This is the last of a nine-part positional review of the Buffalo Bills’ 2015 season. Today’s installment looks at the special teams.
By Vic Carucci
News Sports Reporter
When your season effectively ends with two games left on the schedule, it’s hard to find a whole lot that stands out in a good way.
For the Bills, special teams were no exception.
The main storyline here was Dan Carpenter, once among the most reliable kickers in the NFL, having serious problems with the extra-point distance being extended from 20 to 33 yards in the 2015 season. He wasn’t alone, but he did manage to rank among the league’s worst at PATs.
And that was far from the Bills’ only shortcoming in their kicking game.
Of their NFL-leading 143 accepted penalties this season, 25 were on special teams for 228 yards.
That put them in a tie with the Kansas City Chiefs for third-most in the league behind the St. Louis Rams (30) and Oakland Raiders (26).
Through injuries and poor performance, the Bills also had a revolving door with their returners.
For the last two games of the season, wide receiver Walt Powell, promoted from the practice squad to the active roster in Week 16, was handling punt and kickoff returns.
It should come as no surprise, then, that the analytics website Football Outsiders ranked the Bills’ special teams 12th, a drop of eight spots from 2014.
The fall was especially disappointing considering that the Bills had climbed from 30th in 2013 to fourth in the previous season.
The breakdown follows:
Signed: K Dan Carpenter, KO Jordan Gay, KR Marquise Goodwin, Leodis McKelvin, KR Walt Powell, LS Garrison Sanborn, P Colton Schmidt.
Pending free agents: None.
What went right: This won’t take long.
There were two strengths: Sanborn, who was money with his snaps, and Schmidt, who ranked seventh in the NFL with a net yards-per-kick average of 41.3 and who also was money with his holds.
After that, most of what the Bills did in this department, including coverage, was ordinary or worse.
The Bills’ leaders in special-teams tackles were safety Jonathan Meeks and wide receiver Marcus Easley (who ended the season on the injured-reserve list) with 13 and 10, respectively.
What went wrong: It’s a fairly long list.
Carpenter missed six of 40 extra-point attempts, putting him second only to Jacksonville’s Jason Myers, who missed seven. Carpenter also missed four of 27 field-goal attempts.
Then there were the penalties. At times, it became downright ridiculous, with multiple calls against the Bills’ special teams on multiple occasions. Their special-teams penalty total increased by six from 2014.
The overall lack of discipline that made the Bills a magnet for yellow flags must be a priorty for Rex Ryan and his coaching staff to address.
The fact it was so prevalent on special teams also speaks to the type of players the Bills have on the roster. When reserve players – who are the lowest common denominator and make up the bulk of the special teams – are prone to penalties, it raises questions about their level of concentration and football intelligence.
If you’re going to devote a roster spot to a kickoff specialist, you’d better make sure he’s exceptional. Gay wasn’t. He was the epitome of average, tying Cincinnati’s Mike Nugent for 16th in the league with 42.
How bad were the Bills in their return game? Their leader in punt and kickoff returns was wide receiver Marcus Thigpen, who was released on Dec. 22. That was the same day the Bills signed Powell, who did have the team’s longest kickoff return of the season with a 32-yarder in the season finale against the New York Jets.
Where they go from here: It’s hard to imagine Carpenter not facing serious competition in the offseason and training camp. The Bills cannot simply hope he overcomes whatever mental barrier he has with extra points, because as the year wore on, it clearly bled into his field-goal kicking.
Ryan publicly called out Carpenter for his struggles in the preseason, but if that was a psychological ploy, it backfired. Now, the Bills have to see if they can find better – or if Carpenter can rise to the challenge of proving he’s still the best they have.
The Bills also are going to have to rethink keeping Gay as a kickoff specialist – or any kickoff specialist, for that matter. The results were hardly worth tying up a roster spot that could be better used for depth elsewhere.