Bills special teams coach Danny Crossman made plays during his time as a player. In his pro career he had one of his best days in one of his biggest games with three interceptions in the inaugural World Bowl in 1991. He and Bills head coach Doug Marrone were teammates on the World League's first championship team, the London Monarchs. Crossman was named the game's MVP. Now Crossman is immersed in evaluating the talent he'll have at his disposal with Buffalo's special teams units and is looking for a few MVPs of his own.
Crossman, who just turned 46, has 10 years of NFL coaching experience. He spent his past three seasons with the Detroit Lions as their special teams coordinator. He also coached special teams for seven seasons with the Carolina Panthers, so he's been through this process before.
But the task of evaluating what you have is much different for a special teams coach because very often it hinges on what the offense or defense needs first.
"I think until you get to the end of it, the evolution of a special teams unit is more of a work in progress on a daily basis than any other phase," Crossman said. "That even holds true more importantly when you get into the season in terms of injuries and actives and inactives. Again I think we're going to start from day one and ground zero and build and have an idea who, when and what are our strengths and what are our weaknesses."
He's well aware of the talents of returners like Leodis McKelvin and Brad Smith and is familiar with Shawn Powell, who was part of last year's class of college seniors, and veteran kicker Rian Lindell. But with McKelvin an impending unrestricted free agent, Crossman has to wait and see.
"There are some talented players on this unit that have a history, but until you get to that juncture where you really know what cards you really have," Crossman said. "It's exciting the idea of and the potential of having a high number of guys that have had a successful and productive history with the ball in their hands. Right now you don't have control. I'm going to coach who I have."
Under Crossman the Detroit Lions ranked in the top 10 in three of the four major categories in 2010. Detroit ranked sixth in the NFL in punt return average, fourth in kick return average and seventh in kick coverage.
With the kickoff line up at the 35-yard line the past two seasons, the approach by kick return units has changed. In 2011 teams were more apt to take a knee if they were four yards deep in the end zone or more. Last season several teams were much more aggressive including the Bills. Some teams would bring it out even if the return man was fielding the kickoff seven or eight yards deep.
For Crossman their approach on kickoffs and kick returns will be formulated with coach Marrone and his special teams assistant John Anselmo.
"All that stuff we're just in the baby steps of developing and how we're going to develop our plan here," said Crossman. "Whether it's the kicking game tying into the offense or the kicking game tying into the defense. When we're willing to take risks, not take a risk, play field position, don't play field position."
Buffalo had a kickoff specialist to start the season last fall, but seventh-round pick John Potter was released by midseason. His touchback percentage just wasn't sufficient enough to justify the roster spot. Lindell re-assumed kickoff duties and the unit's coverage improved.
Ranked 14th in the league in kick coverage when Potter was still kicking through Week 6, the Bills finished the season a solid ninth in the league in that category with Lindell handling the kickoffs.
"Obviously he has been a productive player and it's exciting to have the opportunity to work with a veteran," said Crossman of Lindell. "I've had veteran players in both organizations I've worked with."
Crossman, who also worked with veteran kickers John Kasay and Jason Hanson, had a good kick coverage unit in Carolina. In 2008 his kick coverage unit allowed the third-lowest opponent average drive start in the league. They were also one of just three teams that did not allow an opponent drive start to begin on their half of the field that entire season.
Carolina also led the NFL in touchbacks (30) and touchback percentage that season.
Crossman's most extensive work could wind up being the development of Shawn Powell. Blessed with a powerful leg, Powell struggled with his consistency as a rookie in 2012. Still, Powell had the highest gross punting average for a rookie in team history (44).
"Obviously the experience that he gained last year when he was activated and put into the game situations will help him," said Crossman. "That gives him a background and knowledge of truly playing and there's nothing that makes up for that. I think he's a talented guy. We're excited to work with him and he's developed, he's improved over the years in college and here obviously. So moving forward it's an exciting option to look at."
The biggest difference coaching special teams in Buffalo as Crossman sees it are the conditions in which they'll be playing. Though he coached Detroit's special teams the past three seasons indoors at Ford Field, they still had to travel to Chicago and Green Bay every season. So he knows the impact weather can have on the kicking game.
"I think weather is a factor when you're coaching here," he said. "I think weather is a weekly thing on your agenda. You always have to prepare for any situation, any circumstance because you never know."
In the end all Crossman wants are his special teams units playing at a level that helps the Bills win games.
"That's really the only thing that we really care about," he said. "Statistics are great, you can read into them a lot and take a lot out of them, but the bottom line is the only teams that are happy are the teams that are winning."