FREDONIA -- A warning to kickoff and punt returners in the National Football League: Steve Tasker is back.
After an injury-plagued 1996 season in which he played a more active role at wide receiver in the Buffalo Bills' offense, Tasker will return to special teams, the site of his past brilliance.
"Last year was frustrating," said Tasker, following a morning training camp workout at Fredonia State College. "I finally got a chance to go out and play, which is always fun, and I got hurt.
"This year I'm healthy and hope to help the team win, whether it's on offense or back on special teams."
Tasker suffered a sprained foot in the second half of the Bills' opener last year against the Giants and missed the next six games. He played five games then missed two more in December, against Indianapolis and Seattle, with an injured knee.
Due to his struggles to stay healthy, head coach Marv Levy talked with Tasker during the offseason about the likelihood of going back to being primarily a special teams player.
"Going full-time as a receiver, at his age and with his recent injuries, gave us doubts as to whether or not he could hold up for a full season," said Levy. "We know he's an outstanding special teams player, one play at a time."
Levy and Tasker each made it clear not to rule out the possibility of Tasker's return to the offense on occasion or in special circumstances.
"Right now, I'm playing special teams," said Tasker. "But Dan (offensive coordinator Dan Henning) and coach Levy have made it clear I'll still be the fourth or fifth wide receiver."
Tasker will see most of his action on offense coming as a backup in the deep Bills' receiving corp which features Andre Reed, Quinn Early and Eric Moulds.
"As a fourth receiver, there is not a better one in the league," said Levy. "If you get to the point where you have to put Steve in the game, he knows what to do. He has been in big pressure situations in the past and he is the perfect guy to step in during the crunch."
"I'm ecstatic about getting him back," Bills special teams coach Bruce DeHaven said of the 5-foot-9, 181-pound Tasker. "You've got a guy who has been to the Pro Bowl a number of times and he's also one of the best, if not the best, special teams players in NFL history."
Tasker has been to seven Pro Bowls. He was voted to the postseason game as the AFC special teams representative following the 1988 season and six consecutive seasons from 1991 to 1996.
He was voted the game's Most Valuable Player in 1993, the only time a special teams player has received such an honor.
Tasker has made 171 special-teams tackles for the Bills since being claimed off waivers from the Houston Oilers in 1985, including a team-high 25 in 1991. Tasker has also blocked six punts.
His success on the field has made him an important presence to the team off the field as well. As one of the elder statesman of the Bills (only defensive end Jim Jeffcoat, 36, is older), the 35-year-old Tasker has become a role model for many younger special teams players, a role that he welcomes.
"Not a lot of guys stay on special teams long enough to be veterans," said Tasker, who is entering his 13th NFL season. "Mark (Pike) and I have been here 12 and 13 years, respectively. The rookies and younger guys listen to us because we've been around and know what to expect out there.
"When I was a young player, I liked to hear the perspective of the veterans, rather than a coach in some circumstances because the player is out there with you. It was very important to me so I try and pass it on to the guys I play with now."
Tasker has adopted a day-to-day outlook on his future.
"I just signed a one-year deal," Tasker said. "After this season, I'll sit down with my family and with the Bills organization and we'll make a decision from there. Right now, I'm just glad to be healthy and looking forward to contributing to this team."