The Seals and Gurkhas have been executing their missions brilliantly for the Buffalo Bills this season.
The Delta Force detachment has been steadfast in difficult weather conditions. The Artillery has been accurate. The Cavalry has yet to make any dramatic rescues.
That's the midseason rundown on the Bills' special teams units this season. It's all part of the creative way special teams coordinator Bobby April motivates and evaluates his players.
April gives each of his units a military label in an effort to hammer home the importance of special teams to his players. The kickoff return unit, for instance, is the Seals, named after the Navy Seals. The kickoff coverage unit is the Gurkhas, named after the British Army units that originated in Asia. April combines his military labels with an elaborate points system that allows each player to gauge his performance against everyone else on special teams.
"Green Berets, Rangers, Seals, those are the more mentally and physically tough people who represent our country," said linebacker Mario Haggan. "And that's the way we try to represent our team. Being mentally tough, physically tough, and showing it on Sunday."
Good motivation has equaled impressive results. On kickoff returns, Terrence McGee has two touchdowns and the Bills rank No. 2 in the NFL in average drive starts. On kickoff coverage, the Bills enter Sunday's game at New England No. 1 in the league, allowing opponents just 17.2 yards a return.
In terms of overall efficiency, the Bills' special teams are third best in the league, according to the Dallas Morning News system, which combines 19 statistical categories and is widely respected among coaches.
"We're doing good," April said, "but you never can take anything for granted, especially in the NFL and especially on special teams, because it's an explosive play and it can explode either way."
Coaches always seek ways to motivate special-teamers. None of the 53 Bills were regulars on special teams their senior year of college. They were the star offensive and defensive players. It's critical for rookies and younger players -- who comprise the bulk of NFL special teams -- to understand how each special teams play can turn around a game.
"It takes a heckuva professional attitude to go out and do something you haven't ever been rewarded for," April said. "You didn't get your scholarship for playing special teams. You didn't get drafted for playing special teams. Now the team is asking you to do something to help us win. It takes a lot of character."
April sees the military analogies as natural for his units, which are on and off the field in one play.
"It's about special missions," he said.
Here's his rationale for each unit's name:
Punt returns are Rangers -- "The Rangers' (creed) is, 'Leave no man behind.' So on punt returns when you don't block your guy, you leave the return man hanging out to dry."
Kickoff returns are Seals -- "The Navy Seals have to go not only complete their mission, a lot of times they have to find where their mission is to complete it. The kickoff return is kind of like that. It's not like a line of scrimmage and the ball's going to start right here. You have to go find the place to start. You have to go find it, then execute the play."
Kickoff coverage is the Gurkhas -- "The Gurkhas are the Asian mercenaries. They have a knife as their major weapon. Once they pull the knife there's no compromise. It's either them or their adversary. Kickoff coverage we treat that way. It's us or them."
Punt coverage is Delta Force -- "Delta Force combines a lot of different specialists. On the punt team you have to be an offensive player to protect the punt, then instantly you're a defensive player attacking the punt. So you have to be really diverse and have a lot of special skills."
The field goal unit is Artillery -- "We get the big gun and shoot from way out."
The field goal block team is Cavalry -- "We're rallying and attacking the flanks and attacking the other team's artillery."
Neither April nor the players have any illusions about comparing themselves with actual servicemen and women.
"Absolutely not," April said. "We try in one small way to emulate the principles of what they do. But in no way, shape or form are we even close to comparing ourselves to them. What they do is the most noble thing you can do. We do something for our profession. We're really trying to compliment and honor them. We're emulating some of their ideas."
Each week, April posts rankings of the players on each unit based on the previous game's performance. Players are awarded from three to 15 points for making a block. A tackle inside the 20 or a tackle for 3 yards or less on a punt return is 15. A solo tackle is 12. An assisted tackle is either 5 or 8. A touchdown return is 25. A game-winning field goal or a blocked kick is 30. A penalty is minus-15. A missed tackle is minus-5.
Josh Stamer is the points leader through eight games, followed by Angelo Crowell and Brian Moorman.
April is very happy with the backup linebacking corps of Stamer, Crowell and Haggan.
"If you've got linebacker speed, you've got guys who are big enough to thump but also run fast," April said. "It's a key position."
All three have an edge over McGee in the points race because they play on all special teams. McGee is only on kickoff returns.
"Stamer is on the field for 25 or 30 plays," April said. "McGee may only be on the field three or four."
The points leaders on each unit get their pictures on the team bulletin board every Wednesday. The points leader for each game gets his picture on the cover of the special teams' game plan.
"Coach keeps track of the points," cornerback and punt-coverage gunner Kevin Thomas said. "Our thing is to get your picture up there on the bulletin board."
"The game is really a field-position battle," Stamer said, "and with the league being as competitive as it is, setting up field position makes a big difference in winning and losing games."
Top Special Teamers at Midseason*
1. Josh Stamer
2. Angelo Crowell
3. Brian Moorman
Point leaders for Jets game
Delta Force (Punt coverage)
Rangers (Punt returns)
Gurkhas (Kickoff coverage)
Seals (Kickoff returns)
Cavalry (Field-goal block)
Artillery (Field-goal unit)
*-Leaders are based on coach Bobby April's grading system.