When Kevin Spencer, now the Cardinals’ special teams coach, was on the staff of the Oakland Raiders, then-owner Al Davis had these words of wisdom.
“I can sleep at night,” Davis would tell Spencer, “as long as I know I have a competent long snapper.”
Mike Leach, once upon a time, didn’t think he’d be that guy. He was hoping to be a tight end or punter in the league – maybe both – and instead fell into a career as a special teams security blanket. When it comes to long snapping, the cliché applies that you don’t appreciate what you have until it’s gone.
“The last thing you want to do,” Leach said, “is lose a game because of a snap.”
When it’s done right, though, no one knows the name of the long snapper. Leach may be perfect for the job, then, because he doesn’t seek attention. Part of that, Spencer theorizes, is because the veteran of 13 NFL seasons understands his role. Part of it is Leach’s unassuming personality, which never clamored for the spotlight even in his younger days when he was still catching passes as his primary duty.
Since 1996, the Cardinals have had just three long snappers: Trey Junkin, Nathan Hodel and Leach. Leach signed in 2009, and the 36-year-old is hoping to stick around in Arizona as long as he can.
Guessing his career playing out this way wouldn’t have happened back in 2000, when Leach was working on punting practice as a rookie with the Tennessee Titans during summer practices. At one point, he randomly bent over and snapped the ball to the other punter on the roster.
Special teams coach Al Lowry saw it and was intrigued. Leach had never long-snapped before, but it was suddenly his career path. He spent two seasons in Tennessee and then played in Denver for eight seasons before coming to the Cardinals.
“It’s been a pretty good career move for me,” Leach acknowledged.
He will admit he misses playing tight end. He still has a tight end number – 82 – and still has days when he fills in at the position on the scout team, catching a ball or two. He isn’t huge at 6-foot-2 and 235 pounds, but he is still goes to all the tight end meetings and still knows the Cardinals’ offense.
At the end of the 2010 season, when injuries struck the Cards and then – after the inactives had already been declared before a game in San Francisco – tight end Stephen Spach got hurt in warm-ups, Leach actually did play some tight end in the game.
“God forbid if we ever got in a pinch, Mike can execute in a game,” Spencer said. “Now he might not be physically what you are looking for but he won’t make any mental errors.”
Still, Leach said, “I wouldn’t go back and trade (careers). Maybe I could have had a five-year career catching some balls and scoring a couple of touchdowns but I’d be doing something else right now. I’m fortunate to have played as long as I have.”
Leach still works on his game. There will be times when something clicks in his head, and he will tell Spencer, or kicker
“Even though he’s been out there for so many years, he cares about it,” Feely said. “He cares about where the ball is caught, where the laces are, where on a field goal where Dave catches it, or on a punt, is the snap on the correct hip? It’s just the little things where as a fan, you’d never notice.”
Leach has not had a bad snap since arriving in Arizona. Over 13 seasons, he has to have had a mistake, but he isn’t about to rehash them.
“We don’t talk about those things,” Leach said, his tone underscoring his seriousness. “I don’t want to think back to them. No point dwelling on them.”
Leach hasn’t let the Cardinals down, so we can only assume sleep patterns have been OK for head coach Ken Whisenhunt and general manager Rod Graves. The alternative is not attractive.
“I know when (teams) see the second snapper, it’s like blood in the water with sharks,” Spencer said. He noted a game this season, when the Raiders lost their snapper to injury in the season opener and the reserve snapper struggled so much that Oakland couldn’t get two punts off and had a third blocked.
“Every backup snapper on the 31 other teams was practicing the following Wednesday,” Spencer said, including Cardinals tight end
“Hank Aaron goes one-for-three, he’s in the Hall of Fame,” Spencer added. “Mike goes one-for-three, he’s on the waiver wire.”