John Wendling won't have many cracks at Ellis Hobbs anymore. Not after the New England Patriots cornerback was shipped to the Philadelphia Eagles on draft weekend. Most people know Hobbs as the NFL's second-best kick returner or as the starting cornerback.
The Buffalo Bills' safety is going to miss those twice-a-year battles against Hobbs on punt coverage. On Wendling's first-ever demo as gunner, Hobbs rag-dolled him. A mini rivalry bloomed.
"He just took it to me," Wendling said in a telephone interview. "So ever since then, whenever I get a chance to go against him, that was a big deal. I always had a little chip on my shoulder from that first time."
Such is the life of a gunner. Special teams may not be more important to any other team in the league. The Bills finished first in the Dallas Morning News' annual special teams' rankings in 2008 – the third time in the last five years. And while guys like Leodis McKelvin and Roscoe Parrish are the torch-bearers for such a distinction, John Wendling's roll-up-your-sleeves job may be just as important. As a gunner on Buffalo's punt coverage unit, he faces ruthless double-teams every Sunday.
While the Wyoming product hasn't played much defense over his first two years in the league, he has quickly become a core special teams player. Sure, beating out Ko Simpson as Buffalo's starting free safety would be nice. But Wendling understands where his true value lies, for now.
"I'd love an opportunity to play safety, but I also realize that my role right now is as a backup," Wendling said. "I have to give it all I got on special teams and be ready for that opportunity on defense when it does come. I just have to be prepared for it really."
It's one play. One fight-to-the-whistle, gladiator-style test of will that often leaves gunners eating dirt on the sideline. Or at The Ralph, small black pellets. Officials rarely flag the Rated-R behavior that rages along the sidelines of punt returns. Like an unchaperoned senior trip.
Wendling relishes such a job description, relishes being a one-man spear down the sideline. In Week One last year, his point-blank stuff on Seneca Wallace stopped what could've been a game-changing return. He finished with 13 tackles on the season.
"What I love about it most is going out there and seeing two guys trying to stop you from what you have to do," he said. "It's fun to go out there. It's one play to go all out. Get down the field and use your speed, use your athleticism. Get from Point A to Point B the quickest way possible."
John Wendling made several big stops on Buffalo's punt coverage last year.
During the week, Wendling said that the Bills' gunners practice acute techniques. Different angles and approaches are taught by special teams coach Bobby April. But as Wendling said, "when it comes to gamedays, you can't think too much." Any practiced shimmy to elude the double team is often thrown out the window. This is a test of brawn, not brains. Even if Wendling does have a handful of go-to moves.
"I have a few things in my pocket but you see the same guys five or six times so you really can't do the same things," he said. "You have to mix it up every play. Most of it, I've found, is just going out there and exploding and playing off instincts more than anything.
"It's just reacting and going 100 miles an hour."
Wendling is wired to be Buffalo's kamikaze on punt coverage.
Most people know him for his leap of faith that spread like wildfire on YouTube. A clip of Wendling jumping over 66-inch hurdle has nearly 500,000 hits. An elite hurdler on the track and field team in high school, Wendling planned on pursuing a track career. But those hopes poofed when he tore up his ankle as a senior in high school.
As a youngster, he played every sport possible and he began to realize that his athleticism was a "gift." In his driveway, Wendling lowered his basketball hoop down to eight feet to dunk. Gradually, he moved it up. Closer and closer to 10 feet. Wendling can't remember when his first dunk was, only that it was much earlier than his peers. On the high school team, he "couldn't dribble much or shoot the best," but was always good for the crowd-pleasing slam.
So now the adrenaline is channeled and released on Buffalo's No. 1 special teams unit. Wendling works closely with fellow gunner Justin Jenkins.
"We bounce pointers off each other and always talk about what they're doing," he said. "We have a really friendly relationship and love to go out there and compete and just make plays. We need to help the team with field position and everything."
He might need to stick to this role again after a surprise pick in this year's draft. Wendling didn't have much reaction to the Bills taking Oregon's Jairus Byrd in the second round this year. The Bills said they plan on moving Byrd to safety, where his ball-hawking (see: 17 picks in college) could help him unseat Simpson as the starter and further bump Wendling down the totem pole.
Wendling tried jumping over the entire line in Toronto against Pittsburgh.
But for Wendling, who many scouts considered a second-round talent two years ago, the pick was not be overly devastating.
"I can't really worry about those types of things – who they bring in," Wendling said. "I just need to do what I can do to get myself ready for a role on this team."
Of course, he'd love to let his athleticism shine on defense. Part of the reason he's been used sparingly over two years has been crowded competition in the secondary. The likes of Coy Wire, Jim Leonhard, Bryan Scott, George Wilson have all vied for snaps behind starters Donte Whitner and Ko Simpson. The window for big plays has been small. Byrd's presence continues this trend. So naturally, Wendling is excited that the Bills have five exhibition games scheduled instead of four this summer.
More chances to let his inner-hurdler bust out.
"It's always been difficult for me to get a lot of reps out there so that's been my biggest thing, just getting a feel for the game," Wendling said. "Getting out there and going off instincts instead of thinking too much."
As the gunner, instincts are at a premium. It's a game within the game that takes on a life of its own. After multiple rounds of body blows, Wendling usually talks with his counterparts – like Hobbs – after the game.
A tap on a helmet of mutual respect and a few words. It's not a glamorous, but Wendling's role on the Bills is critical.
"We want to finish as the best special teams unit this year – taking it to new level after finishing first last year."