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Bills nearly pull off the Special Teams Grand Slam

The good news about the Buffalo Bills' special teams is they have kept one of the top position coaches in the NFL in place by retaining Bobby April. And most of the key members of their special teams unit should be back, including Pro Bowl punter Brian Moorman.

The only bad news regarding the bomb-squad units is the Bills have failed to parlay two of the greatest special teams seasons in team history into a playoff berth the last two years.

For the second straight year, the Bills finished No. 1 in the NFL in overall special teams, according to the Dallas Morning News ranking system, which is treated as official by most of the special teams coaches in the league. The system assigns points from 1 to 32 in 22 categories, and the club with the lowest total score wins.

The Bills actually finished with a better score than they did in 2004.

In 2005, the Bills were No. 1 with 217 points, which was 41.5 better than the New York Giants. In '04, the Bills led the ranking with 232 points. The NFL's top 10 this year looked like this:

1. Buffalo. 2. N.Y. Giants. 3. Houston. 4. Miami. 5. Tennessee. 6. Cleveland. 7. San Francisco. 8. Jacksonville. 9. Carolina. 10. Washington.

Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh was No. 13. The bottom three teams were: 30. Seattle. 31. New Orleans. 32. Green Bay.

The Bills almost pulled off the Grand Slam of Special Teams in '05, nearly ranking No. 1 in all four main coverage and return categories. They were No. 1 in kickoff return average, No. 5 in punt return average, No. 4 in kickoff coverage and No. 1 in net punting.

Last year, they were No. 2 in kickoff return average, No. 5 in punt returns, No. 2 in kickoff coverage and No. 11 in net punting.

Even though the overall statistics were slightly better in '05, the '04 season was superior, because the Bills scored six special-teams touchdowns and gave up no scores.

In '05, the Bills units scored one TD (Terrence McGee's kickoff return in Cincinnati) and gave up one TD (the decisive kickoff return by the Jets in the season finale).

The Bills are the first repeat winner in the 16 years the Dallas paper has compiled the ranking.

"It's a long season, 16 games, and to be able to be on top for 32 straight games is quite an accomplishment," Moorman said. "It's something you shoot for all year. It's something we take a lot of pride in. Bobby's coaching style is so positive. He's not a guy to ever bring a guy down no matter what mistake he makes. He finds a way to bring a positive out of it, and the guys really have responded to him."

Having a head coach who is willing to give the special teams coach enough practice time on the field is a big key to having good special teams.

With Marv Levy in charge again in Buffalo, there's little doubt the Bills' commitment to April will remain strong. Levy and Bruce DeHaven, of course, oversaw the "golden era" of Bills special teams. The Bills had the No. 1 kickoff coverage unit from 1987 through '90, and the '91 Bills team still holds the NFL punt coverage record for a 16-game season. The Bills were No. 1 in the Dallas ranking in '96. (In Levy's four years as a special teams coach from '69 to '72, his units blocked seven punts.)

"Pittsburgh has been successful on special teams, but Bill Cowher doesn't give as much time to it as we did here," said long-snapper Mike Schneck, who came to the Bills last year from Pittsburgh.

New Bills coach Dick Jauron had a solid special-teams track record during his stint in Chicago. The Bears were in the top eight in the NFL in either punt coverage or net punting four of his five years. They were in the top 17 in kickoff coverage four of his five years (including No. 1 in '99). They were in the top 13 in kickoff return average four of his five years.

Jauron recognized April's value by giving him the added title of assistant head coach. That's something Mike Mularkey planned to do before he resigned. April was still under contract, so Jauron didn't have to add the title.

Another coach who has used special teams to build success is the Giants' Tom Coughlin. The Giants had not ranked higher than 20th five straight years before Coughlin joined them in 2004. They were 17th last year and runner-up this year. Over his last seven years as the head coach of Jacksonville, the Jags had five top-10 finishes in the ranking.

>Oakland vs. Buffalo

The Bills raised ticket prices for 2006 but they're still among the lowest priced tickets in the league. It's almost comical how low in comparison with some teams.

Oakland is somewhat similar to Buffalo in terms of its economy. The Raiders announced last week they have eliminated their personal-seat licenses, the contract season-ticket holders must purchase simply for the right to buy tickets. Those PSLs ranged from $25 to $400 a year and sold poorly for the past decade. Oakland fans who were used to no PSLs in the '60s and '70s balked at them when the team moved back from Los Angeles. Meanwhile, the Raiders raised some ticket prices for 2006.

The bottom line is most sideline seats in Oakland now will cost $96 a game for season-ticket holders. Lower bowl sideline seats in Buffalo will cost season-ticket holders $47 a game. For individual games, those seats in Buffalo are $58. Most end-zone seats in Oakland will cost season-ticket holders $61 a game. End zone seats on the scoreboard side in Buffalo will cost $36 a game for season tickets, $45 for individual games.

>Onside kicks

Country music megastar Tim McGraw wants to be a part-owner of an NFL team. He's partners with Titans owner Bud Adams in the Nashville Kats Arena League team. Some of the other high-profile Arena owners are John Elway (Denver), Jon Bon Jovi (Philadelphia), Jerry Jones (Dallas) and Mike Ditka (Chicago). For the past two years, McGraw has put on concerts for Kats' season-ticket holders only -- a pretty nice incentive for buying tickets. McGraw sets his entertainment schedule around Kats games. He and his wife, Faith Hill, are devoted fans of the Kats and Titans.

Hall of Famer Lynn Swann is running for Pennsylvania governor against incumbent Ed Rendell, who some have touted as a future Democratic presidential candidate. Rendell is on the Comcast Eagles postgame show, prompting the critique that Rendell knows a lot more about football than Swann knows about politics. On one of the Sunday morning shows, Swann seemed to imply that overturning Roe vs. Wade would make abortion illegal instead of just giving states the right to ban it. Nevertheless, it looks like the two are in a dead heat in the polls, despite the fact Rendell has much more money in addition to his inherent incumbent advantage. Among the contributors to Swann's campaign: John Stallworth gave $5,000, Andy Russell $2,500, Jack Kemp $2,000 and Jack Ham $1,000.

Jerry Rhome, a longtime NFL offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach who was retired from the Falcons in 2001 and was hired by Minnesota in October, is working with Vince Young and former Texas A&M QB Reggie McNeal to prepare them for their pro days and the draft. Young will not throw at the combine. He'll throw at Texas' pro day March 22.


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