It was only a handful of years ago when Lorenzo Alexander and Heath Farwell were division rivals in the NFC West, Alexander a linebacker and special teams ace for the Arizona Cardinals, Farwell in a similar role with the Seattle Seahawks.
While Alexander finished the 2013 season on injured reserve, Farwell finished with a ring, helping Seattle annihilate the Denver Broncos, 43-8, in Super Bowl XLVIII.
Today, there’s no animosity between the former Pro Bowlers as they strive to return the Buffalo Bills’ special teams to respectability. Alexander, who turns 36 on Friday, is entering his 13th season on an NFL roster and fourth season in Buffalo. Farwell, 37, is entering his first season as the Bills’ special teams coordinator.
“I had a relationship with Heath even before he got here, so I’ve known him,” Alexander said. “Having him as a coach is a little bit of a different dynamic, but I’ve really enjoyed him. Being so old now in the league, it’s a different relationship, because it’s more peer to peer.
“And I really like his approach, how he coaches and teaches, and he’s doing a good job of allowing (assistant coach Matthew) Smiley to help him, as well, because he does realize it’s his first year controlling the room, and he just wants to get it right. So they’re doing a really good job working together, and I definitely feel like our special teams this year are going to be playing at a higher level, just because of his demeanor and just allowing guys to play free and not really worried about making a mistake.”
The Bills’ special teams can’t be much worse than they were last season. Football Outsiders rated the Bills’ special teams unit as the worst in the NFL in 2018, while Pro Football Focus and Dallas Morning News reporter Rick Gosselin, who produces comprehensive and widely accepted special teams rankings, both tabbed the Bills as second-worst in the league.
In January, Buffalo fired special teams coordinator Danny Crossman, who had joined the franchise in 2013 and worked under three head coaches – Doug Marrone, Rex Ryan and Sean McDermott. Two weeks later, the Bills hired Farwell, who had spent the previous three seasons as an assistant special teams coach, first with the Seahawks from 2016-17, then last season with the Carolina Panthers.
Farwell said he relies on his playing experience to command respect, having spent 10 seasons in the NFL as a linebacker and special teams standout with the Minnesota Vikings and Seahawks. He went to the Pro Bowl in 2010.
“What I lack in experience in coaching, I kind of make it up with playing time,” Farwell said. “I’ve played up against a lot of these guys – or a couple guys, I should say – and just being in those locker rooms a handful of years ago, I feel like I’ve had a good relationship with them and am still building it.
“I’m hoping they respect me. I’m hoping I’m getting that respect from them as I’m coaching them, because I respect every single one of them, and I know what they go through. Understanding what they go through everyday, I would say, nobody knows it better than I do.”
Farwell also relies on veterans like Alexander to help gauge whether his instruction is getting through to the younger players.
“All those veterans, I rely on them heavily,” Farwell said. “Being a new coordinator, this is all new to me. So getting a good understanding of what the feel is, is that clear enough to them? Is that clear enough to the young guys, because I know the older guys get it but what are the young guys getting?
“It’s the whole group. I’m speaking to everybody, not just Lorenzo. Lorenzo knows it as good as anybody. But he’s a good voice to call to let me know if I need to clear something up a little bit more, so he has been a great sounding board for me. And a lot of these veterans, I rely on all of these guys who have done this and who have been in special team rooms whether it’s here or with other teams. They are very valuable and I am definitely taking full advantage of those guys.”
Bills backup linebacker and special teams standout Julian Stanford said it helps to know that Farwell has played the game recently, giving him the ability to relate.
“He’s done it at an extremely high level for a long time,” Stanford said. “Any time you have somebody like that – for instance with Zo, the same way, picking their brain, they’ve experienced a lot. They’ve seen a lot. So they can kind of give you the insight from somebody who’s done it, as well as somebody who’s coached it, so that’s definitely a big addition and big help, as well.”
Much of the special teams work at this stage of organized team activities, when contact is barred and players are wearing shorts, is focused on fundamentals and techniques.
“It is hard,” Farwell said, “but we make the most of it. … I try to show them the drill and then show them the meaning of how to use that drill in the game. All of those drills, there’s a reason we are doing them, and it’s putting those pieces together. So when we put on that game tape, that’s where you use that move that I just tried to teach you, that tool.”
Alexander said that Farwell, by relying on the team’s veterans and his own playing experience, has been effective in the early stages of being the Bills’ special teams coordinator.
“Guys that are ultra-talented sometimes have a hard time making that transition into being a coach,” Alexander said, “because they’re unable to communicate it. But he does a great job of showing drills, describing what he wants, and then putting film on to see how it applies in games, giving guys a clear picture. So it helps, because he’s not asking guys to do things that sound good on paper. He’s asking guys to do things that he’s seen and he’s done himself that work.”