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WORST TO FIRST
SPECIAL TEAMS BLOOM UNDER APRIL, GIVING BILLS MAJOR SHOTS OF MOMENTUM ON THE FIELD

The mere mention of the man's name was enough to make you laugh, but not the way it would with Robin Williams or Bill Murray. Ronnie Jones had a different effect during one disastrous season with the Buffalo Bills. Their special teams were so bad that fans laughed to keep from crying.

The Bills hit for the cycle in 2000, finishing dead last in kickoff coverage and returns, punt coverage and returns. It's not easy being the worst in everything, but the Bills somehow pulled it off under Jones. Head coach Wade Phillips even made a few wisecracks about his special teams in the weeks before he was fired.

What did he say about Chris Watson? He's not a punt returner, he's a punt catcher.

Bobby April was on a serious mission that season. He had been fired with the rest of Mike Ditka's staff in New Orleans but could have returned under Jim Haslett. Instead, he took a year off to spend more time with his family and edify himself spiritually. He needed to step away, evaluate his priorities and strengthen his Christianity.

It was about building the human spirit.

April brought a change in attitude, a rekindled spirit, this year in his first season as the Bills' special teams coach. Special teams aren't just considered one of three phases in football. They have become a rallying point. The Bills have noticed the difference in their locker room, and the evidence has been obvious on the field.

"Definitely," Josh Stamer said as the Bills prepared for Sunday's game against Seattle. "As a special teams unit as a whole, we're a much closer group. We all believe in each other. We care about one another. And we're all competitive. We try to see who is going to have the biggest hit on Monday during the film sessions. Every play, we're looking for our biggest hit. We've gained our confidence, and it's just gone on from there."

Starting position players, especially the best ones, are usually left off the bomb squad for various reasons. Buffalo has several starters working their way on. The Bills have used at least eight starters, but it would be nine if safety Lawyer Milloy had his way. Linebacker London Fletcher was among the first volunteers. His block sprung Terrence McGee's kickoff return for a touchdown against Arizona.

"Bobby preaches that special teams sets up the offense and sets up the defense," special-teamer and backup linebacker Angelo Crowell said. "They're starters. They're athletes. They know how it changes the game."

In five years, the Bills' special teams have gone from worst to first. They are the only team ranked in the top five in three categories. They are first in punt return average and kickoff coverage, and fourth in kick returns. They are 16th in net punting average, a stat skewed by the winds of Ralph Wilson Stadium.

Buffalo has averaged 15.9 yards per punt return, and its average drive start after kickoffs is the 31-yard line. The Bills have allowed opponents to average only 17 yards per kickoff return. Their net punting average is 36.3 yards, placing them near the middle of the NFL but exceptional when including three home games with winds that exceeded 25 mph.

"Guys believe in what we're doing," punter Brian Moorman said. "You can see it on the field. They know they're going to stop the teams that come in. There's a lot of pride in what they're doing. Every player on each coverage and return team knows each play is a big play. We have a chance to take it to the house every time we touch the ball."

The Bills' offense has struggled much of the year. Their defense has had trouble on the road. Their special teams have been consistent home and away all season, which is why the Bills are 4-6 and not worse. Already, they can count four touchdowns, two on kickoff returns and two on punt returns. Last week, they became only the second team since 1964 to return punts for touchdowns in consecutive games.

"Those plays bring instant momentum to your football team," April said. "The football gods have blessed special teams in a different way. There's a morale effect that, even if it's hidden from notoriety, it gets its just due in football. We have guys here that are really into it. They love playing it and deserve the success that they've had."

Take last week against the Rams.

Buffalo and St. Louis were locked in a 17-17 tie at halftime before the Bills' special teams gained momentum and turned the game into a blowout. Jonathan Smith set up one touchdown with a 53-yard return. Clements returned one for an 86-yard score on the Rams' next series. Jason Peters recovered a fumble on the ensuing kickoff.

In a matter of minutes, the Bills had a 34-17 lead. It changed everything. The Bills, who had struggled on the ground in the first half, started running the ball with efficiency. The crowd became more involved and the defense, which had yielded the 17 points in 30 minutes, finished with three interceptions and six sacks.

"In special teams, you get one shot," special teams captain Coy Wire said. "You don't get three or four downs to make something happen. You only get those eight seconds, that one play, to do what you do and make the best of your opportunity."

Seahawks starting quarterback Matt Hasselbeck practiced fully Friday and will start against the Bills on Sunday. He missed last week's game with a deep thigh bruise. The Seahawks will be without starting right tackle Chris Terry, who has a sore shoulder and has missed practice time to aid his ailing mother. Floyd "Pork Chop" Womack will start in his place. Cornerback Bobby Taylor (knee) was downgraded to questionable and is expected to sit out.

Bills cornerback Troy Vincent (knee) will miss the game. He did not practice Friday. The Bills will wait until just before game time to see if receiver Josh Reed (knee) is available. Mularkey also will wait to decide whether quarterback J.P. Losman will suit up as Drew Bledsoe's backup or the third QB, although the latter seems likely.
e-mail: bgleason@buffnews.com

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