It can be dicey being a special teams coach in the NFL.
Take new Raiders special teams coach Bobby April, for instance.
When he was with the Buffalo Bills, April was the NFL’s Special Teams Coach of the Year twice, in 2004 and 2008. In that same position with the Philadelphia Eagles the past three seasons, however, his special teams were decidedly unspecial for much of his tenure.
When he was hired by the Raiders recently, an Eagles blogger celebrated, writing, “I’m dumbfounded. There was arguably no coach on the Eagles staff the past few years that was worse at his job with less excuses” as April.
In 2012, when the Eagles special teams were caught in a downward spiral, April said it wasn’t the toughest season in his 21-year NFL coaching career, but it was certainly difficult.
In one December Eagles loss, a punt was blocked, a kickoff return was fumbled and the punt team was missing one player until just before the snap. He told the Philadelphia Inquirer that he was at fault, not the players.
“I don’t want to bail them out,” he said. “But I do think it’s up to me to get it done, and I needed to present them with something that matches their skill set and is more easily communicable, more properly drilled in practice and developed. All of the gaffes I take credit for, and I have nothing to say against the players.”
Yet in 2010, April’s special teams in Philadelphia were among the best in the NFL across the board.
After the Raiders finished 4-12 in 2012, special teams coordinator Steve Hoffman was fired, along with three other assistants.
Oakland special teams in 2012 were ranked 31st in the league by a formula used by analysts Footballoutsiders.com. Eagles special teams were ranked 24th under April.
When April received his second Special Teams Coach of the Year award in Buffalo for 2008, his special teams finished in the top 10 in four categories, including a league-leading 15.5 yards per punt return and scored three TDs.
This past week, in talking with Bay Area media, April said special teams performance comes down to players. That’s the key element, with coaching second. And he hadn’t yet had time to evaluate the Raiders personnel.
“Any time you succeed it’s because the players are really good,” he said. “Coaching has a lot to do with it, but you can never do it without the talent. I think there players here are very good. They have to improve; I have to improve. In terms of moving personnel or changing personnel, at this point I’m way behind on that. Just trying to get organized and even familiarize myself with the players.”
April has had the chance to see returner Jacoby Ford in action, and is eager to get him back into the mix. Ford was missing because of injuries in 2012, but April is excited about the opportunity to work with him.
“He’s one of the guys who, boy, I’d liked to give him the first opportunity to be the guy (kick returner). He’s a special talent. I remember evaluating him at Clemson and thought he was special. Then he came here and proved that he is. So to get him back would be a tremendous plus for our football team.”
Though the Raiders will go into 2013 with an outstanding kicker in Sebastian Janikowski, the punting situation is in doubt. Outstanding veteran Shane Lechler could leave in free agency, or be retained. Young Marquette King – with a very strong leg but no experience – is on the roster and could be Lechler’s replacement.
April says his No. 1 job will be fostering a culture on the team in which players are eager to play special teams and contribute to success.
“They’ll go where that reward is,” he said. “So the reward is playing a being a pro, winning games, helping your offense and defense achieve the greatest probability of success, and cultivating that is I think Job No. 1 of the special teams coach.”