A change at coordinator paid off for the Buffalo Bills on special teams in 2019.
Under first-year coordinator Heath Farwell, the Bills finished 12th in the annual rankings of the league’s 32 special-teams units. Those rankings have been put together for the last four decades by long-time NFL writer Rick Gosselin. They are accepted as the league standard.
The Bills finished 31st in Gosselin’s rankings in 2018, leading to the dismissal of special-teams coordinator Danny Crossman.
Gosselin’s rankings are compiled by assigning points based on a team’s finish in 22 kicking-game categories. Teams earn one point for finishing first in the league and 32 points for finishing last.
The New Orleans Saints led the NFL with 256 points in 2019. The Cincinnati Bengals were next with 279.5, followed by the New England Patriots with 284. The Bills had 341 points. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers finished last in the league with 491.5 points.
Under Farwell, the Bills were a much more disciplined team in 2019. Buffalo took a league-low 10 penalties against on special teams, costing them just 88 yards. That’s impressive considering it had become a running joke in previous years to celebrate any special-teams play that didn’t feature a flag.
Buffalo also benefited from some good fortune. Opponents were successful on just 63.6% of field goals against the Bills in 2019, the lowest success rate in the NFL.
The Bills also ranked fourth in the NFL with 32 punts inside the opponent’s 20-yard line.
“We progressed weekly if you look at all the numbers and how everybody contributes to each other and everybody does their job,” said Bills running back Senorise Perry. “It’s really a one-play thing. One mistake or one big play can turn a whole game around.”
That was evident early in the season, when the New England Patriots returned a blocked punt for a touchdown in a 16-10 win over the Bills at New Era Field.
“That play changed the whole game,” Bills safety Jaquan Johnson said. “If they don't get that blocked punt, who knows? They weren't doing anything on offense. We could have still had momentum. It could have changed this entire season, maybe.”
Since Bill Belichick became New England’s coach in 2000, the Patriots have finished in the top 10 of Gosselin’s rankings 14 times. In two of the past three years, the Patriots have finished in the top five.
“Talking about New England, you can tell their special teams changes the game all the time,” Johnson said. “We're trying to create those plays.”
Cornerback Siran Neal led the Bills with eight tackles on special teams. Perry was next with five, followed by linebacker Lorenzo Alexander, defensive end Darryl Johnson Jr., linebacker Julian Stanford, wide receiver Robert Foster and Johnson with four.
"When we go out there on special teams, we feel like we can affect the game at any moment," Johnson said. "We train and we prepare just like the starters. That's our mindset and my mindset going into games on special teams."
Alexander has announced his retirement, while Perry and Stanford are pending unrestricted free agents. It would make sense that the Bills make an effort to bring them both of them back for continuity on special teams.
"It got better week to week with the different schemes he put in," Perry said of Farwell's first season on the job. "He put us in a position to use our abilities. We've got a good mix of veterans and younger guys, and we can build on this season."