In this, the third and final installment of the top performers from the 2011 Dallas Cowboys, I’ll take a look at the top players at the special teams positions and give predictions and recommendations on what can be done or improved upon for next season. Let’s crack open the playbook and get to work.
Pat yourselves on the back Cowboys fans, we finally have a kicker. Actually let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves. After the David Buehler experiment from last year, the Cowboys signed Dan Bailey out of Oklahoma State as an undrafted free agent and once he started kicking he never looked back. Buehler has a much stronger leg but it never really translated to an advantage in the kicking game. Now with a year under our belts with the new kickoff rules, we may not need to use a roster spot for Buehler, or any kicker for that matter other than Bailey. Bailey went 32 for 39 on field goals which comes out to be an 86.5% success rate. That put him third in the league in field goals made. Pretty good for a guy that scouts said didn’t have a NFL leg. Bailey was clutch when we needed a game tying/winning field goal. There were exceptions to that, but it’s too painful to talk about, so if you really must know you can read more here. In the end if Bailey can continue to pump ice water through his veins then we’ll be set at the kicker position for some time.
Here’s where the review and recommendations for the special teams unit gets tricky. Mat McBriar’s season ended prematurely when he was placed on injured reserve because of a painful cyst below his left knee that was preventing him from performing on the field. He had successful surgery and expects to be 100 % come summer time. Even with the injury McBriar punted the ball 58 times for a 43.8 yard average, which wasn’t too far off his career average.McBriar has a big, powerful leg and has been a mainstay in Dallas’ special team squad for the last eight years He is a free agent this year and has expresses interest in returning. Considering his pro bowl track record I would resign him. In the end it will probably depend on how “successful” the surgery was, and if he can continue to punt the ball at the same level he has in the past. What would you do if you had to make the call on whether to resign McBriar or not? Kind of a tricky position, as is most when it comes to aging players.
Punt Return/Kick Return Coverage
The coverage unit has always seemed to be competitive since the arrival of Joe DeCamillis as the special team’s coordinator, with a few exceptions. The problem with judging special team units is there are not a lot of numbers to go off of, so it’s hard to get a clear picture of what we have unless you watch every kick/punt, which I’m sure most of you do every year. Anyway here’s a few numbers to wrap your brain around.
The kickoff units allowed 1,114 total return yards on 52 kicks returned which averaged out to be 21.4 yards per return. The longest return against the kick coverage unit was 43 yards and no team scored a touchdown against the unit.
The punt coverage unit allowed 278 total yards to opposing punt returners on 30 returns for a 9.3 average per return. The longest punt return went for 55 yards.
Since this is such a fluid unit week to week and year to year it’s hard to pin down a special teams stud that performs at a top level each year. This year Danny McCray would get my vote as the top coverage player from 2011. He totaled 18 tackles and came in third in the Pro Bowl fan voting. He is projected to continue his solid play as a special team’s coverage player unless he wins a more involved role in the defense for next year.
Dwayne Harris and Felix Jones both had long run backs last season of 51 and 69 yards respectively, as well has being the top two in return yards and average. It was a tough call when it came to selecting the top performer from this unit, but in the end I have to give it to Felix. His 69 yard return against the Arizona Cardinals last year shows us why when he’s healthy and involved in the offense, he is a threat in more than one way. He may not be seeing too many carries in the offense if DeMarco Murry can get back from the broken ankle he sustained last year, but he can be used for more things just carries.
No player that returned a punt for the Cowboys in 2011 produced numbers that would make you sit back and take a deep breath. The longest punt return went for 25 yards, and that was by Kevin Ogletree, who may or may not even be on the roster next season. After much deliberation, (not really) Dez Bryant gets the award for the top punt returner. He was used very sparingly because of his inability to stay healthy when returning kicks. That being said, when he is in the game as a returner he’s pure electricity in a bottle.The best thing for the Cowboys to do is find someone, whether it be in the draft, a free agent, or someone currently on the roster, who can focus mainly on returns and let Dez continue to develop further in the passing game.
Overall there isn’t as much to do with the special teams units as there is to do with the defense and the offense. Like I said before, special teams is a very fluid aspect of the game, so just because you have a great unit one year, doesn’t mean you’ll have the same production the next, and vice-verse. Let’s just hope the 2012 special teams unit will continue to grow and progress, and not be an glaring need that would have to be addressed around this time next year. Here’s hoping.