; that is, until one gets launched over the quarterback’s shoulder for a big loss.
“It’s when you rocket one back there on them when they’re not ready for it, you get yourself in trouble,” said Minnesota Vikings right guard and former center Joe Berger.
The Vikings started three current or former centers on the interior of their line against the Seattle Seahawks last Friday: Nick Easton at left guard, rookie Pat Elflein at center and Berger on the right.
All of them know what the sinking feeling of a snap gone awry, especially Easton, who made blooper reels with a muffed snap last year against Green Bay.
Elflein struggled with shotgun snaps early in training camp and had a bad snap in the first preseason game but has otherwise improved over the last month. The third-round pick is on a path to become the team’s starting center. If so, he’ll be expected to have all the kinks worked out by Week 1.
“You’ve just got to get reps in practice, different situations, red zone, two minute,” Elflein said.
So what comprises a good snap?
“You probably can’t print it,” Easton told Zone Coverage.
To paraphrase, Easton says the common instruction for centers is to think about moving their thumb straight back to their, ahem, rear end, as they pass off the football to the quarterback.
As far as grip, “I just grab it how I would throw it,” said Elflein.
Repetition, of course, is crucial when a new center-quarterback pairing takes the field. Not only does the snap itself need to be fluid, but the center needs to know when the quarterback wants the ball. With Berger out against the Dallas Cowboys last year, Easton filled in and may have missed his cue to snap the ball on a late 2-point conversion, leading to a false start penalty.
Perhaps one of the most challenging things to coordinate is, what Berger calls, the snap and step
“That’s why we spend a lot of time with that in pre-practice every day out here getting snaps from different guys,” said quarterback Sam Bradford. “Obviously, everyone’s a little bit different in how they snap it.”
Perhaps one of the most challenging things to coordinate is, what Berger calls, the snap and step, where the center has to snap the ball and immediately make a lateral movement to set up a block.
Former Vikings quarterback Sage Rosenfels explains.
“An outside zone play where the center is trying to reach a nose tackle or reach a three-technique, they’re on the run before the ball is snapped. You have to, as they say, ride to the center and move your hands with him as they move.
“And there’s other plays where you’re going one way, and the center’s blocking back on some sort of counter or pulling-guard play, and that’s a different feel as well,” Rosenfels said.
This turns into a mental exercise for both center and quarterback before the snap to understand where the other is going.
“When you’re moving your hips on him, the quarterback’s got to be able to follow you a little bit,” said Berger, “and that’s just time on task.”
Surprisingly, there is debate over which type of snap is more difficult: under-center or shotgun.
Bradford and Rosenfels? They think under-center has a greater learning curve.
Easton and Berger? They think shotgun.
Elflein was the tiebreaker.
“It’s really what you’re used to,” Elflein said, “so I was used to the shotgun [at Ohio State], so now I’m learning how to do it under center, and I’m sure vice versa for someone coming from somewhere different.”
The center has a lot on their plate between recognizing defenses and setting protections before the snap, then attempting to pancake powerful defensive tackles once the play starts.
But there’s that little, innocuous play in between that is still so important.
“If we can’t execute that,” said Bradord, “then we can’t have a successful play.”