For 13 seasons, Brian Jennings had been Mr. Automatic.
Through bad times and good, the 49ers’ long snapper had established a reputation for excellence. On field goals and punts, No. 86 always put the ball exactly where it needed to be.
Twice, Jennings was selected to play in the Pro Bowl for his expertise.
Over 208 consecutive games played for the 49ers since he signed in 2000, Jennings had no bad snaps.
But beginning this Sunday when the 49ers host the Green Bay Packers at Candlestick Park in the 2013 season opener, Kevin McDermott will be the man snapping the football for Andy Lee punts and Phil Dawson field goals.
Will the 49ers regret their decision?
Even 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh said Jennings, 36, has “more football in him” and “he’s definitely an NFL, top-level talent.”
Yet the Niners decided to go with McDermott, 23, an undrafted free agent from UCLA because of his strong performance this summer, his age – and, no doubt, his salary. McDermott is due $405,000 in 2013, while Jennings was to be paid $940,000.
As Mike Sando, ESPN.com’s NFC West blogger noted, “At a certain point, that type of savings was going to trump whatever advantages Jennings provided from a skill standpoint.”
When announcing the 49ers final roster cuts, Harbaugh said the release of Jennings was probably the toughest that was made.
“That was a big decision,” Harbaugh told the media. “Personal, because Brian Jennings to me, we breathe the same air. There’s nobody I can say I enjoyed more than Brian Jennings. I loved watching him play, I loved watching him compete, I loved being around him every single day.”
That being said, however, the 49ers believe McDermott is up to the task. And, in what should be an incredibly competitive NFC West this season, McDermott’s consistency will be needed. With games likely coming down to the wire against the Seahawks, Rams and Cardinals, a botched snap on a field-goal attempt or punt could be disastrous.
That’s why the 49ers gave McDermott all the long-snapping chances in their final exhibition game against San Diego. And he passed the test.
“It is a challenge I embrace, and I also understand most people’s reactions,” McDermott told Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle. “Brian Jennings has been one of the best long snappers in the league for 13 years. And when you spend all of your years in one city, there’s a certain connection with the fan base.”
Jennings handled his release with class, releasing a statement through the team that said: “Today I feel as though I’ve been honorably discharged from the team I love.”
McDermott, 6-foot-5 and 238 pounds, has good size, having entered UCLA as a tight end/long snapper. He played all 28 games for the Bruins in 2011 and 2012, receiving honorable mention for the Pac-12 Conference All-Academic team both seasons.
This summer McDermott says he believes he’s raised his long-snapping abilities to a new level, thanks to special teams coach Brad Seely and Jennings – who acted as a mentor through training camp.
“I never had a long-snapping coach, in terms of someone on the team who had experience working with long snappers before,” he told 49ers.com. “He (Seely) was able to teach me things that I had never known before.”