Each year Dallas Morning News columnist Rick Gosselin compiles a final ranking of the league's special teams based on 22 different statistical categories. It's become the unofficial measuring stick for special teams units in the NFL, and once again the Bills are likely to finish in the top three as they stood third heading into the final week of regular season action.
"We were a point and a half behind Tennessee and we were three and a half points behind Cleveland," said Bills special teams coordinator Bobby April of his unit's standing prior to the season finale against New England. "Those numbers can juggle a lot of different ways so it's really hard to tell."
The season finale certainly didn't do the Bills any favors with winds whipping up to 70 miles per hour in Buffalo that day. Punter Brian Moorman had a chance for a single-season career high in net punting average, but it disappeared with 13 and 35 yards punts into those gale force winds. Rian Lindell also had a virtually impossible 47-yard field goal attempt that missed as well, which will affect the final rankings.
"The last game was probably a wash," said April. "I don't know if it hurt us or helped us. It probably hurt us a little bit, but I don't know how it hurt us compared to the other teams that were ahead of us."
Gosselin typically releases his rankings at the end of January.
In the four years leading up to 2008, the Bills specialists have ranked first, first, third and fourth in the league. A top three finish this season however, might prove to be April's best feat since joining the Bills staff. With a lot of player turnover last offseason and a high number of young, inexperienced talent coming in, April had a lot of molding to do this past year.
"When you go down that list and you take the kick coverage or punt coverage teams because those are your core guys and they play on all the units, most of them were first year guys playing or were really young guys," he said. "I don't care if you've got a first or second-round draft pick linebacker playing, they usually don't play that well on teams because it's new. So we had a lot of guys that really had not played. But I thought the guys did a tremendous job."
And those young players only got younger as injuries on defense pulled players from special teams like Keith Ellison and Bryan Scott. Veteran special teamer John DiGiorgio was also lost in Week 7 to a torn ACL.
"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," April said. "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."
When the season was over Buffalo had bettered their numbers in several categories with one of their biggest jumps coming on kick return where their average improved by almost four yards and helped the Bills lead the league in average drive start at better than the 32-yard line (32.4). That was almost two yards better than second place finisher New England (30.5).
"We finished at the top and we improved on our defensive drive start," said April. "We were better than we were a year ago."
April's players also improved in kick coverage (5th to 2nd) as they did not surrender a touchdown and Rian Lindell had a career best 10 touchbacks.
"Most of the time when we cover a kick we gang tackle," said April. "When we return a kick it's usually one guy that tackles us. That right there is a big statement about how we prepared."
One of the most lethal weapons in coverage was Blake Costanzo, who finished the season as the leading tackler on special teams with 26, including a remarkable six tackle performance at Kansas City in Week 12.
"He led the team in tackles that day and he only played on the coverage teams," said April. "I've never seen a player make six tackles on special teams in one game, ever. I've never even heard of it. It was a real feat. It was a hell of an effort."
Gross and net punting were also improved among other categories. Even their league leading punt return unit from last season improved and held the top spot for a second straight year.
One of the areas April was particularly pleased with was penalties as the team committed a season low 11 under his watch. They also blocked a field goal in Week 7 when Langston Walker got a hand on San Diego kicker Nate Kaeding's 46-yard attempt.
Areas of special teams that appeared on the surface to slip from last season were in punt coverage and field goal percentage. Buffalo was tops in the league in punt coverage last season, but slipped to 23rd in the league rankings. However, their total punt return yardage allowed in 2008 dropped to 187 from last season's 196.
"The punt coverage doesn't look like it's great, but it was really better than any other year," said April. "When you don't allow them to push that ball up the field and you only give them 13 yards per game when you're punting, that's not many yards."
As for field goal percentage Lindell missed eight attempts on the season (30-38), but seven of those eight came from 40-yards plus, including a blocked kick, as the Bills' kicker attempted twice as many 40-plus yard attempts (18) from that of last season (9). Only three other kickers in the league had more long distance attempts than Lindell in 2008.
"He did a lot of things," said April of Lindell. "It's going to go down perception-wise that he didn't have a very good year, but he contributed a lot of offense for our football team. He produced a lot and his kickoffs were better than they have ever been. So he contributed for the defense too. You can't overlook it. He's going to have a black eye because of some of the misses, but he was close to a career year."
Lindell did set a single season career-high with 124 points.
So for a season that held a lot of question marks due to player turnover in September, April once again made it work and likely made Buffalo a top three finisher for the fourth time in five years.
"I was really happy with the season working with those guys," said April. "They studied, they practiced well, they were intense during the games. It was a great collection of guys to work with."