The Dallas Cowboys And Their Punt Returner Problem


After the surprisingly successful 2014 season, the Dallas Cowboys were tasked with replacing key players who left for their big pay-day. While running back DeMarco Murray is the first person that comes to mind after he left the ‘Boys for the Philadelphia Eagles, another key player also left to play for a division rival– Dwayne Harris.

Harris traded Dallas for New York, joining the Giants after a down year in 2014. Harris failed to hit paydirt in the punting game during 2014, staying out of the endzone for the first time since his rookie campaign. Harris also saw a sharp decline in his yards per return, netting 9.2 yards per return, down from 12.8 in the previous season.

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The former Dallas return-man seemed to have contracted a case of “fumble-itus” sometime last season as well, setting a career high in fumbles, totaling four on the year.

Now, it may be easy to remember the bad times– just as it is after any “breakup”– but Harris gave the Cowboys the best years of his life and put together some impressive numbers to boot.

Before 2014, Harris produced two very successful seasons fielding punts for Big D. Harris found the endzone in both 2012 and 2013. He also consistently won the field position battle, netting 16.1 and 12.8 yards per return in these respective seasons.

It’s hard to put returner stats into perspective– fans simply do not pay mind to the position as they do with quarterbacks, skill position players, and pass rushers. For the sake of comparison and clarity, let’s compare Harris to two of the greatest to ever field a punt– Devin Hester and Deion Sanders.

Hester and Sanders were much larger threats to Harris to take a return all the way– no one will dispute that. Harris’ two return touchdowns pale in comparison to Deion’s six and Hester’s 14.

Where the three are similar is in the consistent yardage that they’ve netted their teams. Harris’ 11.1 yards per return on his career is not a far cry from Hester (12.3) or Sanders (10.4). Whether Harris can continue this and create sustained success is yet to be determined after the first four years of his career, but, frankly, it is no longer the Cowboys’ concern.

Dallas is now tasked with replacing their ex-returner, and will likely turn to their returning veterans to fill the void rather than a rookie or free agent.

In a conference call with season-ticket holders, Cowboys Vice President, Stephen Jones suggested that returns may come on a “committee” basis in 2015, but he pointed out a surprising name to join the stable of return-men. Jones stated,

"“We think Cole Beasley is what we call a safe catcher of punts. He can do that, he’s done it for us. He’ll probably be first in line. Then we have a guy in Dez Bryant who had quite a career returning punts at Oklahoma State. When we need a big play, with him maturing as a player, it wouldn’t be out of the question to see him in some key situations when we need him back there.”"

Beasley has never been much of a return man and never has received much work at the position, but Bryant was once a dazzling returner at Oklahoma State. Dez produced 19.6 yards per return and three touchdowns when he wore an orange and white Cowboys uniform.

Compare him to a collegiate Devin Hester and Dez outshined him as well, as Hester put up an impressive 15.6 yards per return and four touchdowns.

A wildcard in the mix is rookie free agent, Lucky Whitehead, out of Florida Atlantic. Whitehead has blazing speed, clocking a 4.39 40 yard dash and has been a dynamic returner in the past for the Owls. With just one consistent season returning punts, Whitehead gained nearly ¼ of the field as a returner, netting 24.7 yard per return during the 2014 season.

The Cowboys were certainly hurt by the departure of Dwayne Harris, but as Head Coach, Jason Garrett, would say– next man up.

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