In his eight-plus seasons with the Browns, Ryan Pontbriand has been the quintessential quiet man of the roster. You rarely, if ever, see his name in a game story.
That’s because Pontbriand is the Browns’ long snapper, the most anonymous member of the 53-man roster. He’s the guy whose responsibility is to make certain the football arrives cleanly to either the punter or the holder on placekicks. That’s all he does. He snaps the ball and he does it well.
He works as far under the radar for the Browns as the trainer and equipment man. And that’s the way he likes it. He and the coaches know how valuable he is to the team. That’s all that counts.
Pontbriand enters the game for anywhere from eight to a dozen plays. But you’d never know it unless you are a football purist who pays attention to every facet of the game.
He was so highly thought of coming out of Rice, the Browns selected him in the fifth round of the 2003 draft. Drafting a long snapper was believed then– and still is today – a most unusual move. But Pontbriand has more than justified Butch Davis’ decision to draft him by being unfailingly reliable every season, every snap.
He has missed only five games – the final five of the 2005 season with a bad back – in his eight-plus seasons with the Browns. His expertise was recognized with Pro Bowl selections in 2007 and 2008.
The last time his name popped up was the 14th game of the 2007 season when the Buffalo Bills and a snowstorm descended on Cleveland at the same time. The Browns won that blizzardy game by the lakefront, 8-0, no thanks to the precision snapping of Pontbriand.
He was perfect on seven snaps to punter Dave Zastudil as the swirling wind played nasty tricks with the ball, and added two perfect snaps on Phil Dawson field goals. The Browns added the extra two points when Buffalo long snapper Ryan Neill sailed the ball over punter Brian Moorman’s head into the end zone for a safety.
Those are the kinds of games Pontbriand quietly dreams of, the type he treasures. Quite unlike the one he experienced Sunday at Cleveland Browns Stadium against the St. Louis Rams. That turned out to be a nightmare. A 13-12 nightmare.
The game, as it turned out, came down to one play. It was going to be a chip-shot field goal for Dawson, who was perfect on his first four field goals of the afternoon. It was going to put the Browns in front, 15-13, and snap a two-game losing streak.
Coach Pat Shurmur trusted Pontbriand, holder Brad Maynard and Dawson so much, he eschewed going for a touchdown although he had a first and goal at the Rams’ 8-yard line with about three minutes left in the game.
A touchdown would have put the Browns up by six points and forced the Rams to score a touchdown to beat them. Instead, Shurmur went conservative and called for three straight running plays. That’s called coaching passively.
He got lucky on the second play when he called for a handoff to tight end Alex Smith, who lined up directly behind quarterback Colt McCoy. What Smith, who probably hasn’t taken a handoff like a running back since probably never, was doing there is baffling.
McCoy never got the ball cleanly to Smith, but Joshua Cribbs rescued the botched play by falling on the ball. It made more than a few people wonder what the hell was Shurmur thinking.
As it turned out, the coach's trust and passive nature came back to take a huge chunk out of his hind flanks and cost his team a victory.
When Pontbriand’s snap dribbled back to Maynard after the ball brushed against the leg of Alex Mack, it threw off the timing Dawson needed to do what he does so well. Maynard did an amazing job of spotting the ball, but had no time to spin the laces of the ball away from Dawson. He was fortunate just to get the ball teed upright enough for the kicker's attempt.
Placekickers like the laces away because they create drag on the ball as the ball travels through the air and it has a tendency to hook or slice away from the intended target. Laces away produces a truer kick.
That’s why Dawson’s 22-yard effort was low and hooked left almost immediately after leaving his foot and had no shot at passing through the uprights. It was just another bizarre way for this team to lose a football game.
Too bad because Shurmur chose this afternoon to emerge from his cocoon of dull football and showed he actually had some creative chops.
Sure, there was a lot of Chris Ogbonnaya off tackle, between the tackles, then off tackle again. He was not predictably Mister First Down as it turned out. He carried 13 times on first downs, but the Browns actually passed the ball on the other 14 first-down plays. Yes, they did.
Midway through the second quarter, they stunned the crowd with an old-fashioned dipsey-doodle play involving Cribbs, Seneca Wallace and McCoy. Cribbs took the wildcat formation snap and flipped the ball to Wallace coming back around from the right side. Wallace flipped the ball back to McCoy coming back toward the formation and then headed down the left sideline.
McCoy hit him with a perfect 21-yard pass as the crowd sat amazed before realizing there really is some creativity in the Shurmur playbook. Yes, there is. It set up Dawson’s second field goal.
Late in the first half, McCoy, who received his best pass protection in a month, showed off his arm strength by connecting with Greg Little on a 52-yard bomb that led to Dawson field goal No. 3. The ball traveled 55 yards in the air. It was a rare display of downfield passing, which has been missing from the Cleveland offense most of the season.
Unfortunately, however, most of the talk around the watercooler Monday will center – no pun intended – on the botched snap by Pontbriand, who will emerge from his anonymous status for at least a day.
Then he’ll go back and continue to be one of the NFL’s best long snappers.