Bears fullback Tyler Clutts didn't even have to think about it for a second - if veteran long-snapper Patrick Mannelly is out for the season after suffering a knee injury in the second quarter against the San Diego Chargers on Sunday at Soldier Field, he not only would be willing to fill in for the rest of the season, but ''absolutely'' thinks he can handle the job.
''I'm comfortable doing whatever they ask me to do,'' Clutts said in the Bears' locker room after snapping for three PATs and one fake punt in the Bears' 31-20 victory over the Chargers. ''If I'm the best guy that's going to help the team, I'm more than happy to do it. It's the coaches' decision. Whatever I'm called to do, I'm going to do it to the best of my ability."
Of all the personnel judgments the Bears have made recently -- Chris Harris out, Chris Conte in; Olin Kreutz out, Roberto Garza from right guard to center; -- deciding whether to live with Clutts or find a veteran long-snapper, if it comes to that, won't be any less important.
Just last week, a bad center snap on a chip-shot field goal by Ryan Pontbriand cost the Cleveland Browns a victory over the St. Lous Rams -- and Pontbriand is a two-time Pro Bowler ranked by some as the best long-snapper in the NFL.
But you need not look any further than the Chargers to know how important it is. They lost veteran long-snapper David Binn for the season last year when Binn suffered a hamstring injury in the 2010 opener. It's unlikely a coincidence that punter Mike Scifres -- who had had just one of his previous 393 punts blocked -- had four of his next 18 punts blocked after losing Binn. And Nate Kaeding, who had hit 6-of-8 field-goal attempts of 50-plus yards in the previous four seasons, hit 1-of-4 after Binns went out. Not sure if there's a correlation there, but there could be.
The Chargers ended up signing four more long-snappers. The first three suffered season-ending injuries, and Ethan Albright was cut after a disastrous game in Oakland -- where the Bears play next Sunday. In his second game with the Chargers, Albright's had his first two punts blocked in the first 4:30 of the game. One went out of the end zone for a safety; the other was returned for a touchdown. The Chargers tailed 12-0 and lost 35-27. Apparently, those zombies of Raider Nation make it difficult to do anything well if you're on the opposing team at Oakland-Alameda County Stadium.
The Chargers led the NFL in total offense and total defense last season. But they didn't make the playoffs because their special teams were abysmal -- four kicks returned for a TD, plus the four blocked punts.
The Chargers' long-snapping problem finally settled down after signing Mike Windt, a Mannelly protege who played at Cincinnati. Windt was good enough to beat out Binn in the preseason this season -- which, as my colleague Sean Jensen pointed out previously in this blog -- leaves the 39-year-old Binn a leading candidate if the Bears choose to go the veteran route. Signing Binn would give the Bears the rare distinction of having a Jewish center snapping a pigskin to a Jewish punter. How often has that happened in the NFL?