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NFL Sunday Outtakes: Rules taking club foot out of kicker's bag

By Tim Graham

Where have all the kick returns gone?

They've become mostly immaterial.

Only three kickoffs have been returned for touchdowns this year. The NFL is on pace for four kickoff TDs by season's end, fewest since 1993.

The Buffalo Bills are among three teams on track to challenge the 1944 New York Giants for fewest kickoff returns. Those Giants made 17 returns in a 10-game season.

For this week's NFL Sunday feature in The Buffalo News, I dialed up legends Brian Mitchell, Mel Gray and Abe Woodson -- 29,802 kickoff return yards, 8,708 punt return yards and 29 return touchdowns among them -- for their perspectives on a part of the game that's not as thrilling as it used to be.

Bills coach Doug Marrone and returners Leodis McKelvin and Marquise Goodwin also shared their thoughts about a supposed team strength that has been nonexistent.

Here's another perspective. Kickers are being impacted, too.

"The reason they're getting fazed out is a safety issue," Bills kicker Dan Carpenter said. "They're trying to eliminate or cut down on the high-end collisions."

With concussions a hot-button issue, the NFL has made it more difficult for return men to make plays. Blocking wedges larger than two players were eliminated in 2009. The kickoff spot was moved from the 30-yard line to the 35-yard line in 2011.

Kickers are driving the ball. Return men are more reluctant to bring out kicks that fall deep in the end zone.

Touchbacks occur on 53 percent of kickoffs now, up from 16.4 percent in 2010. They happened about 8 or 9 percent of the time from 2000 through 2005.

The NFL has considered eliminating kickoffs completely.

"It's tough when you only do certain things in your job title," Carpenter said. "The thought that one of those things might be taken away ... Obviously, the game would change. Our position and what teams are looking for in a kicker would change."

Carpenter probably would benefit if kickoffs vanished. He's an accurate field-goal kicker but isn't consistent at deep kickoffs.

He has made 92 percent of his field goals this year and three of his four tries from 50 yards or longer. His touchback percentage is 10 points below the league average.

"Kickers probably could hang around longer," Carpenter said. "There are only a couple reasons teams cut kickers. Either you miss too many field goals or you can't kick the ball as far as you once used to."

And if kickoffs were phased out?

"Guys who kick the ball will be accurate for field goals and not worry about kicking off," Carpenter said. "You won't have to work on that anymore. You won't get those young guys who come out and just crush the ball because it won't be as relevant.

"It will come down more to fundamentals than strength. It's like with golf. If every hole was less than 300 yards, nobody would own a driver. You'd throw them away. There's no point in having those clubs."

On the line from Vegas: Bills in strange role as repeat favorites

By Tim Graham

The Buffalo Bills didn't project to be betting favorites much this year, if at all.

Now they're on a little streak.

The Bills were favorites for the first time two weeks ago, albeit by one point against the New York Jets, and come out of their bye favored again Sunday versus the Atlanta Falcons in Toronto.

The Bills have been favored in consecutive games only three times since the 2009 season began. The last time they were favored three straight games was in 2008, when they gave points to four opponents in a row.

Depending on what happens this weekend, there's a possibility the Bills could be favored again next week at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the week after that at the Jacksonville Jaguars.

How about that?

The betting public doesn't quite believe it either. The Bills opened as 3.5-point favorites over the Falcons. That quickly was bet down to a field goal as Falcons money came in.

"This is getting into scary territory, where you get some hope and you're afraid to think about the Bills playing good," Las Vegas handicapper Joel Staniszewski said. The Buffalo State grad is a diehard Bills fan.

"You know the Falcons are a good team, and the 2-9 record doesn't match their talent level. But this is the prime game for the Bills to show if they're really turning the corner or not."

Some trends to consider:

  • Atlanta is 1-4 against the spread and 0-5 straight up over its past five games.
  • Atlanta is winless on the road.
  • Buffalo is 6-1 against the spread over its past seven home games.
  • Buffalo is 4-0 against the spread over its past four home games versus a team with a losing record.
  • Buffalo is 1-3-1 against the spread in its five Toronto games.

Oddsmakers consider the Rogers Centre a home venue for the Bills and not a neutral site despite the dispassionate atmosphere we've seen since the series began.

"It won't be a great home atmosphere, but you expect the Bills to do well here," Staniszewski said. "It's still a longer trip for Atlanta, and for Buffalo it's not that far."

But this will be a new stadium for Bills rookie quarterback EJ Manuel, who hasn't won away from Ralph Wilson Stadium in three starts. And the Bills proved against the Jets they can play well in cold and windy weather, while the Falcons are a dome team.

"You're giving up that advantage you want at The Ralph," Staniszewski said. "When you go into a dome, you lose something."

Buffalo has been favored in Toronto once before, the obliteration of Washington in 2011. That's also the only time Buffalo has covered in Toronto.

Kyle Williams questionable for Falcons with lower back spasms

By Mark Gaughan

Buffalo Bills defensive tackle Kyle Williams sat out practice today due to a sore lower back and is listed as questionable for Sunday's game against the Atlanta Falcons in Toronto.

