PITTSFORD – John Potter is trying to give Buffalo Bills coach Chan Gailey a tough decision to make.
Gailey has never kept a kickoff specialist in his time as a head coach, and that’s exactly the job Potter’s trying to convince him is worth one of the 53 spots on the Bills’ final roster.
Potter made a good first impression in the team’s preseason opener against the Washington Redskins, when all three of his kickoffs went for touchbacks.
“That is great when we can put a team on the 20-yard line every time we kick off,” Gailey said. “That was a great start for him and for us.”
Gailey, though, will need further convincing.
“I’m working on it,” was all the coach could say when asked whether he can wrap his head around carrying two kickers on his active roster.
“You really do have to prove yourself. You have to make it worth their while to keep two kickers, because it’s definitely a big commitment on their part,” Potter said. “I think if I’m able to consistently get touchbacks, keep the other team at the 20-yard line and preserve our players, it could be a good opportunity for our team.”
Potter had 36 touchbacks last season for Western Michigan, about 43 percent of his kickoffs. But he’s moved up 5 yards in the NFL to the 35-yard line, a rule change instituted for the 2011 season that had a big impact league wide.
Just 54 percent of kickoffs were returned in 2011, a huge drop from 80.1 percent in 2010. Touchbacks occurred on 43.5 percent of kickoffs in 2011, a huge increase from the 16.4 percent in 2010.
“My goal is to hit all touchbacks,” Potter said. “The first two [Thursday night] were really good kicks and the last one wasn’t as good as I’d like. I tried to hit it too hard, but lucked out and it was a touchback. Not a bad start as far as statistics go.”
Last season with Rian Lindell, Dave Raynor and Brandon Coutu handling kickoffs, the Bills had just 19 touchbacks, tied for 28th in the NFL, on 79 total kickoffs. That percentage of 24.1 ranked 30th in the league.
Interestingly enough, the Bills led the league in average yards given up on kickoffs, allowing just 20.4 on 56 returns – which speaks to how well the team covered kicks.
Still, Potter could give those coverage men a break, and reduce their risk of injury.
“[On a touchback] we’re able to preserve defensive players on kickoffs. They don’t have to run down the field and make a play and possibly get hurt,” he said.
Bills special teams coach Bruce DeHaven has been part of a staff that’s kept a kickoff specialist before.
“We had a guy here the first time I was here, Brad Daluiso, and it just makes all the difference in the world,” DeHaven said. “You can go out there, and if somebody’s got a great kickoff returner, you can take him out of the game because the ball’s out the back of the end zone. One of the happiest guys in the organization [if Potter were to make the team] would be Dave Wannstedt.”
One thing is clear: Potter is auditioning for the kickoff role only. Lindell is fully recovered from the shoulder injury that ended his 2011 season after just eight games. The team re-signed him to a four-year, $11 million contract in the offseason.
“We’ve talked to John about that,” DeHaven said. “Rian’s our kicker and John is going to try and make the team as a kickoff guy and just try and continue to develop as a field-goal kicker.”
That means Potter is under the microscope every time he trots onto the field.
“You don’t get very many opportunities as far as kicking goes, so you have to make the most out of it,” he said. “I’ve got to go out there and hit every one to the best of my abilities.”