Published Mar. 17, 2018
Don Muhlbach has spent 212 games playing for the Lions looking at the world upside down between his legs.
Muhlbach is the Lions’ long snapper, signed last week to return for his 15th season. He has one job and has been doing that one job for the Lions since 2004. Muhlbach fires footballs back to the punters and to the holders on place kicks like a machine.
The holder on place kicks kneels about eight yards behind Muhlbach. If he doesn’t receive the football properly, with the speed that Muhlbach delivers the pigskin, that holder can lose some fingers. Even the punter, some 15 yards behind the line of scrimmage, can’t get his hands in the wrong position or else one of Muhlbach’s missiles can do some serious damage.
I can imagine what it’s like at Muhlbach’s house when someone asks him to pass the salt.
Only three men in franchise history have suited up in the Honolulu blue and silver for more games than Muhlbach, although for as often as he’s on the field, those 212 games might equate to about 50 for a starter on offense or defense.
That’s not to deride what Muhlbach does. Nobody keeps asking you back and signs you up for 15 years in a row if you’re no good.
The long snapper is usually an unknown on any football roster. In fact, Muhlbach is the only one for the Lions I’ve ever known by name, and I’ve been following and covering the team since 1970. But when someone is doing it for 15 seasons in a row in the same town, you can’t help but get to know the guy—especially since the Lions have been notorious for settling for field goal attempts instead of scoring touchdowns.
The signing last week continues an annual routine. Muhlbach, 36, has been signing a series of one-year contracts for many years. He plays for the league minimum every season, which in 2018 is about $1.015 million for someone of Muhlbach’s experience. He also gets a $90,000 signing bonus.
Muhlbach is the Lions’ Million Dollar Squatter.
I’m surprised that anyone on the Lions’ kicking team can identify Muhlbach by face. All they’ve seen for 14 seasons has been his derriere.
Muhlbach actually had to withstand a threat to his job in 2016, when Lions GM Bob Quinn, as part of his first draft in Detroit, brought in Jimmy Landes with a sixth round pick. Muhlbach flicked Landes away and this season, as last, there’s no competition for no. 48’s job.
If there’s any job in football that is as thankless as long snapper, I’d like to know what it is. Think about this. Muhlbach fires thousands of footballs every year, including practices. Yet just one screw up can lose a football game, and that’s all the long snapper will hear about.
How’d you like to have a job that you perform perfectly 99.8 percent of the time, yet the only time anyone wants to talk to you is to speak about the other 0.2 percent?
Muhlbach has combated this phenomenon the best way possible: he doesn’t make any mistakes. Period.
Has Muhlbach made a bad snap in his 212 games as a Lion? I suppose, but do you remember one?
The Lions, after Jason Hanson retired following the 2012 season and before Matt Prater joined the team in 2014, have had some misadventures in their placekicking game. But never were those hijinks because of anything Muhlbach did wrong.
Never a bad snap
Those football follies shows that NFL Films has culled over the decades often include placekicking mishaps. And many of those involve a hilariously bad long snap, whether too high or too low. You won’t find a Lions placekick on any of those follies shows, thanks to no. 48.
It’s been said of the great hitters in baseball that they can roll out of bed on Christmas morning and go 2-for-5. Muhlbach can do that one better: he can likely long snap in his sleep. And it would be delivered perfectly.
If anyone in the world should have back problems, it’s Muhlbach. He spends more time bent in half than a paper clip. Yet Muhlbach doesn’t miss any games. He’s suited up for all but four contests since 2005.
Muhlbach, believe it or not, started his college career at Texas A&M on the receiving end of long snaps. He was a punter in 2001, his sophomore year for the Aggies. But then he switched to the dark side in 2003 and he’s been squatting ever since.
Muhlbach went undrafted, which isn’t unusual for someone in his line of work. The Baltimore Ravens signed him in 2004 but he ended up with the Lions when the team needed a replacement for injured long snapper Jody Littleton, which means I’ve just given you the answer to a trivia question. And Littleton became the Wally Pipp of long snapping.
The rest, as they say, is long snapper history.
The ‘Nolan Ryan of long snappers’
Muhlbach’s job may be thankless when it comes to the football masses, but some folks are definitely paying attention.
Like Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy, who added Muhlbach to the NFC Pro Bowl roster following the 2012 season. As a result, Muhlbach became the first Lions special teams player to make the Pro Bowl who wasn’t a kicker, punter or return man.
Matt Millen may be a lot of things to Lions fans, but when it comes to Muhlbach, Millen got one right.
“Don is the Nolan Ryan of long snappers,” Millen said in 2005, a reference to the lightning speed at which Muhlbach delivers the football, which has been scientifically proven with a fancy tool called a stopwatch.
Except Muhlbach isn’t trying to strike anyone out. He just wants to get the football to its target as fast as humanly possible. In the placekicking game, fractions of seconds can mean the difference between a successful kick and a potential block. And every time, Muhlbach comes through, with perfect spirals and flames.
Muhlbach has one job, but when he’s on the field, he doesn’t just snap and stand around and watch. He’s required to run down the field and occasionally make a tackle. In fact, Muhlbach has been credited with one forced fumble in his career, back in 2009. Pro-Football Reference also gives Muhlbach six solo tackles and three assists over the past 14 seasons.
But let’s face it: Muhlbach isn’t there to tackle. In fact, if I was the Lions, I’d demand that Muhlbach snap the football then run off the field. Best not to let anything happen to those golden arms.
Squatting runs in the Muhlbach football family. Don’s uncle, John Muhlbach, was a center for Ohio State University.
Fifteen seasons of firing footballs between the legs. How much longer can Muhlbach keep doing this?
Well, Hanson is the Lions’ all-time leader in games played, with 327. Muhlbach has 116 to go before breaking that record, which equates to seven-plus full seasons. That would put him long-snapping at age 43. I wouldn’t bet against him.
Yet one day Muhlbach will have had enough. One day the Lions will offer him another one-year contract and Don will say thanks, but no thanks. I’m hanging up my butt.
Then he’ll go fishing or golfing and think about the old days, of squatting and peering at holders and punters through an upside down lens.