The Dallas Cowboys looked better in last Sunday’s loss to the Steelers than they have in most of their games this season, including the two wins. Particularly strong was the special teams play; John Fassel’s group has been improving all year and was a standout performer against Pittsburgh.
From Greg Zuerlein’s perfect 4/4 day on field goals, Rico Dowdle’s big kickoff return, or the trick play with Cedrick Wilson tossing it back to C.J. Goodwin, special teams accounted for most of Dallas’ points and big plays in the game.
One of the most glaring needs for change from the 2019 season was an upgrade at special teams. After solid years under Rich Bisaccia, the two seasons with Keith O’Quinn as Special Teams Coordinator were a disaster.
With the sweeping changes to the Cowboys’ coaching staff was that needed change on special teams. John Fassel, one of the most respected “gurus” of special teams in the NFL, was added to Mike McCarthy’s staff this offseason.
Along with Fassel came Greg Zuerlein, his longtime kicker with the Rams. This led to the controversial decision to release Kai Forbath, who was perfect for the Cowboys after he replaced Brett Maher in 2019.
Fassel’s reputation was the only thing we had to lean on when Dallas didn’t give Zuerlein any competition in training camp. And then “Greg the Leg” missed his first field goal of the year, albeit a 53-yarder, in the season opener. Even his makes looked shaky, edging perilously close to the right goalpost.
Not helping matters was Tony Pollard’s poor handling of kick return duties. A renowned return man in college, Pollard looked like he’d never done the job before earlier this year and caused several field position issues for the Cowboys.
Fassel and Zuerlein got some redemption in Week 2 with the miraculous onside kick that helped Dallas make an improbable comeback. And since that highlight moment, special teams play has improved on the whole as the season’s gone along.
There have still been warts along the way. It took the team too long to shelve Chris Jones after the punter struggled all year. Injury or not, something needed to change much sooner than it did. But how much of that can be laid at Fassel’s feet over the team’s general management is hard to assume.
Overall we’ve seen steady improvement from all facets of special teams. While neither has scored a touchdown, Dallas’ kickoff return team is ranked 7th in average yardage and the punt returners are currently 12th. And while the punts themselves haven’t been going too far, the punt team has done a good job of containing opposing returners; 8th-best in punt return average so far this year.
Zuerlein’s kicking had steadily improved as well. He’s made 17-of-19 since that first miss and his kicks are now consistently going down the center of the uprights. All three of his misses this year have been from the 50+ range.
The creativity we saw last week with the Cedrick Wilson pass to C.J. Goodwin has been the most dazzling; something we never got even during the Rich Bisaccia days. This is what Fassel’s reputation is built on and why McCarthy made him part of his staff.
The Cowboys are going to need to be superior in these underrated areas of the game if they want victories in 2020. They’re stuck with Andy Dalton or worse at quarterback the rest of the way and probably won’t be lighting up the scoreboard anytime soon.
No, it will take the special teams performance we saw against Pittsburgh, from the field-goal perfection to the gutsy, innovative play calls, for the Cowboys to pull off some upsets and make something of this season.
Thankfully, it appears John Fassel is the right man for the job after all.