When Bills seventh-round pick John Potter made the team's 53-man roster last Friday night, it was seen as an anomaly. Granted carrying two kickers on one NFL roster is far from the norm, but in Buffalo's history it's been done twice before and the same special teams coordinator has witnesses all three instances now.
Bruce DeHaven was special teams coach under Hall of Fame head coach Marv Levy back in 1991 when the Bills had a kickoff specialist in Brad Daluiso. He appeared in 14 games and had 26 touchbacks on 76 kickoffs that season (34.2%).
"Back then that was a pretty good percentage," said DeHaven. "There were only about five or six kickers in the league with a leg like Brad's."
In 2011 Daluiso's percentage would have placed him 22nd in the league.
"It's so different now," DeHaven told Buffalobills.com. "In the last four or five years there have been a lot of young kickers that are bigger and stronger."
Under head coach Wade Phillips, DeHaven was given the opportunity to carry another kickoff specialist on the roster in 1998 in the form of Cole Ford. He only kicked off three times and did not have a single touchback. A necessary roster move to address another position soon pushed Ford off Buffalo's roster, and that was the end of kickoff specialist number two under DeHaven.
Potter is hoping as the third kickoff specialist he's the charm.
"It's exciting to have this opportunity," said Potter. "It's really rare to have a kickoff specialist so it's great to be able to help the team out, and hopefully field position will be really good for us this year."
Field position wasn't bad at all for the Bills last season. When it came to kick coverage Buffalo was best in the league allowing just 20.4 yards a return. Rian Lindell was very adept at placing his kickoffs in the corners near the sideline without going out of bounds. So although knocking it eight or nine yards deep in the end zone wasn't the norm, pinning a return man up against the sideline proved very effective.
Nevertheless Potter is expected to raise the Bills ranking in total touchbacks last season (28th) and touchback percentage (30th).
It's all power with Potter as he successfully booted 11 of his 13 preseason kickoffs for touchbacks. His success rate of 84.6% would be astronomical in the regular season, but the weather won't be as warm and the ball isn't expected to carry as far as often.
Potter has said a 70 percent touchback percentage is his goal. Denver's Matt Prater led the league with a 70.1 percent success rate, but played half his games in the thin air of the Mile High city. After Prater, there was no other kicker playing for a team north of the Mason Dixon line until Robbie Gould, who finished eighth in the league in kickoff touchback percentage (54.2%).
While Potter's goal is admirable hitting that mark might prove difficult playing in the AFC East. The weather will turn colder sooner in Buffalo than most NFL cities. That along with the wind that kicks up come November and December could make kicking for long distance even with Potters' big leg difficult.
What is playing in his favor is Buffalo's late season schedule. Buffalo plays indoors in Indianapolis on Nov. 25. Their home date against Seattle (Dec. 16th) will be indoors at the Rogers Centre in Toronto and they play at Miami the following week (Dec. 23rd).
Those figure to aid his percentages. In a league where 11 teams had a kickoff touchback success rate of 50% or better in 2011, Potter clearly has to be above that mark.
"I'd think he'd need to be at least 50 percent to warrant keeping him on the roster," said DeHaven. "That being said I think he will do very well."
What has DeHaven confident is the fact that much like his own kick return team most clubs take a knee if they field the ball four or five yards deep in the end zone. With the coverage team five yards closer taking off from their 35, finding the room to take it out of the end zone that deep and reach the 20-yard line are not advantageous.
"There are always a few teams that will return it no matter what," DeHaven said. "Eight or nine yards deep they don't care, but for the most part teams will cut their losses and take it at the 20."
That's something Potter wants to convince opposing return men to do.
"I think it will help out our defense, keep players healthy, and get the other team started on the 20-yard line," said Potter.
So even though DeHaven has had a pair of kickoff specialists in the past he still sees his current kickoff rookie as the wave of the very near future for the NFL. To the point where kick returns could become extinct.
"There are more and more of these big legged kids every year," DeHaven said. "In five or six years there will be a bunch of guys like John. It's going to make returns a moot issue."
Buffalo wouldn't mind seeing that on Sunday against the league's fourth best return unit in kick return average last season (26.3).
"They were number one in kickoff return yards last season," said DeHaven. "If we can keep the ball out of their hands, all the better."