For the third time in five years Bobby April's special teams units are the league's best. In the annual rankings compiled by Dallas Morning News columnist Rick Gosselin, who is the architect of the 22-category system for the NFL's special teams units, Buffalo was again atop the list matching their top rankings of 2004 and 2005.
Over the last five seasons the Bills' special teams units have been arguably the most dominant in football ranking, first, first, third, fourth and first in the league.
Buffalo, which was third heading into the final week of this past season, vaulted ahead of Tennessee and Cleveland into the top spot come season's end. The lower a team's composite score the better. The Bills had a figure of 254, Tennessee was second (268.5) and Cleveland third (269).
April's group ranked first in only two of the 22 categories used to determine the league's top unit, but were in the top five in five other categories and in the top 10 in seven others. That consistency through several areas of special teams allowed Buffalo to rise to the top.
But that consistency was not there at the beginning of the season. With a host of new players and undrafted free agents making up a good portion of his units, the performance steadily improved as the season wore on. Still by midseason there was a big jump Buffalo's special teamers would have to make to be in striking distance of the top spot.
"It was fun to watch us during the season creep up in the standings," said Brian Moorman. "The first time he showed the standings everybody thought we'd be in the top five, but when we all saw we were further down than we thought the overall gasp in the meeting room was proof that the guys take this seriously as far as being among the top ranked units in the league and most importantly being number one."
In the end new players like Marcus Buggs, Reggie Corner, Jon Corto, Derek Fine and Leodis McKelvin proved to be effective replacements for the veteran core that was not retained from previous seasons and that's what makes this year's number one finish all the more impressive.
"A lot of guys had to step up for the first time and we used guys like Marcus Buggs when we lost Bryan Scott and Keith Ellison when they had to start on defense," said special teams coordinator Bobby April. "We also lost (John) DiGiorgio to a knee injury, so we had a lot of guys that had to come into the mix.
"Most of them were first time guys and a lot of them were guys that were free agents and generally if those guys have toughness and are willing to compete you can make something happen. But usually you don't have the majority of your team made up of as many young guys as we do. When they're all young and relatively inexperienced, it's hard to do a good job, but they did a great job."
But if you ask the players about the results they were able to produce they point to their special teams coordinator, who they feel had the best coaching season of his career in light of the lineup adjustments he had to make on a weekly basis.
"You'd be hard pressed not to say this was his best season," said Moorman. "When you look at it Leodis stepped in as a rookie as a kick returner and no one really knew exactly what was going to happen. Leodis is obviously very, very talented, but we also had a lot of new faces on the return unit and he can't do it without blocking. That success that we had comes from coaching. Then everything else factored in with all the other units and all the new faces and all the adjustments he had to make before and during the season, it's hard to say it was not his best year."
Among some of the notable efforts that helped the Bills in the special teams rankings were Rian Lindell's career-high 10 touchbacks, which helped their kick coverage ranking (2nd). The Bills specialists also scored three touchdowns (Ryan Denney, Roscoe Parrish, Leodis McKelvin). In addition Buffalo set a team low in punt return yards under April thanks in large part to Moorman.
"Brian only gave up 187 yards in punt return yards," said April. "Compare that to his first year and it was 500 and something. Every year that number has gone down. You only give up 187 yards in 16 games and you're only surrendering 13 yards a game. That's impressive."
And under April Buffalo's special teams also set a mark for fewest penalties in a season.
"We only had 11 penalties for the year and a couple were intentional where you're taking five yards to back up before a punt," said April. "It's unbelievable, especially as aggressive as we play."
But the way all of the inexperienced youth he had at his disposal performed in 2008 is what gave April more satisfaction than the numbers.
"They studied, they practiced well, they were intense during the games," said April. "It was a great collection of guys to work with and I was really happy with the season working with those guys."
With the league's number one ranking April and his men are even happier now.