Coming off a disastrous loss like the game in Seattle it’s only natural to look for a scapegoat. Whether you’re Jerry Jones, Jason Garrett, or a just fan of the Dallas Cowboys, you would rather identify a singular problem you can fix quickly rather than a multitude of issues which take time. An article I wrote on Monday walked that line and identified “A Will to Win” is what is missing from this team. While I certainly stand by this, that doesn’t mean I don’t think the Cowboys have other issues. One of those issues reared its ugly head again on Sunday: Special Teams
The coach of Special Teams is fan-favorite, Joe DeCamillis. Joe earned everyone’s love and respect in 2009 when the roof of the Cowboys practice facility collapsed, essentially breaking his neck. Technically he suffered a fractured cervical vertebrae which required surgery and the use of a painful back brace. Joe persevered through this injury and was back to work in nine days. Truly amazing determination that deserves all of our respect. But the question to ask is, despite our seemingly positive personal feeling towards Joe, how has he done as Special Teams coach?
It should be said that a special teams coach gets very few specialists to work with. Typical specialists include a kicker, a punter, and a long snapper. The Cowboys specifically tend to provide this coach an ace on the coverage teams. The Cowboys currently have Dan Bailey as the kicker, Chris Jones as the punter, and LP Ladouceur as the long snapper. The current ace on the Cowboys is thought to be Danny McCray as his safety play alone wouldn’t be enough for him to occupy a roster spot. The remainder of special teams is occupied by mostly backup, but sometimes starting, offensive and defensive players.
Dan Bailey has held this job since last year. Before Dan the spot was held by the forgettable David Buehler. The special teams coach is responsible for all aspects of special teams but each of those aspects to varying degrees. The actual kicking and punting are usually managed by an assistant coach/kicking specialist. The current kicking coach is none other than Chris Boniol. Chris has had mixed results. The reliable Dan Bailey has been an excellent kicker while the inconsistent David Buehler is hardly missed.
It’s difficult to place blame or praise on DeCamillis for either of these guys as most of the technique in kicking is the responsibility of the kicking coach. Besides that, one of the biggest factors in being a successful kicker in the NFL has more to do with being good under pressure and less to do with actual talent. Let’s face it, by the time a kicker even tries out for an NFL team he’s proven he has talent. The biggest question is if he can do it under pressure. Kicking in the NFL is one of the most stressful and pressure-packed jobs in all of sports. It takes a special guy to do it well. Because of all of this it’s difficult to give Joe a thumbs up or down for anything kicking related.
Chris Jones is the current punter and so far he’s done a fine job given the limited amount of data provided so early in the season. The spot was previously held by Mat McBriar who averaged 45.3 yards per punt ranking fourth in NFL history. Mat wasn’t just a strong leg but also had great touch allowing him to drop it inside the 20 yard line or accurately angle punts to a sideline. He was replaced this offseason due to injury and will go down as one of the best if not the best punter in Cowboy history.
The punter situation is very similar to the kicker in that the Special Teams coach should be free of majority of the credit and blame. The kicking coach teaches technique and handles both the kicker and the punter in most drills. Chris Boniol is also unofficially in charge of their psychological well-being. Kickers aren’t really football players – they are their own kind of animal. Chris knows how they think, the pressure they endure, and how to handle different conditions. Again, it’s tough to link performance directly to Joe here whether good or bad.
The punt and kick returners this year are mainly Felix Jones, Dez Bryant, and Dwayne Harris. With the Felix Jones fumble fresh on everyone’s mind we might as well address it first. The Special Teams coach is solely responsible for teaching punt and kick return technique. If a player doesn’t hold the ball properly or in a secure way, it falls on the coach for not instilling the proper technique. Obviously the blame mainly falls on Felix himself for fumbling but the teacher is usually also responsible for the students’ performance.
Dez Bryant also fumbled Sunday on special teams but his results weren’t as tragic since he recovered his own drop. He should personally assume blame but so should Joe since he is responsible for teaching technique. Joe is in a difficult spot with both of these guys because one is veteran and the other is a budding star who starts on offense. Both are seasoned returners who no doubt are aware of the proper technique, they just didn’t use it. Should it be his fault then?
Theory: If it was a young player who was being developed and was playing for a job, the young player may put more emphasis on using the proper technique. The younger player knows they have less rope than a veteran and therefore plays more conservatively, while a veteran like Dez and Felix know they have a job guaranteed and just want to make the big play.
Whether you agree with the theory or not, you must agree it falls on the coach to properly develop punt and kick returners. Dwayne Harris looks promising but it seems kind of telling the Cowboys have failed to develop a returner other than him and have been forced to rely on starters and/or veterans. Joe is on the hook for this.
Coverage units are probably the most important part of a special teams coach’s job. Finding the right players for the right roles, teaching technique and lane discipline, and blocking assignments are the main elements of those coverage units. Fresh on our minds is the blocked punt that was returned for a touchdown. As always the main blame must fall on the offender himself. In this case it was Dan Connor who didn’t block, but blame must also fall on Joe. If the defense didn’t cover a receiver running deep we would surely blame Rob Ryan wouldn’t we? In fact, we HAVE blamed Ryan for just that. The same blame must go to Joe for Dan not blocking on the punt team.
Statistically speaking the Cowboys haven’t done very well in special teams. According to Football Outsiders Dallas special teams ranked #25 in 2011 (down from #15 in 2010). This ranking looks at all factors like coverage, field goals, and returns. It doesn’t paint a very pretty picture and you can imagine the ranking isn’t looking much better two games into 2012.
Breaking special teams into smaller categories we can see how Dallas ranks in specific special teams stats. Since we are only at week 2 of 2012, we will ignore this year’s numbers and just look at 2011. According to teamrankings.com, in NFL Team Opponent Gross Yards per Successful Punt and NFL Team Opponent Net Yards per Punt Attempt, Dallas ranked dead last (#32) in the NFL last year. Team Punts Got Blocked per Game, Dallas finished #28 and in Field Goal Got Blocked Percentage, Dallas finished #21. As you can see these are not good rankings. This all falls directly on Joe DeCamillis too.
After reviewing all the numbers it appears special teams was (and is) the Dallas Cowboy’s weakest unit. It should be noted special teams practices are few and far between. The head coach is responsible for granting the proper amount of practice time to special teams as the special teams coach can only request more time. Jason Garrett bears responsibility for this.
Based on last year’s numbers alone Coach Joe DeCamillis’ unit was not performing well. This year it doesn’t appear anything has changed. The biggest question is why wasn’t he replaced last year? Someone must not feel the poor special teams’ performance is his fault. Is it Jason? Is it Jerry? Only they know but most people agree, the time to change coaches is in the offseason, not during the season. Everyone seems to love Joe, from the players to the coaches to the fans and to the owner. It’s time for him to earn the love and turn this unit around because this performance just isn’t cutting it.