Kickoffs are under fire in the NFL, with the league threatening to eliminate them in the name of player safety. Well, before it does, let me nominate a kickoff hero for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Steve Tasker, come on down.
The former Buffalo Bills’ star is no stranger to this conversation. His former head coach, Marv Levy, has lobbied on his behalf. So has his former teammate, quarterback Jim Kelly. Both are in the Hall of Fame, and both believe Tasker should join them.
Me? I’m not so sure. But I do believe voters should hear his case, and so far that hasn’t happened. OK, so he’s been a semifinalist six times, but he hasn’t been there since 2013. And with selectors more willing to consider special-teams standouts lately, frankly, I don’t get it.
Mostly because Steve Tasker was more than a standout. He was a weapon. So small (5-feet-9) he could be … and was … mistaken for a ballboy, Tasker was an extraordinary gunner who was fast, forced fumbles, made tackles and created field positions that helped launch the Buffalo Bills to four consecutive Super Bowls.
But that’s not all. As a backup wide receiver, he made contributions in more traditional roles, too — catching five passes for 108 yards in Buffalo’s 1996 playoff win vs. Miami and returning a kickoff 67 yards in a 1994 playoff game against the Raiders. In short, he did almost everything –the first special-teams star who was not an elite punt or kick returner, yet was so accomplished that some people call him the greatest special-teams player ever.
I don’t know about that. But I do know that he was chosen to the Pro Bowl seven times, was a five-time first-team All-Pro and is the only special teams player named MVP of the Pro Bowl when he had four tackles, forced a fumble and blocked a field goal. I also know he was named to the Bills’ Wall of Fame.
So the guy must have been something extraordinary … and he was.
“There’s not a special teamer in history that performed like Steve Tasker on our team,” Levy told the Talk of Fame Network. “Bill Parcells once told me, ‘We had to prepare harder for him than we did Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas, Bruce Smith, any of them. Steve Tasker belongs in the Hall of Fame. (Special teams) are one-third of the game.”
Except you’d never know it by the Hall’s roll call. Until Ray Guy was elected in 2014, only one specialist — kicker Jan Stenerud — was enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s first 50 years. Then Guy and all-time scoring leader Morten Andersen came along, were elected within four years of each other and critics wondered if voters had gone soft on NFL special teamers.
Uh, no, they haven’t. And the evidence is that not only Steve Tasker can’t make it to the floor for discussion; neither can Brian Mitchell or Billy “White Shoes’ Johnson, the only player on the NFL’s 75th anniversary team not in Canton. Any guess what position he played? If you answered, “kick returner,” go to the head of the class.
Of the three specialists in the Hall, it is Guy who should help Tasker’s candidacy the most. The reason: Like Tasker, he was more than a talented player. He, too, was a weapon who tilted the field with his punts, created field position and was a difference maker.
One difference: He had numbers, like gross and net punting averages and kicks inside the 10 and 20, that you could measure against his peers. With Tasker, the numbers are more arcane and about as well known as they are available. If you don’t believe me, tell me how many special-teams tackles Matthew Slater had last year for New England.
You can’t. And that’s the problem. Nobody really knows how to evaluate these guys.
“(Steve Tasker) created a lot of advantages for the Bills just by field position by what he did,” Houston special teams coach Brad Seely once said. “So there’s a guy who, to me, is extremely worthy of consideration for the Pro Football Hall of Fame because he was a difference maker in that area. And that’s what the Hall of Fame is supposed to be about.”
Agreed. But tell that to Steve Tasker.