With the trade of Matthew Stafford to become official in just under a month, the Detroit Lions will be losing one of their longest-tenured players. However, there has been one player that’s been around longer… in fact, significantly longer.
Long snapper Don Muhlbach has been with the Lions since 2004, serving as the team’s most stable, underappreciated player.
For nearly the past decade, Muhlbach has been getting by on one-year contracts, living his life and his career season-to-season. He’s quickly become a fan favorite, and though he turns 40 this year, there have been no significant signs of decline in his play.
But with a new coaching staff, including a new special teams coordinator, in town, is there any chance we’ve seen “The Mule” play his last game in Detroit?
Expectations heading into 2020
The Lions again re-signed Muhlbach to a one-year deal in March, making him the immediate favorite to keep the long snapping job. However, after the draft, the Lions signed rookie Steven Wirtel to compete for the job, and he represented a real challenge to the veteran special teamer.
In training camp, coaches painted the competition as neck-and-neck, and Wirtel often did get reps with the first team. However, most (rightfully) assumed that Muhlbach was going to hold onto the job.
He did, but the Lions did hold onto Wirtel on the practice squad, showing that the rookie did well enough in training camp to potentially take over the job eventually (more on that later).
Actual role in 2020
16 games: 1 tackle, 1 fumble
PFF grade: 47.9
Not much to say about Muhlbach’s performance in 2020. There were no glaring mistakes, which is just about all you can ask for from a long snapper. He certainly deserves some credit for the All Pro season than punter Jack Fox had, but he wasn’t perfect when it came to snapping for field goals.
Still, Muhlbach was essentially everything you’d want in a long snapper: invisible.
Outlook for 2021
Contract status: Unrestricted free agent
Muhlbach is facing free agency again, and while retirement is always possible, Muhlbach didn’t sound ready to hang up the cleats back in December.
“It took me a little longer this year. Not having the offseason, I was a little rusty when we started, but I found my groove here once we got going,” Muhlbach said. “I still think I can play in this league.”
Some veteran players may be averse to sticking around for yet another rebuild, but Muhlbach actually sounded excited for it.
“I’ve done it before,” Muhlbach said. “So maybe I could help with it. I do feel like I want to get this thing going in the right direction before they get rid of me.”
At this point, Muhlbach is running unopposed for the long snapper position. Despite clearly valuing Wirtel in 2020, the Lions let him walk after his practice squad contract expired. He signed a futures contract with the Los Angeles Rams, and the Lions have yet to replace him.
So at this point, #LONGSNAPPERWATCH2021 may already be over. Muhlbach has indicated he still feels like he can play, and there is some desire to come back. The Lions have not expressed any interest in replacing him yet.
In other words, get ready for Year 18 of The Mule.