It is Morgan Cox’s job to maintain a kind of weekly anonymity, and for over a decade in Baltimore, the Ravens' starting long snapper has done his part. Cox has missed just nine games in his NFL career, all in 2014, and peers and coaches last year voted him to the Pro Bowl.
Even at age 34, Cox is, in many ways, among the Ravens least likely to miss a game, or a target.
And yet on Tuesday, for the third straight week, the Ravens protected a backup long snapper, Nick Moore, from being signed off their practice squad later this week. Only two other teams have protected a long snapper this season, and only the Miami Dolphins have protected theirs more than once. (Coincidentally enough, it’s former Ravens undrafted rookie Matthew Orzech.)
So why protect an inexperienced second-year player at a thankless position? Answers differ. Special teams coordinator Chris Horton called Moore “a good player” earlier this month, but said he’d leave personnel decisions to the team’s front office.
Coach John Harbaugh downplayed the significance of practice squad protections last Wednesday, saying players are still vulnerable to poaching. Under the NFL’s new roster rules for the 2020 season, adopted amid uncertainty over the coronavirus pandemic, players can be signed off opponents' practice squads before Tuesday every week. Even if they’re not protected, as Harbaugh pointed out, “Who’s going to bring a guy in on Thursday, Friday or Saturday to play on Sunday?”
He added: “I think it’s much ado about not much.” Six days later, the Ravens went ahead and protected Moore again, extending an insurance policy they might never benefit from.
Given the NFL’s COVID-19 protocols, a practice squad promotion seems preferable to the alternatives. If another team’s long snapper signed with the Ravens, he’d have to produce two negative test results over two days before being allowed inside the team facility. “Street” free agents can enter only after three negative tests over three days.
Harbaugh, a former special teams coordinator, understands the peril in introducing unstable elements to field-goal and punt units. The Ravens' “Wolfpack” — Cox, punter Sam Koch and kicker Justin Tucker — has endured not only because of its collective talent but because of its commitment to maintaining a smooth operation.
And when the long snapper’s execution goes awry, the whole enterprise falls apart. In its season opener last month, Ohio Valley Conference school Austin Peay was forced to turn to its fourth-string long snapper, linebacker Cameron Miller, because the Governors' top three options were unavailable. School officials declined to comment on their medical status.
Miller’s first snap, predictably, went over the punter’s head. His third squirted through the punter’s legs, and Central Arkansas kicked a short field goal not long after. Even with another change in its punt plans, Austin Peay lost, 24-17.
“You can screw a game up" at long snapper, former Ravens coach and current NFL Network analyst Brian Billick said in an interview last month. "Yes, you could put a center in there [and say], ‘OK, I want you to long-snap,’ and he’ll physically make it happen. You talk about screwing up a game in a New York second by putting someone in that’s not a trained long snapper, who’s not been used to doing it — it’s going to go launching over the punter’s head or the kicker’s head or go dribbling in. ...
“That is always a premium during the course of the season, just using a short list of guys at different positions, in case something happens, you can go to. Well, that’s a very short list of guys that are on the street that can do that capably. So that’s going to test everybody.”