‘Sunday Morning Special Teams’ is a weekly column divised by yours truly, Greg Forbes. It’s aims are to provide in-depth analysis of all special teams play, career retrospectives, player interviews and knowledge on the latest in the world of the unit itself.
In the third instalment to ‘Sunday Morning Special Teams’, it’s the great Buffalo Bill Steve Tasker’s turn to have his life and career documented. He’s another guy that I unfortunately was not born when his playing days were conducted, but he sure does have a fantastic repertoire behind him. Don’t believe me? Take Fox Sports’ Gus Johnson’s opinion as fact, as he believes that he “was the greatest special teams player of all time.”
With such high praise, how did Tasker rise to become one of the greatest special teamers of all time? Well, it’s time to find out.
Underrated, Under-appreciated And Overlooked
Steve was a small person all throughout his childhood, and life for that matter. That said, the heart of a lion isn’t measured by it’s physical frame, but by that of it’s work ethic and determination to succeed. It’s that tribal, warrior grit and integrity that served Tasker incredibly well throughout his 13-year NFL career, but it was first born at Dodge City Community College in the city of the same name in Kansas back in the 1980’s. After the completion of two campaigns at the school, he transferred to Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois ahead of the 1982 season.
In his freshman season for the Wildcats, Tasker was utilised minimally as a running back. That year, he registered 50 yards on 2 rushing attempts, whilst he caught 1 pass for 19 yards. In addition to his usage in the pass game, he dominated on special teams. This was evidenced by his 410 yards recorded on just 17 kick returns, which produced a 24.1 return yard average. On the other hand, he struggled as a punt returner as he only contributed 129 yards on 16 returns, creating a poor average of 8.1 yards per punt return.
In the following season, Tasker featured in just 2 games of the 1983 campaign, but bounced back in the ensuing year. It was then that he set the record, which still stands today, for average yards per kick return at 24.4 yards. This came off the back of his 14 KR’s for 342 yards. Furthermore, he also improved his production as a punt returner, as he garnered 82 yards on 7 returns, averaging 11.7 yards per attempt.
Whilst Tasker’s ability to perform as a running back or wide receiver was taken into question by the majority of NFL franchises, they could be certain of his quality on special teams. Irrespective of that fact, he fell through the 1985 NFL Draft relentlessly, before being plucked off the board by the Houston Oilers 226th overall.
Finally, someone had taken a chance on his talents, but could he repay his new team?
The Task At Hand
Tasker’s career in Houston was short lived, but it was far from meaningless. As a 23-year old in 1985, he featured in 7 games, within which he was used nonchalantly to say the least, as he only ever caught 2 passes for 19 yards that season. Opposite to his performance as a wideout, Tasker excelled as a returner. With 17 kick returns on the year he amassed 447 yards, averaging a career-best 26.3 yards per return that season. Evidently, his contributions on special teams were well respected, and made for a relatively solid rookie year at the next level.
In his sophomore season as an Oiler, he participated in just 2 games before he was added to the team’s waivers list. As a result of this decision, he was subsequently scooped up by the Buffalo Bills.
Just like that, one franchise and one athlete would create a connection that’d one day be steeped in Upstate New York folklore.
Gunning For Ya’
I must admit, Steve Tasker’s contributions to the NFL and the Bills as a franchise is hard to quantify. This is largely due to the lack of documentation of key statistics, and, of course, his talents at an overlooked position.
That aforementioned position was the ‘Gunner’ on special teams. There, Tasker was at home, despite his leaner stature. Unbelievably, many cited him as being an extremely hard-hitter. That’s right, a guy who was merely 5’9”, 185lbs rose to prominence as one of the hardest hitting tacklers in all of the NFL. In-fact, he was so good at the position that teams used to prepare intensely on stopping Tasker, and Tasker alone.
Bruce DeHaven, an established special teams coach at the time, had the following to say regarding Tasker’s ability.
“He was the first guy I ever saw anybody actually use three guys to try and block him as a gunner on a punt. He forced people to do things that no one had ever done before on special teams,” adding: “I coached for Bill Parcells in Dallas for four years. I remember him talking about whenever we played Buffalo, telling his team, “The first thing we’ve got to do is we’ve got to make sure that we contain Steve Tasker because if we don’t get him blocked, then we’re gonna get beat.”
And he was right.
Over the course of his 12-year career in Buffalo, Tasker blocked 7 punts (to my knowledge, as there are no documented statistics that depict a number of blocked punts, therefore this is based upon film I have witnessed myself), 2 of which were returned for a touchdown by his teammates. Moreover, he was also effective in forcing fumbles on kick/punt returns, as he compiled 9 total forced fumbles in his career (2 in the playoffs, 7 in the regular season). Additionally, he also notched 7 fumble recoveries, 1 of which he garnered in the playoffs.
One of my absolute favourite punt blocks on behalf of Tasker, is this one below:
As evidenced, Tasker’s capability to create game-altering plays were absolutely dynamite in turning a game on its head for his team. Now, whilst his game-changing plays were something truly otherworldly, it must be noted that when he didn’t force a fumble, or block a punt, he was almost certainly the first tackler on any given kickoff/punt return. Of course, he more often than not landed a BIG hit to boot.
I mean, just check out this incredible play, within which he easily dismissed Deion Sanders.
On top of his ability to perform immaculately as a gunner, Tasker was a capable punt/kick returner too. His 32 punt return attempts across his 12 years in Buffalo, saw him rack up 339 yards, whilst he boasted a long return of 47 yards. As a kick returner for Buffalo, he returned the ball 25 times for 465 yards collectively, averaging 18.6 yards per attempt.
No Such Thing As A One Trick Pony
Contrary to popular belief however, he wasn’t just a special teams weapon. Far from it, actually. In his career as a Bill, he was targeted with the ball 85 times, 49 of which he caught. On those receptions, he compiled 760 yards and 9 touchdowns, whilst he averaged 15.3 yards per reception. Alongside his regular season receiving stats, Tasker added 259 yards and a TD on 14 catches throughout the postseason.
As a result of his sheer dominance as a specialist on special teams and a reliable receiving threat when called upon, he was nominated to the Pro Bowl 7 times in his career. Once in 1987, and then every season from 1990 to 1995. He was also named an All-Pro 5 times in his illustrious career, as well as grabbing the 1993 Pro Bowl MVP Award. Making him the first special teams player to ever capture the accolade in NFL History.
Despite never hoisting the Vince Lombardi Trophy, Tasker took to the Super Bowl stage 4 times as part of those wonderful Bills team’s in the early 90’s. Unfortunately, as we all know, those previously alluded to team’s are now synonymous with choking at the final hurdle, as they lost in every trip to the Super Bowl from 1990-1993.
A Legend Forever
I can’t lie – I really want to see Steve Tasker in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He was an absolutely unreal talent back in the 80’s and 90’, as he personified an athlete who did his job VERY WELL and didn’t complain one bit.
Sure, I wasn’t lucky enough to witness him take the field live back in the day, but one thing I understand for certain is how ferocious an athlete he truly was. His speed, coupled with raw athleticism and channelled aggression, was an unbeatable combination every single game. Although the likelihood of him entering Canton, Ohio, remains slim, I sure hope he gets the recognition that he deserves some day. Not only was Tasker arguably the first athlete to become a “star” on special teams, but he carried the flag for honest, hard working guy’s who wanted to make it in the big leagues. And you can’t fault the man for that.
Credits – sports-reference.com (collegiate statistics, pro-football-reference.com (NFL statistics), YouTube, profootballweekly.com.