ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. (AP) -A big cheer went up from the stands when Brian Moorman boomed a sky-high punt during a training camp practice last month. The crowd got even louder when Fred Jackson got to the ball and downed it just before it rolled into the end zone.
In his 16 years in the NFL, Buffalo Bills special teams coach Bobby April has never seen fans take so much interest in a punt drill. Then again, the recognition is well-deserved for a special teams group that has consistently been the Bills' best unit, and one of the NFL's most dominant for the past three years.
``They were into it en masse. It wasn't just one guy going, `Way to go Brian!''' April said. ``That does a lot for our punt team to realize that people care that much about it. That gives them incentive as in: `You know what, it's pretty neat being excellent.'''
With questions involving the offense and a young and revamped defense as the Bills prepare to open the season by hosting Denver on Sunday, much is again being expected from the special teams to keep Buffalo competitive.
``The special teams are good, but they've got to be,'' coach Dick Jauron said Thursday. ``I mean they've got to be for us to have any chance at all.''
The unit was credited with helping secure two of Buffalo's seven wins last season.
Moorman landed five of six punts inside the Dolphins 20, keeping Miami pinned deep, during a 16-6 win in Week 2. Then Roscoe Parrish returned a punt 82 yards for a touchdown that helped spark a 27-24 win over Jacksonville in Week 13.
Moorman is the Bills' special teams star, a two-time Pro Bowl selection, who finished second in the league with a 39.2 net punt average. Parrish, meanwhile, finished third in the NFL, averaging 11.4 yards on punt returns. And then there's Terrence McGee, who finished sixth with 26.1 yards per kickoff return.
And then there's kicker Rian Lindell, one of four players to miss only two field-goal attempts last season.
According to the Dallas Morning News' special teams rankings - regarded by NFL teams as the most complete - the Bills finished third in the league last year, behind Chicago and Tennessee.
In Buffalo, that's a major disappointment after finishing first the previous two seasons.
``Any other year, any other place, you'd go, `Third place, wow. We're great,''' April said. ``But here, there was a little frustration.''
The Bills place a big emphasis on special teams, with Jauron elevating April to assistant head coach status last year.
Another big supporter is general manager Marv Levy, who was one of the league's first special teams coaches when he was hired by George Allen in Washington in 1971.
``You hear coach after coach talk about, `Oh, it's one-third of the game.' But too few of them really put that to work,'' Levy said, noting there are some head coaches that hold special teams practices almost as an afterthought.
``It gets me angry to see someone with a disdain for it,'' Levy said. ``It has great impact on the outcome of the game.''
The Bills, by comparison, schedule a series of special teams sessions during each practice, and involve almost every assistant coach in the process.
The Bills' dominance is surprising considering the number of players the unit loses each year, either to cuts or free agency. Then there are the regulars who get promoted to starting roles, decreasing the time they can spend on special teams.
April credits the returning core of special teams leaders for ensuring the newcomers understand how important the unit is.
``It's an honor being on the special teams here. We have high expectations,'' reserve linebacker Josh Stamer said. ``We really don't have to tell them anything. The young guys, we put it on them to get caught up and prepare like we prepare.''

NFL Team Pages

Recent NFL Discussions