Camp Countdown, presented by Connors & Ferris, will examine some of the more pressing questions facing the team on the field, and players who could make a difference as the team makes its final preparations for the 2020 regular season. We also focus on a few different areas that impact the team off the field. We'll examine these issues one at a time until training camp begins. Here now is the latest daily installment as we carefully seek some of the answers the Buffalo Bills have to come up with between July 29th and the opener on Sept. 13th.
The current kicker for the Bills is one of the most accomplished players on the roster. Stephen Hauschka stands 12th in NFL history in career field goal percentage with a success rate of almost 86 percent (85.7). He also owns a Super Bowl ring and has a lengthy list of clutch kicks in his career, which has led to the nickname 'Hausch-money.'
The thought of replacing Hauschka seemed improbable especially after the way he finished the 2019 season, but back-to-back seasons with a sub-80 percent success rate (78.6%) were the first in his career since becoming a full-time starting kicker in 2011.
When the Bills made use of a sixth-round pick on Georgia Southern K Tyler Bass, it gave further indication that Buffalo will take a hard look at upgrading their kicking game.
Bass' pure physical ability is unquestionably NFL caliber. After watching the Georgia Southern product put 60 yarders through the uprights with ease at the Senior Bowl, Bills special teams coordinator Heath Farwell was intrigued.
"I remember the first practice, going to the end zone and just seeing the ball flight," Farwell said. "I mean, he was kicking some deep kicks, just impressive and that's where it first got my attention. Then going back after that and watching the tape, and seeing the talent, seeing the upside in this kid, and just really thought there's a lot of potential in him. He's a really talented kid."
Farwell also went to Bass' pro day and had dinner with him right before the COVID-19 pandemic shut everything down this past spring.
"I really got an opportunity to understand what he's about, understand the competitor that he is, the mindset, the toughness, how smart he is, as a football player, not just as a kicker, the understanding of the game in general," Farwell said. "I remember calling Brandon Beane on the way home from that trip and told him this guy could fit organization for sure. I liked his mindset."
Bass kicked at a 79.4 percent success rate in college (54-68), which is slightly better than Hauschka's last two seasons. Where the rookie could really separate himself, however, is on kickoffs.
Hauschka has had two difficult seasons on kickoffs in terms of forcing touchbacks. His touchback rate of 57.5 percent represented the majority of the team touchback rate of 58 percent, which ranked 18th in the league. Though certainly an improvement from 2018 when the team ranked 31st in touchback percentage (45.5%) it's clear the Bills want to do better in that area of their kicking game.
Bass had a touchback percentage of 76.3 percent last season, which would've ranked sixth in the NFL, a sizable jump from where the Bills currently stand. That might not sound like a big deal, but any opportunity to guarantee Buffalo's top five defense 75 yards of field to defend is seen as an advantage.
That's why despite Hauschka's impressive resume, which includes a streak of 13 straight field goals to end last season counting his four successful kicks in the Wild Card game, Farwell says the kicker job is up for grabs.
"It's an open competition," Farwell said. "It's [Stephen Hauschka's] job right now. He's the incumbent. He's had a lot of big kicks over his career. I mean, a history of good kicks in big games. In the playoffs, he was 4-4 this year. He's still the guy, and it's up to Tyler to beat him out."
After the team drafted Bass, Farwell, who is a former teammate of Hauschka's in Seattle, called the veteran kicker.
"I remember calling Steve and I said, 'Hey, there's two ways you can go about this. You can shut it down or you can take this as a challenge and win the job. It's your job, you go out, do what you do, and you're still playing and we'd love to have you here and we want you here.'
"That's the beauty of sports, it's competition, and it's going to be a great competition because they both bring different things. Steve's accuracy. We love where he's at inside 49 yards. His leadership, his big kicks in playoff games. That's a big thing that he brings. And then you have a young player like Tyler that is loaded with talent that has a lot of upside. He's got it. He's got to prove it in the preseason and training camp."
As talented as Bass might be, he has to prove that he has the clutch gene as a kicker as Hauschka has done time and again in his career. Hauschka's last kick for the Bills was a 47-yard attempt on grass in the Wild Card game at Houston with five seconds remaining to force overtime. If Bass can demonstrate that kind of moxie he could pull off the upset and unseat one of the most successful kickers in the history of the game.
"I think that'll be Sean (McDermott) and Heath's thing is to give Tyler and Stephen as many different kinds of pressure situations as possible," said GM Brandon Beane. "Sometimes that's taking them in the stadium on a windy day. Sometimes that's having the whole team out there and saying, 'Hey, if you make this kick, we end without running sprints. You know, so you got 89 guys staring at you saying, 'Please make this kick so I don't have to run sprints or whatever it is.'
"You can only simulate game experiences so much, so that's what you're trying to do. It's the golf analogy, hitting it on the driving range is great, but when you get out there with out of bounds and the water and all that, it is different. It's not easy, and to go against a guy with Stephen's history Tyler will really have to convince us that he is mentally strong. He's got all the physical skills but he can handle the pressure?"