The Buffalo Bills’ special teams were rather ordinary under coordinator Danny Crossman in 2013.
“We knew going into the year it was going to be a difficult situation for him,” Bills coach Doug Marrone said.
The reason, according to Marrone, is a lack of what he calls “core” special teams players.
“One of the things that we have to establish is a core,” he said. “I think Marcus Easley stepped up big for us. He would be a core-type player. Our goal is to have six of those type of players. Duke Williams has played well at times, Ty Powell has played well at times. When you have about six core special teams players that are playing on three to four teams for you, now you have the ability to perform at a high level.”
Last season, the Bills ranked eighth overall in special teams under coordinator Bruce DeHaven, according to rankings compiled by the Dallas Morning News, which are accepted as the league standard.
While their ranking for 2013 has not yet been released, it’s sure to go down. The Bills finished near the bottom of the NFL in several key special teams categories, including kickoff return average (29th, 20.4 yards per return), punt return average (29th, 6.2), net punting average (30th, 38.0 yards) and opponent punt return average (25th, 10.6 yards).
The Bills did not return a kick or a punt for a touchdown – particularly disappointing given the abilities of primary returners Marquise Goodwin and Leodis McKelvin.
“We’ve got guys that can go. We actually did return one, which we got a penalty on,” Easley said, referring to an 89-yard touchdown on a punt return by McKelvin in Week Nine against Kansas City that was wiped out. “Penalties actually hurt us a lot in the return game. A missed block here, better judgment by the returner here ... when you watch it on film, it was always one thing that could have been the difference.”
McKelvin finished with an average of 5.6 yards per punt return, tied for 22nd in the NFL a year after he led the league with an average of 18.7 yards. Goodwin averaged just 21.9 yards on 16 kickoff returns, with a long of only 28 yards, failing to live up to the promise he showed in preseason when he returned a kick 107 yards for a touchdown against Indianapolis.
“When we looked at the team from a core special teams standpoint, we felt like we had some good return specialists,” Marrone said. “We really didn’t have as many opportunities as we would have liked. Obviously Danny is disappointed; we all are in the performance of some of those areas.”
But will that disappointment lead to a coaching change?
Marrone said he will go through an “evaluation process” with his coaching staff.
“There’s going to have to be some type of structure, discipline, change in what we do,” he said. “I think that if everyone is on board with the coaches that we have here now and being able to implement that, then I don’t foresee many changes.”
Marrone and Crossman have a relationship that dates back two decades, to when both served on the coaching staff at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in 1993. Asked specifically about Crossman’s future, Marrone’s answer was convoluted.
“I don’t want to cause a problem here, but right now we feel that we’re going to sit down and we’re going to evaluate everything. We’re going to see what we need to do to move forward,” he said. “Just like anything else, Russ Brandon and I have conversations constantly along with Doug Whaley. There are things that we need to do. As long as we’re all on the same page of what we need to do to get this organization back to where we want it and get to the playoffs there won’t be any problems and there won’t be many changes from that respect of the coaches that are here.”
Special teams miscues played a big role in Sunday’s season-ending loss to the New England Patriots.
LeGarrette Blount, the Patriots’ 250-pound running back, ripped off kickoff returns of 83 and 62 yards, respectively, in the second half after Buffalo had twice pulled to within seven points. Each time, the Patriots scored to re-establish a two-possession lead.
“It definitely wasn’t one of our better days – I think that was obvious,” Easley said. “We’ve got to do a better job.”
Easley said it’s up to the players to take their fair share of responsibility.
“You know, he’s our coach. He gives us the game plan every week, but after Friday or Saturday it’s all on us after that,” Easley said of Crossman. “We didn’t do a very good job of executing the game plan, making plays when they needed to be made. We didn’t do a very good job tackling. Coaches can only get blamed for so much. At the end of the day, players gotta be accountable for doing what they’re responsible to do.”
Marrone needed only to look at the opposite sideline Sunday to see what type of player he feels the Bills need.
“Sometimes people lose sight of that phase of the game. They see the core players on offense, they see them on defense, but just this past week when you look at New England and you look at a player like Matthew Slater, he is a special teams killer. He is a great player that plays teams,” Marrone said. “We felt that’s an area that we have to improve on with our football team.”