Williams encountered spasms in his lower back as soon as he got out of bed today. He said he plans to get aggressive therapy over the next two days and was hopeful of being able to face Atlanta.

"It popped up, low back," Bills coach Doug Marrone said. "Those things are tough. I've been through those things before. I had a player when I was in New York, during a walk-through, just went down to get in his stance and his back locked up. You never know with those things, so I really don't know."

Other than Williams, the Bills are in good health for the game.

If WIlliams can't play, it would mean bigger roles for defensive tackles Corbin Bryant and Stefan Charles. Atlanta ranks 31st in the NFL in rushing.

The Falcons' top back, Steven Jackson, missed the better part of six games with a hamstring problem. His season rushing high was 77 yards in the season opener. He rushed for 63 yards on 16 carries against New Orleans last week.

Replay live chat: Inside the NFL with Mark Gaughan

Doug Marrone tries to cut Toronto negativity off at the pass

By Mark Gaughan

Buffalo Bills coach Doug Marrone made it clear today he doesn't want himself or his players to get caught up in talking about all the ways a game in Toronto isn't as advantageous to the team as a game in Orchard Park.

Marrone acknowledged the obvious; he prefers the atmosphere advantage the team has at Ralph Wilson Stadium. He suggested he's heard good things about the quality of the artificial turf in Rogers Centre this year. (There have been complaints about its quality in past years.) When he fielded a question about the quality of the turf and the lighting (which also isn't great) in the Toronto dome, he gave reporters the message he gave to his players.

"One of the things that I wanted to do and one of my goals during the week was there's been a lot that gets pointed out in this game," Marrone said. "When you look back at how we've performed up there, we have not performed well up there.

"I went back and did a little research. We're minus-9 in turnovers. We've only had the lead at halftime in one of the games. There's a lot of poor things that we as a football team have done.

"What I looked at is I try to make sure when I spoke to the team to avoid whatever people want to say, whether it be the field, whether you're playing indoors, whether it's an away game there. Hey, that's not who we are. That's not what our core is. Our core is to go up there and win. I tried to address that early to try to get that out of our minds."

Buffalo 1-4 in Toronto. Buffalo lost to Seattle last year, 50-17. The lone win was in 2011, 23-0 over Washington.

Bills playoff odds are ozone-thin

By Tim Graham

The Buffalo Bills still are in the playoff picture despite being 4-7.

"That can get you some excited feelings," Bills center and captain Eric Woods said.

"But when that happens you kind of have to look in the mirror and say, 'We have four wins at this point, and we have a long way to go.' "

A loooooooooooooong way to go.

Statistics show passengers have a better chance to survive a plane crash at 4 percent than the Bills have to make the playoffs this year.

You have about the same odds of flipping a coin and having it land on the same side five times in a row. Go ahead. Give that a try. I'm going to run to the dry cleaner and pick up some stuff at the grocery store and come be back after I catch a fish off Strawberry Island. Take your time.

Analytics site calculates the Bills' postseason chances at 3 percent.'s analysis pegs the Bills' hopes at 2.1 percent. calculates that Buffalo has almost the same chance (1.5 percent) of finishing with a record poor enough for a top-three draft choice that of reaching the postseason.

While many scoreboard watchers came away with the feeling the Bills' playoff probability improved during their bye week, the numbers don't agree. had the Bills at 3.9 percent, while listed them at 4.1 percent entering last week's games.

Six teams from each conference qualify for the postseason. Both sites give the Denver Broncos, New England Patriots and Kansas City Chiefs better than a 99 percent chance.

The sites differ slightly on the Indianapolis Colts and Cincinnati Bengals, but their numbers are over 92 percent.

For the last spot, we see a steep drop. has the Tennessee Titans in a dead heat with the Miami Dolphins for the sixth seed at 26 percent. The Baltimore Ravens are next 22.2 percent, followed by the Pittsburgh Steelers at 21.6 percent. has the Steelers' probability slotted sixth at 38 percent, with the Titans next at 13.9 percent.

Matt Ryan makes appeal to Toronto's Falcons fans

By Mark Gaughan

A smorgasboard of NFL jerseys usually are represented when the Buffalo Bills play in Toronto's Rogers Centre. Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan isn't sure what to expect from the fans on Sunday but hopes he sees some friendly shirts.

Asked about his expectations for the crowd, Ryan told Buffalo-area reporters by phone today: "Yeah, you know what, we'll anticipate going into it where it's going to be really loud and difficult for us to communicate, and then obviously adjust if it's different. But I'm hoping our fans show up. I'm hoping we've got a bunch of supporters up in Toronto and that they show up this weekend and are pulling for us.”

Ryan on whether the Falcons, a dome team, are catching a break from the NFL schedule makers:

"Considering the weather you guys are getting, I'd say we're both catching a break. I think obviously playing in a dome this time of year, late in the year, that's an advantage for both offenses, because it can be difficult to go out there and play when it's windy and cold and you're either getting hail or snow or whatever. So I think both offenses, it cuts you a little bit of a break."

