Slap a fake mustache and straw hat on Danny Crossman and you might just have the next Chuck Lester.
Ok, so maybe that’s a stretch. The Buffalo Bills’ current special teams coordinator has a long way to go before he can match the longevity of the team’s former assistant coach – who became most famous for finding a way to stick around for 23 long years.
But it’s nonetheless impressive that Crossman is now working for his third different head coach. He is the only member of Rex Ryan’s former staff to keep his job after Sean McDermott took over, and was originally brought in by Doug Marrone in 2013.
“Maybe the only time it was ever odd to me was when I went in to the locker room and mine was the only name tag still on the locker,” Crossman said Thursday of being the lone post-Rex survivor. “I never looked at it that way. In my mind, and the way I approach my job is, I’m going to do the best job I possibly can, I’m not going to worry about anything else and something good’s going to happen.
“Fortunately, the good has been I’ve been able to stay here, and not have to be uprooted. Opportunities present themselves in different ways. For me, the best opportunity for me was to stay here and to continue building on something that we’ve started. But now hopefully what we believe is, we’re really on the track of getting this thing where we want to go.”
Change is a constant in the NFL, but nowhere has that been clearer than in Buffalo. The Bills are now on their fifth head coach (including interim Anthony Lynn) in the last six years.
“I’m fortunate that I’m still here with my third coaching staff and haven’t had to move,” Crossman said. “And I’m fortunate that with this group going forward, we can get done what we’re all hoping to get done for the great fans of the Buffalo Bills – to establish a long-term, sustained, successful run of playoff-caliber football.”
To get there, the Bills’ special teams will have to improve from a year ago. The Bills ranked 24th in the Dallas Morning News’ annual rankings, down from 16th in 2015 and second in 2014. Compiled by Morning News writer Rick Gosselin, the paper’s ranking are accepted as the league standard.
Gosselin assigns a score to each team in 22 different special-teams categories – with one point given to the best team and 32 to the worst in each category – so the lowest total is best. The Bills finished with 419.5 points. The Philadelphia Eagles led the league for the second time in three seasons, with 226.5 points.
Buffalo's kicking game shoulders most of the blame for the low ranking. The Bills ranked tied for 28th in made field goals (19) and 30th in field-goal percentage (76 percent), as well as 27th in extra-point percentage (88.9 percent). Not surprisingly, the Bills released kicker Dan Carpenter in the offseason, replacing him with former Seahawks kicker Stephen Hauschka.
“There were different aspects on different kicks, so it wasn’t all one particular item with Dan. It was one thing here, one thing at another game, and the cumulative effect of that is multiple misses,” Crossman said. “If it was one particular thing, we believe as coaches and as players that’s an easy correction.”
Crossman previously worked with Hauschka in Detroit in 2010, and although he didn’t make the Lions’ roster because the team had Jason Hanson, Crossman saw a kicker who was going to be successful.
“There was no doubt in my mind that Stephen had the skills and the ability, the mental and physical makeup to be a successful kicker in this league,” he said. “And here we are seven years later and we’ve seen that.”
Carpenter was sent on his way, but he was only half the problem with the kicking game. Punter Colton Schmidt also struggled in 2016. The Bills ranked 30th in net punting average in 2016 (38.1 yards), down from seventh the year before (41.3). Buffalo's gross punting average of 42.4 yards ranked 31st, and the team placed just 20 punts inside the opponent's' 20-yard line, which ranked 28th.
The Bills brought in some competition for Schmidt in the former of undrafted free agent Austin Rehkow from the University of Idaho.
He “can do a little bit of everything which is really beneficial for us,” Crossman said. “His primary responsibility here is competing for the punting job, but having that ability to kick off, to kick field goals, to be able to take some of that pressure off of Stephen as he gets up there in years is going to be outstanding.
“Colton’s bright enough to realize that everybody’s job is up for grabs. Obviously here, but around the National Football League, you have to perform. And you’re performing and you’re competing not only against the guys that are sitting in that room today, you’re competing against the guy that could be sitting in there tomorrow or two months from now. As we all know, this is a fluid thing, there’s a full year where you’re able to add talent to your roster. So you’re always in competition for your job.”
While Crossman is back, his two assistant coaches from last year, Eric Smith and Kathryn Smith, were not retained. Kathryn Smith made history as the first full-time female assistant coach in the NFL.
“All the decisions on the staff from every spot were Sean’s decisions,” Crossman said. “We had great people last year. The people that worked with me, Eric Smith and Kathryn Smith, both did outstanding jobs. Sean as the head coach, he has full parameters over the staff and that’s the decision he made. We brought in an outstanding young guy in Matthew Smiley, and I think we’re going to be outstanding going forward.”
Other topics Crossman addressed Thursday included:
• The primary punt returner. Wide receiver Brandon Tate figures to get the first crack at the job after being re-signed, but Crossman mentioned safety Micah Hyde and cornerback Tre’Davious White as players who might also warrant a look.
• Long snapper. The Bills replaced veteran Garrison Sanborn with Reid Ferguson, who spent part of last year on the practice squad.
“Garrison had done an outstanding job, but like always, as you start getting up in years you’re always looking for that next possible guy,” Crossman said. “Whether it be because you get old and your skills diminish and/or contract. … To be able to spend time and work with him, we feel very confident about Reid’s abilities going forward.”