Yesterday I awarded mid-season game balls to the assistants. Today, I'm singling out Joe DeCamillis as the coordinator of the mid-season. No slights are intended to Wade Phillips and Jason Garrett, who have their units on the upswing, but the degree of improvement on the special teams units has been too extreme to overlook.
Sadly, DeCamillis had a low standard to outperform. Bruce Read's 08 groups were bottom third or bottom quarter in almost all categories. They lost the Cardinals game, surrendering a kickoff return touchdown on the game's first play and a blocked punt touchdown on the final snap. They allowed crippling, game-changing returns at critical times. A botched 3rd quarter punt woke up a slumbering Steelers team and started their 4th quarter comeback.
Read's guys always appeared to play defensively, worried about blowing a lane assignment or taking a penalty. Joe D's guys have regained the swagger last seen in Joe Avezzano's heyday.
Let's begin the appraisal with a review of last year's red zone performance. The Cowboys defense gave up touchdowns less frequently than it did in the 13-3 '07 season. It nevertheless gave up a lot of points, allowing a league worst 26 red zone field goals. The team's awful kickoff and punt coverage groups left opponents numerous short fields. They didn't get seven points that often, but it didn't take much to claim three points.
The Cowboys missed Mat McBriar, whose foot was broken on that blocked punt in Arizona. Sam Paulescu's gross punting average was 41.8 yards and the average return was 6.6 yards per punt. This year, McBriar's net is 41.8, meaning the Cowboys opponents are starting almost seven yards farther away from the end zone than they were last year.
That number doesn't describe McBriar's full value. He has 20 punts downed inside the 20 this season, ranking 3rd overall. What's more, he has just one touchback, meaning his directional kicks are finding either the sideline or the arms of his gunners. No team has been more effective at pinning opponents inside their red zone than the Cowboys.
Dallas has seen a similar improvement with kickoff coverage. The team did not have a single touchback last year,the only team without at least one. New kickoff maven David Buehler has seventeen already. The opponents average starting spot is the 24. Last year, it was just a hair inside the 30.
Joe's guys are DeCamillisizing the enemy on both punts and kickoffs, giving them 75 to 80 yard field to traverse. Those long fields have made a significant difference. The '08 team was much better in yardage rankings compared to this year's team (299 ypg for the '08 D through eight games, versus 337 ypg this year) yet this year's defense is much better in scoring (23.0 ppg. in '08 compared to 19.0 this year). This year's number, as I noted last week, has been inflated by seven Dallas turnovers inside its own 30 (average starting spot, the Cowboys' 18) which have been converted into 41 points, an average of 5.1 points per contest.
Field position matters. This year's team has given up six red zone field goals, on pace for a 50% reduction from '08.
And we have yet to examine the return games. Dallas has doubled its punt return average, jumping from a pedestrian 8.0 yards per return to just over 16.0 yards a return. Patrick Crayton ranks second to Cleveland's Josh Cribbs in punt return average for players with ten or more returns. The Cowboys rank second as a team.
The Cowboys have also generated big plays defending kicks. Gerald Sensabaugh blocked a field goal in Tampa and Jay Ratliff may have turned the season when he blocked a Chiefs field goal late in the 4th quarter, when the score was tied at thirteen. He set the stage for the Miles Austin Show, Episode One.
Dallas does have room for improvement. The Cowboys have not found a kickoff return setup which works, despite rotating wedge formations, wedge players, and kickoff returners. Felix Jones, Miles Austin and Kevin Ogletree have all had their shots, but it appears to me that the blocking is the area in need of repair. Fans were quick to question Jones' health after his poor returns in the Eagles game but a review of tape shows he had nowhere to go. The Eagles have very good coverage units and they had Felix surrounded on nearly all his attempts.
But who wants to nit-pick? After years of average to abysmal special teams, its exciting to see units which have the power to turn games as much as the offense or the defense.
That first decisive win could come Sunday, against a Packers team which has struggled covering kickoffs and punts all year. It may be their turn to be DeCamillisized.