MOBILE, Ala. – Heath Farwell entered the NFL in 2005 as an undrafted, undersized, 6-foot, 225-pound linebacker.
He beat the odds to play 10 years and 114 games in the league as a special teams ace, despite never starting one game on defense.
So you know he’s all about bringing the passion for special teams.
“I’m a high-energy guy,” Farwell said at the Senior Bowl on Wednesday upon being introduced as the Bills’ new special teams coordinator. “I’m a hands-on coach. That’s the way I was as a player. I try to portray that to the players. Hopefully they feed off that. They see if I’m running around and having fun and embracing it, and they feel that love for them, I think it usually translates. They see it, and it kind of elevates their play.”
“Special teams is about energy and effort and strain and want-to and grit,” Farwell said. “So if you have that, you typically make a good special-teamer.”
The 37-year-old Farwell faces a big task in trying to overhaul the Bills' special teams units that slumped badly in 2018. The Bills ranked 31st overall on special teams, according to annual metrics compiled by Rick Gosselin of the Talk of Fame network.
Farwell is just four years removed from his playing career, which included an appearance in the Pro Bowl in 2009. He spent the 2016 and ’17 seasons as the assistant special teams coach in Seattle and the 2018 season as the assistant special teams coach in Carolina. Bills coach Sean McDermott is giving Farwell his first opportunity as coordinator after firing Danny Crossman three weeks ago.
“It’s a great opportunity, so I’m fired up,” Farwell said. “Coach McDermott and Brandon Beane have been unbelievable to give me this opportunity. I want to prove ’em right. I want to prove that I’m able to do it. I’ve had a lot of experience playing. I don’t have the experience coaching, but I was a coach while I was playing a lot of times as a captain and mentoring young players. I feel like it’s a good opportunity. The team’s going in the right direction, it’s ascending and I’m excited to be a part of it."
Farwell played and worked for six years under well-regarded, veteran special teams coach Brian Schneider in Seattle. Last year, he got an up-close look at how a first-time coordinator handles the job in working for Carolina’s Chase Blackburn. Like Farwell, Blackburn had a 10-year playing career as a core special-teamer with the Giants and then had a short apprenticeship (two years) as an assistant coach.
“I think we worked really well together, and I think I had a first-hand look into it,” Farwell said. “There was a lot of stuff he was going through for the first time as well. We kind of worked through some stuff.”
Carolina ranked 23rd in 2018. The Panthers allowed the fourth fewest kickoff return yards in the league and the seventh fewest punt return yards. Since 2010, Seattle ranks third in the NFL in blocked kicks and fifth in special teams takeaways.
“Brian Schneider was a big influence on me, playing for him in Seattle and of course coaching under him,” Farwell said. “But I got the opportunity to go to Carolina under coach (Ron) Rivera. Chase Blackburn is an unbelievable bright guy, situationally he’s unbelievable. So kind of taking a little from both and implementing my program is kind of what it’s about.”
Farwell played in Minnesota for four years for Bills defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier, who was Vikings defensive chief at the time.
Farwell said that’s when he started thinking about coaching.
“I think after my fourth year, I tore my ACL, and it kind of put the reality that hey, this could be done at any point,” Farwell said. “So I kind of transitioned. I was already a captain before that. But it transitioned, OK what am I going to do when I’m done playing?”
Farwell moved to Seattle in 2011 and credits Seahawks coach Pete Carroll as a big influence.
“I was out in Seattle and coach Carroll was so great to me and kind of viewed me almost as a coach as a player,” Farwell said. “He’d kind of pull me aside and ask, how would you handle this situation? So he already put me in those positions as a player, and then he gave me my first job coaching.”
Farwell won a Super Bowl ring with the Seahawks in 2013. He calls it his career highlight.
“Being a captain of that team and going out for the coin toss, Joe Namath was out there for the coin toss,” Farwell said. “Of course, running out of the tunnel and then winning. That’s what it’s about. That’s everybody’s goal. So that’s my proudest moment.”
Farwell, in fact, made one of the blocks (on Broncos linebacker Brandon Marshall) that helped spring Percy Harvin on an 87-yard kickoff return for a TD in the game.
“That’s one of my favorite memories, going to celebrate in the end zone with him and being such a big impact in that game coming out of halftime," he said.
Farwell played against Bills veteran Lorenzo Alexander on special teams. And he played with Bills kicker Stephen Hauschka in Seattle.
“I have a great relationship with him,” Farwell said. “So I think that’s going to translate really well for me, help acclimate me with the team, all that stuff. He’s a special player, a special kicker.”
Farwell also will have some continuity on the staff. The Bills are retaining assistant special teams coach Matt Smiley, who enters his seventh NFL season.