AFTER THE 1989 NFL season, Steve Tasker wondered whether he had overstayed his welcome with the Buffalo Bills. He was serious about this -- serious enough that he and his wife, Sarah, sold their home in Colden before last summer's training camp.
"We sold it, thinking I might not make the team," Tasker says. "I was going into my sixth year, which is way above average for a non-starter. And I just thought it would be stupid to stick my head in the sand and say, 'I'll be here forever.'
"It was a great farm house, with a two-story barn, 16 acres and a pond. We were very happy there, but it was way out in the country. And we thought, if I did get released in camp and had to leave Buffalo, it wouldn't be the easiest property in the world to sell. So I didn't want to put my family in a bad financial situation by sitting on one house while being somewhere else.
"I was just playing the odds."
Tasker bought a home in East Aurora that he felt had greater selling potential.
But the latest odds suggest it won't go on the market any time soon.
Not with Tasker's having had as good a season as any non-starter in the NFL could imagine.
Entering today's regular-season finale against the Washington Redskins, he has blocked two punts, forced two fumbles on punt returns and recovered another, and recovered an on-side kickoff. He also ranks fourth on the Bills in special-teams tackles with 24, including 10 initial hits. His five solo stops on punts is second-best on the club.
As a result, the 5-foot-9, 185-pound Tasker has earned his second trip to the Pro Bowl for special teams.
"For a guy like me, who has been a role-player his whole career, that sort of recognition makes you feel that you really do belong in this league, that you really can play with these guys," he says.
That his selection has come during a 13-2 season means much more to Tasker than his first Pro Bowl trip, which followed the Bills' 7-8 finish in 1987.
And his performance in a game that went a long way toward turning around the Bills' season -- their 38-24 comeback victory over the Los Angeles Raiders Oct. 7 -- demonstrated how strongly special teams can influence the final score. That night, he made plays that resulted in 14 points. The first was forcing Tim Brown to fumble a punt, which the Bills recovered and turned into a touchdown three plays later. The second was blocking a punt, which J.D. Williams returned 38 yards for a another TD.
The week before, in a similar come-from-behind win over Denver, Nate Odomes blocked a field goal that Cornelius Bennett returned 80 yards for a touchdown.
"A lot of people can't understand why the Bills wouldn't keep a better player at a position as opposed to another guy, just for the fact that he can cover kicks," Tasker says. "But watching the Denver and Raider games, I think, finally, it dawned on the average fan that players like myself and Butch Rolle and Mark Pike are important to have on a squad. Special teams aren't to the point that offense and defense are, and they probably shouldn't be. But when you see that, sometimes, one out of every four plays in a game are kicking plays, it makes you stop and think.
"I mean, there could be as many as 28 kicking plays in a game. That's like three or four drives."
Bills head coach Marv Levy doesn't need to be convinced about the importance of special teams. He stresses it as much, if not more, than any of his peers.
And, despite Tasker's concerns before the season, Levy has "always felt he played extremely well" on special teams.
"Besides his own individual play, I think Steve provides a lot of good example and inspiration to other people playing on the special teams," Levy says. "Because of how hard he works and how he produces on it, I think, within our team, a great respect has developed for the contributions of the special teams."
Appearances to the contrary, for Tasker, special teams is hardly sheer chaos where only the most insane can succeed. He treats his preparation every bit as seriously as the quarterbacks treat theirs.
"You have to take the time to know what you're doing," he explains. "You have to watch film. A lot of guys sit through a special-teams meeting with their head against the wall, sleeping. But if you sit up and take notice, you'll see there are keys and facets of that part of the game that can make a difference in what you do.
"For instance, when we rush a punt, I'll study the guy I'm going to rush against. I'll watch him against two or three different opponents, and I can tell what move he's going to be the most susceptible to.
"It worked perfectly in our first game against the Patriots. I watched film for a long time, and I thought the guy (Eric Sievers) would be susceptible to what we call an up-and-under move. That's where I start to rush outside, the guy steps outside to get me, and I step underneath him inside. I did it on their first punt of the game, and, even though I didn't make the block, the guy got a holding penalty on me."
When the Bills punt, and Tasker is lined up wide to the outside in his "gunner" position, he usually has two men trying to stop him from running downfield on punt coverage. He often succeeds in slipping past them and making the play.
Speed has something to do with it; he was a high-school sprint champion in Kansas and, by NFL skill-position standards, has a decent 40-yard dash time of 4.5 seconds.
But Tasker gives most of the credit to the time he spends in practice at his "regular" wide receiver position.
"I get a lot of work releasing off the line as a wide receiver, with a guy in my face. And I don't think the defensive backs covering me on special teams spend that much time working on double-teaming somebody at the line because they're usually working on regular defense in practice. There's just no defense that calls for them to cover a guy two-on-one at the line, except the punt team, and no team spends much time on that.
"I just rely on quickness at the line of scrimmage. Most of the time, I'm able to get enough of an edge where I can turn the corner. And once I get by them, they can't legally hit me in the back and they can't grab me. All I really have to get is a half-step, and I should be safe.
"After that, if I can, I take a peek up at the punt to see where it's going. But more often than not, I just watch the return man, because if I just go to him, I'm going to go to the ball. If he calls for a fair catch near the end zone, I go past him looking for the ball to go over him and try to down it as close to the goal line as possible (to avoid a touchback). If we're out toward the middle of the field and he calls for a fair catch, I stay as close to him as I can because if he fumbles it, I'll be in a position to grab it."
One of Tasker's career highlights came this season when he caught a 24-yard touchdown pass against Phoenix for his only reception since joining the Bills off waivers from Houston in 1986.
"I realized that was one of those special things that shouldn't have happened," he said, referring to his entering the game in a pinch because of injuries to Andre Reed and Don Beebe. "It's just one play that I'll always remember, because I'm not going to get very many of those again."
Such is the life of a non-starter.