The "dead snap" is revolutionizing the quarterback-center exchange

Jim Harbaugh needed to test the "dead snap." If he was going to challenge football's ultimate fundamental action, he would have to try it out for himself. So he lined up at quarterback in the shotgun, ready to handle the remodeled quarterback-center exchange advertised as the way to wipe out one of football's most infuriating and unforgivable blunders -- the bad snap.

"Coach Harbaugh thought it was great," Michigan offensive line coach Tim Drevno said. "Bad snaps can take points off the board and wins out of your hand."

Since then, Harbaugh-coached teams have ditched the spiral shotgun snap in favor of the dead snap.

Revolution could be underway.

More teams than ever before will break spiral-snap tradition and rely on the dead snap in 2017, as assistant coaches nurtured in the spread era flood sidelines and under-center playbooks become historical references. In 2016, 84 percent of snaps were run from the pistol or shotgun formation, a 33 percent increase since just 2011.

"This is something you're going to see more of," Rutgers offensive line coach AJ Blazek said.

Blazek was persuaded to experiment with football's primordial function by Northwestern assistant Adam Cushing, who was at a crossroads with his centers after the 2015 season. They couldn't snap the ball on target. His offensive coordinator, with each errant Saturday snap, would remind him of that. Seven snaps that season were classified as a disaster.

As Cushing canvassed the snapping landscape in his offseason probe, he noticed Michigan and a few other schools' centers peculiarly palming the football's nose rather than grabbing the laces in shotgun. They flipped and floated it back, allowing it to hang in the air without much rotation. It was a landmark judgment favoring precision over power.

That crude simplicity is the dead snap's most attractive feature. Once the ball is spotted, the center places the back point of the ball in his palm rather than gripping it like a quarterback arming a spiral. The nose is then placed into the ground so the ball is at a 45-degree angle with an inch of the ball grazing the turf. The fingers are spread, usually with one across the laces or seam to help with grip. Then with the wrist locked, the center swings his arm back like a pendulum and releases.

"Life changing," Cushing said.

It was the same for former Vanderbilt center Joe Townsend.

Small hands, sweaty palms -- that's how he characterizes his mitts, which were at the core of his issues with the Commodores. His hands weren't big enough to fully grip the football, and when the SEC swelter forced perspiration to slide down his arm, greasing the ball, he struggled to secure it.

Commodores guard Wesley Johnson suggested at a 2012 practice that he try a primitive sandlot method popular across backyards and barbecues. "Bear claw it," Johnson said. Stick the nose into your palm and shuffle it back, he said. "Trust me, just try it."

In the pre-practice walk-through, Townsend gave it an attempt. He didn't tell then-position coach Herb Hand, but quickly Townsend was snapping perfect chest-high changeups the quarterbacks could easily gather. "Coach Hand said, 'Joe, what the hell are you doing?' I said, 'I'm trying something out,' and he said, 'Well, come to me before changing s--- up!'" Townsend remembered. "But it worked, and I did it throughout my career."

If the dead snap sounds complicated, centers assure it's much easier than the spiral and avoids a hurtling fastball back to the quarterback. Northwestern center Brad North said his biggest flaw is overthinking, so after a 2015 season of bumbled snaps, he learned the straightforward dead snap in a few weeks. Last season, Northwestern did not have one snap that prematurely ended a play.

Elite programs can often recruit centers with a background in spiral snapping, and coaches usually won't fiddle with a lineman who is comfortable with his delivery. But a lot of schools have to fit a lineman in at center and then guide him. North was a high school tackle who had never snapped.

"And you can't be the starter if you can't snap," he said.

Bad snaps snowball, North said, until an offense is buried below an avalanche of broken plays. At USC in 2014, Drevno moved Max Tuerk from tackle to center, and the move wrecked practices, as Tuerk littered the field with stray snaps.

Confidence is a real concern for centers, but the dead snap is easier to learn, Drevno said. Tuerk finished 2014 first-team All-Pac-12.

"I can teach a 5-year-old," Drevno said. "That's how easy it is."

That limited learning curve changes roster dynamics and opens up recruiting. Northwestern now has six linemen who can snap, opening up scholarships and insulating them from a rash of injuries.

"As an O-line coach, on day one you get rid of half the guys who can't snap the ball, so you sleep better when instead of two centers you have six," said John Kuceyeski, a Cornell assistant who spent time in the Big Ten, Big 12 and MAC. "I make all my guys [dead] snap now."

Kuceyeski said he typically encounters three traditional snap issues: Often centers line up too far over the ball, which overextends the arm, creating an arcing snap; some centers have small hands and struggle with grip; and sometimes centers will turn their wrists inward or outward when pulling or reaching down the line.

The wrist was the hang-up for Ruben Carter when he transferred from Florida State to Toledo in 2015. Carter was fumbling 10 snaps per practice, former Toledo assistant Kuceyeski said. As then-coordinator Tom Manning tinkered with a ball during one brainstorming session, Manning remembered how he snapped as a pee-wee center. He used the dead snap then, so he introduced Carter to it.

"There's got to be a reason they teach little kids it, and it's got to be because it's easier," Manning said.

If preteen Pop Warner centers are better at snapping than those at 10-win programs, why has it been used in only pockets of time over the past two decades?

It turns out, the only thing preventing an earlier insurgency against the spiral snap was a library card. Coaches could have read up on the coach whose fabled name is bestowed on the youth circuit and is credited with setting the spread offense's foundation.

In Pop Warner's 1927 book "Football for Coaches and Players," two center-back passes -- the spiral and end-over-end pass -- are discussed.

"The spiral pass from center has absolutely no advantages over the end-over-end method ... and I never encourage or teach it," he wrote.

Three years earlier, Jock Sutherland succeeded Warner at Pittsburgh, where both won national championships. In 1938, Sutherland held a coaches clinic, teaching the end-over-end snap, and today the antediluvian Jock Sutherland Snap, which used two hands, has been rebranded as the dead snap. The dead snap is merely a retrograde fall into a bygone era.

"Jock deserves credit for popularizing it," football historian Hugh Wyatt said. "He felt it was better because it was softer and slower."

Those advantages unsurprisingly were not lost on one of the game's most cerebral passers. Peyton Manning was on the receiving end of dead snaps for much of his time in with the Colts, and renowned line coach Howard Mudd stressed it with Jeff Saturday, who was Manning's center for all but 1998.

Saturday understood the dead snap from college, where North Carolina used it to help quarterbacks keep their eyes downfield rather than focus on handling a blistering snap. Quarterbacks are able to spin it faster in their hands for a quick route, and some coaches even tweak it so the center spins the laces to the quarterback's strong hand presnap.

"People underestimate on quick throws how important a good snap is," Saturday said. "It could just be a half-second, but it's the difference between your QB getting smoked and untouched."

An exact number of teams using the dead snap is unavailable, but every coach and player interviewed said he is seeing increases. It's still not widely talked about among coaches, though most coaches are willing to tutor colleagues. At last year's coaches' convention, Cushing organized a meeting of dead snap guerillas, intent on learning and making the North Chicago shores a dead snap stronghold.

This winter, Cushing went from student to sensei as coaches asked him to enlist them in the movement. And coaches who missed Cushing's enlightened instruction can rest easy. They can apprentice next winter.

"As long as I coach the offensive line," Cushing said, "it's never changing."