The first two weeks of the Joe DeCamillis Experience brought mixed results. The big returns so common in the Bruce DeHaven and Bruce Read Eras persisted. So did the needless penalties.
DeCamillis put on his political hat and cautioned against overly optimistic expectations, at least in early August. He was mixing and matching his units, working towards a core of dependable, dedicated players.
Saturday saw a lot of personnel carryover from the Tennessee game. Consequently, we saw some of the best overall special teams play from a Cowboys team in a long time. It's still preseason, but DeCamillis' high-intensity lessons seem to be taking.
A New Folk Hero Kicker
Nick Folk has been the special teams MVP the last two years and an almost instant Folk hero, because of his ability to nail kicks in pressure situations. The Cowboys may have a new folk hero in rookie David Buehler. Buehler has done precisely what he was drafted to do, offering a long leg and kamikaze coverage skills. Here's a recap of his first-half kicks Saturday:
- One yard deep in the end zone, returned ot the San Francisco 15.
- Two yards deep, returned to the Dallas 30, where Buehler made the tackle. Called back for holding and spotted on the San Francisco ten.
- Three yards deep, touchback.
Three kickoffs, with an average starting position of the 15 yard line. Compare that to last year, where Dallas had an NFL worst kickoff landing average of the nine and an opponents' average starting position just past their 29.
Recall that Dallas defensive red zone efficiency dropped off last year. The team was good at preventing touchdowns inside its 20 but surrendered far more field goals than the year before. The lousy field position likely played a role. Pushing opponents back 15 yards should cut this figure down. At least that's the plan. Buehler appears more than able to do his part.
Many Happy Returns
Dallas had been a pedestrian punt return team the last four years. Patrick Crayton is Mr. Dependable; he'll catch the ball and run as far upfield as he can, but he's not going to dazzle you. Pacman Jones was supposed to change this, but he fizzled out last season.
Saturday, Crayton and Terence Newman took their turns and both generated long returns. Newman took a first half punt 43 yards, leading to a field goal. Crayton caught a 2nd half liner on the dead run and returned it 26 yards. A big reason may be...,
Don't Throw the Core Out With the Discards
DeCamillis has settled on a core of players. A couple are names many of us, me included have marked for death. Pat Watkins continues on both kickoff and both punt units, greatly improving his chances of hanging on. The same if true of wideout Isaiah Stanback. He hurt his cause by fumbling a pass, but had a strong game on special teams. He and rookie Jason Williams were frequently the first two down on kickoff returns. He plays in the middle of the punt coverage team, in one of the slots Keith Davis used to occupy. Stanback had a solid 30 yard return and his downfield block on a 'Niners gunner sprung Crayton on his big return. Stanback is playing like a cat who knows he's on his 9th life, and that adrenaline-infused hustle may keep him in a Cowboys uniform.
Stanback, Watkins, John Phillips and Jason Williams are four guys Coach D has trusted the last two weeks. Watch next week to see if these four have company on the special teams core.
I don't expect a steady week -to-week improvement from the special teammers. DeCamillis is pushing a lot of new faces, many of them rookies, into his teams, and their progress tends to be up and down, not linear. Improvement is clear, from this time last year and even a month ago.
It may come next week, or next month, but the Cowboys are being DeCamillisized.