Former scapegoat April earns vindication
By Bryan Burwell
Of the Post-Dispatch
Sunday, Nov. 21 2004
ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. - It's best that you no longer get either too excited or too
upset about this up-one-minute, down-the-next season of the St. Louis Rams
unless you have some demented fascination with excruciating headaches or
The smartest thing you can do is to simply avoid any deep and everlasting
emotional investment in this schizoid team because the Rams are no different
from the rest of this menagerie of nondescript NFL teams that have muddled up
the middle of the NFL standings and can't decide whether they're inconsistent
pretenders or out-and-out frauds.
Another week has gone by, and the best we can say about the 5-5 Rams is that
they are no better than the Seattle Seahawks and no worse than the Miami
Dolphins. But we still don't know if they are a good team playing
inconsistently or a painfully average team wallowing in mediocrity.
But after witnessing another shameful beating at the hands of another lowly AFC
team - a sound and thorough 37-17 trouncing by the Buffalo Bills - we at least
know the answer to the age-old question that has been endlessly taxing our
Q: Who's to blame for why the Rams stink so much on special teams?
A: It sure isn't Bobby April.
For the past three years, conventional wisdom was that the blame for the sorry
state of Rams special teams should be heaped on the aforementioned Mr. April.
But last winter, April was kicked to the curb by head coach Mike Martz - and to
rousing public support - and we all figured new blood would come in and change
Now that April is employed as the Bills' special teams boss, he once again
looks like his former mastermind self. And on Sunday inside Ralph Wilson
Stadium, April's special teams just kicked the stuffing out of the Rams, the
ultimate retribution for an unjustly persecuted man.
With the score tied 17-17 in the third quarter, we got graphic exposure of the
Rams' failings - and stunning vindication of April's coaching strengths in
about 2 1/2 earth-shaking minutes.
A bad 39-yard Rams punt (and lousy coverage) turned into a 53-yard punt return
by Buffalo's Jonathan Smith that set up a go-ahead TD one play later to put the
Bills up 24-17. Next series, Sean Landeta punted a 54-yarder with no
discernible hang time, and Nate Clements returned the ball 86 yards for a TD
and a 31-17 lead.
On the kickoff, April caught the Rams by surprise, calling for a high, short
kick directly to defensive end Erik Flowers, who looked exactly like you'd
expect a defensive end to look trying to retrieve a kickoff. When Flowers
muffed the ball, the Bills recovered. And in a span of 2 minutes 36 seconds,
three critical special teams gaffes by the Rams - and three special teams
standouts by the Bills - ended this game for all intents and purposes.
"Special teams were pitiful, just pitiful - again," a subdued Martz said. "I
really don't know what to do at this point. I'm at wit's end."
When someone asked him why April was suddenly so successful in Buffalo after so
many troubled days in St. Louis, Martz sort of snarled a bit.
"They just have good people," he said.
"Maybe," he said, his voice dripping in sarcasm, "that's the secret."
Through the first nine weeks of the season, the Bills' special teams have been
one of the few places anyone can look to as a positive. They excel in kickoff
and punt coverage (their average of 17.6 yards allowed on kickoffs is No. 1 in
the league). They have two dangerous punt return men with the speed and talent
to go all the way in Clements (ranked 12th in the NFL) and Smith, who has
returned only four punts all season - one for a 70-yard score - and an
eye-popping 33-yard average per return.
I found April standing near the door of the Bills' locker room afterwards and
asked him pointblank why he was so successful before he arrived in St. Louis,
successful again after leaving St. Louis, but unable to be a success with the
"What's the difference?" I wondered.
"Oh, I'm not going to go there," April said.
As April talked, several coaches and players walked by. Jonas Jennings, the
Bills' 6-foot-3, 325-pound offensive tackle, smiled as he saw April surrounded
by several cameras and notepads.
"Ooooooh, look at the superstar," Jennings cackled. "Well awwright!"
I stood beside April for nearly a half-hour, listening to various people parade
up to him asking questions, and he never took a shot at Martz or the Rams. In
fact, he went out of his way to graciously avoid any hint of blasting his
So finally I focused on what he did say, rather than what he didn't.
"I have great players here," April kept repeating whenever anyone asked a
question. "Nate (Clements) and (Smith) are incredible athletes. You know what
kind of guys I've had returning kicks for me in my career? The first two guys I
had in the NFL were Deion Sanders and Rod Woodson. Good players make you look
So read between the lines, folks. The Rams have never put their best people -
or a big emphasis - on special teams play, and it continues to show. It doesn't
matter if it's Larry Pasquale, Bobby April or Mike Stock standing on the
sidelines. If the head coach isn't going to place a premium on finding, keeping
and developing weapons of mass destruction on punts and kickoffs, the revolving
door of special teams coaches will continue and the subpar play will, too.