Video: Bills roundtable with Skurski, Sullivan, Gaughan and Graham

News Sports Reporters Jay Skurski, Jerry Sullivan, Mark Gaughan and Tim Graham talk about the Bills in advance of Sunday's game in Toronto against the Falcons.












25 years ago, the Bills clinched AFC East, and 'Fandemonium' erupted

Scott Norwood
Scott Norwood, shown in a 1991 Buffalo News photo, kicked a field goal from 30 yards in OT to clinch the Bills' AFC East title in 1988.

It was Thanksgiving week 1988, 25 years ago. After seven non-championship years - including a pair of 2-14 seasons - the Buffalo Bills clinched the Eastern Division crown in the AFC with a 9-6 overtime win over the New York Jets. It was time for a town that has been knocked down and bad-mouthed to jump off the mat and proclaim its victory. "What do they call it -- Pandemonium?" linebacker Darryl Talley asked later. "This was fan-demonium. It was so much fun."

Here, from The Buffalo News archives, are the stories about that game: 

Nov. 21, 1988: Norwood's OT goal is first step as Bills get foot in playoff door

Nov. 21, 1988 Bills touch off 'fan-demonium'

Nov. 21, 1988: Vic Carucci: Celebration by fans 'amazing to see'

Nov. 21, 1988: Larry Felser: When Bills say jump, Fred asks how high?

Nov. 21, 1988: Monday billboard

Nov. 21, 1988: Bills pay physical price for clinching AFC East

Nov. 22, 1988: Editorial: Congratulations, Bills. We're all talking proud

Nov. 20, 1988: Game preview: Bills go after the clincher against the Jets

Nov. 19, 1988: Eyes of world are following Bills' success

How the local fared: Week 12

By Jay Skurski

Our weekly rundown on the Press Coverage blog of the players from Western New York (along with the University at Buffalo) currently in the NFL:

Steven Means: The Buffalo native and Grover Cleveland and University at Buffalo product -- a rookie defensive end with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers -- was inactive for his team's 24-21 victory over the Detroit Lions.

Mike Williams: The Tampa Bay receiver -- a Buffalo native and Riverside product --  finished his season with 22 catches for 216 yards and two touchdowns. He was placed on injured reserve because of a torn hamstring on Oct. 28.

James Starks: The Green Bay Packers running back, a Niagara Falls and University at Buffalo product, carried three times for 37 yards in a 26-26 tie against the Minnesota Vikings. Starks also caught one pass for minus-5 yards, playing eight offensive snaps (9 percent) and another eight on special teams (21 percent).

J.C. Tretter: The Akron product, a fourth-round draft pick of the Packers in April, is on the team’s physically unable to perform list after he broke his ankle in May. He is eligible to come off the list and begin practicing. The team then must decide within three weeks to activate him to the 53-man roster or put him on injured reserve for the season.

Rob Gronkowski: Gronkowski had seven catches for 90 yards and a touchdown in the Patriots' 34-31 overtime victory against the Denver Broncos on Sunday Night Football. For the first time this season, he appeared in 100 percent of the offensive snaps (87 in total) for the Patriots.

Brett Kern: The Grand Island native punted four times for 163 yards for the Tennessee Titans in a 23-19 win at Oakland. He had a net average of 29 yards on the punts, with one downed inside the 20 and two returned for a total of 18 yards.

Corey Graham: The Baltimore Ravens' cornerback, a Buffalo native and Turner/Carroll product, had two interceptions and defended three passes during Baltimore's 19-3 victory over the New York Jets. Graham played 36 defensive snaps (63 percent) and another 17 (61 percent) on special teams. Graham defended three passes and made one tackle in the win.

Note: Local players Dan Gronkowski, Chris Gronkowski, Jeremy Kelley, Naaman Roosevelt and Doug Worthington are currently free agents. 

UB players

Josh Thomas: Thomas recorded his first career interception for the Panthers in a 20-16 victory over the Miami Dolphins. He played 13 defensive snaps (21 percent) and another 21 snaps on special teams (66 percent), making two special teams tackles.

Trevor Scott: Scott was released by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers prior to the team's 31-13 loss to Carolina in Week Eight. He had played in four games with the Bucs, making three tackles.

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About Press Coverage

Tim Graham

Tim Graham

Tim Graham returned to The Buffalo News in 2011 after covering the NFL for three years at ESPN and for one year at the Palm Beach Post. Before that, the Cleveland native spent seven seasons on the Buffalo Sabres beat for The News and was president of the Boxing Writers Association of America.

@ByTimGraham |

Mark Gaughan

Mark Gaughan

Buffalo native Mark Gaughan started working at The News in 1980 and has been covering the Bills exclusively since 1992. He is a former president of the Pro Football Writers of America, and he is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee.

@gggaughan |

Jay Skurski

Jay Skurski

Jay Skurski joined The News in January 2009. The Lewiston native attended St. Francis High School before graduating from the University of South Florida. He writes a weekly Fantasy column in addition to his beat writing duties.

@JaySkurski |