For the past two seasons the consistency of Buffalo's kicking game has been as good or better than any other in franchise history. And while Brian Moorman and Rian Lindell are chiefly responsible for the impressive statistics they've amassed the past two years, both were always quick to credit long snapper Mike Schneck.
But Schneck has now been replaced as the coaching staff surprisingly released the veteran in favor of Ryan Neill. Buffalo's new long snapper served on the Bills practice squad last season, but was obviously considered a more valuable asset than Schneck by the coaching staff for the 2007 campaign.
The roster decision likely came as a bit of shock to Lindell and Moorman in light of all the success they've had with Schneck snapping to them. But the pair expressed faith in the Rutgers product who has been entrusted with the team's snapping duties this season.
"I'll be the first one to tell you I thought that Mike (Schneck) was just as important to us improving over the last two years and me going to the Pro Bowl the last two years as anybody else," said Moorman. "But that being said Ryan is a great snapper and he's professional in what he does and he's worked very hard to get to this point. He deserves to be on this team."
"He's a great snapper," said Lindell. "He does great. Thankfully Brian is so good that he makes up for anything with his holds that might go wrong. But he's gotten a lot better."
Neill did a good amount of long snapping last year as a member of the practice squad, but still split time between that job and playing defensive end. But in the offseason Neill shifted all of his focus to snapping and it appears to have paid off.
"Career-wise I kind of had to switch my focus and it's a different mentality when you're playing defensive end because you're ready to fly off the ball and you're ready to attack," said Neill. "Playing long snapper you have to relax a little more and focus in on getting the ball to where it needs to be and then you have to transition to running down the field. It's a different mentality, but I think I've been able to do a good job in taking on the different role and focusing on that different role now."
Evidence that the Bills coaching staff was seriously considering Neill as the team's long snapper came last week when Neill worked exclusively with Moorman and Lindell in practice and then snapped from start to finish in the preseason finale against the Lions.
"We were able to work the entire game so that was a good experience," said Neill.
Lindell hit three field goals including a 45-yarder and Moorman didn't appear to be thrown off by any errant snaps in the game as he dropped two punts inside the 20 and had a long of 50 yards.
Still getting used to a new snapper figures to be more of an adjustment for Moorman since the ball travels in the air further on punts than on field goal or extra point attempts.
"I think any time you bring in somebody new when there's a timing issue like there is in kicking there will be an adjustment, and we're working hard on that," said Moorman. "Ryan is a professional and works very hard at what he does and wants nothing better than to be the best so you don't worry about it in that regard. Obviously we try and get any growing pains out in practice so we're fresh and ready to go on Sunday."
Moorman prefers a higher snap than most punters with the ball arriving at his hip. Neill is working to accommodate him knowing it will be important in gaining Moorman's trust.
"I have last week and this week to get ready to snap to Brian," said Neill. "I think the big thing is consistency. The punter doesn't want to be back there moving all over the place and messing up his footwork chasing snaps around. Just in practice through camp I've been very consistent. So I hope I can continue to be more and more consistent as my career moves on."
"We're working on it," said Moorman. "It's a work in progress. He wants to be perfect every time just like the rest of us out here. We're just working on where the ball should be and he's trying to put it exactly where I want and how Rian (Lindell) wants it every time. We're always trying to get the laces right on field goals. Those are the things we just have to work on in practice. We'll have them in place on Sunday."
And they'll have all the practice time they need to do so. Neill still sits in on defensive end meetings and gets reps here and there in the practice setting, but head coach Dick Jauron has made it clear that snapping is Neill's main responsibility on this team. Even though the team has a drastic shortage of healthy defensive ends this week Jauron maintains that Neill will stick to his specialty.
"His primary job is to snap the ball and we'd like it to kind of stay that way," said Jauron. "He goes to defensive line meetings, he practices with them and he obviously played a lot in preseason. But now that the decision has been made, he'll help us in an emergency (at end) and this may be an emergency. I'm not saying it isn't. But the way we think about him is as our long snapper."
Moorman admits that stance by the coaching staff is reassuring.
"They've been good about letting Ryan work with us whenever we have reps," said Moorman. "He was over at the stadium with us the last two days. When we're done with him then he comes back and works with the defensive ends and goes to their meetings. But at the end of the day he's snapping and we're working on timing with him and they don't take him away from us at all. And it's obviously an important time and an important adjustment for us and that's the way we've approached it."
Neill, who is a tireless worker, knows that his predecessor was revered by the team's kickers. That's why he's determined to earn the trust of the specialists, particularly the Pro Bowl punter, and convince them that they can be just as successful as they have been the past two years.
"I hope (Brian) feels back there that the ball is going to hit him where he wants it and not mess up his footwork," said Neill. "As the season goes on hopefully he'll become more and more confident and trustworthy in my snaps."