One of the disappointments marking the opening weeks of this season was the fact that the Cowboys' special teams units, a group (or groups) that had been stellar in 2009 (the Dallas Morning News' annual special teams rankings had them at #4), had been anything but special. Sure, Dez Bryant took a punt return to the house in week 2, but the anxiety surrounding David Buehler was compounded by repeatedly shameful kickoff coverage; indeed long returns by both the Redskins and Bears as well as a botched kickoff against Chicago had contributed directly to those losses. This was enough to motivate people to ask: had special teams coach Joe DeCamillis lost his mojo?
One important consideration is this: in an attempt to get younger and cut deadwood from the roster (I'm talking about you, Pat Watkins), Dallas did some significant offseason churning. This didn't affect the offense or defense terribly significantly; those units returned 20 of 22 starters, and the two replacements, Doug Free and Alan Ball, had started multiple games last season as injury replacements (in which, it could be argued, they outplayed the men they replaced). The roster churn deeply affected Coach Joe's special teams, however. More specifically, it decimated his core special teams guys.
Last season, the "core" special teamers--the guys who play on all, or a vast majority of, the six "teams" (kick return, kick coverage, punt return, punt coverage, field goal, field goal defend) - were Bobby Carpenter, Patrick Watkins, Deon Anderson, Sam Hurd and Alan Ball. Several other guys played on multiple units: the Patricks, Crayton and McQuistan, Orlando Scandrick, Steve Octavian and the aforementioned Buehler. As the roster was beginning to take shape late in training camp, imagine being in Joe D's shoes: all your core guys were either already gone or were evidently slipping off the 53. And, due to their elevated level of responsibility, Ball and Beuhler would have reduced ST roles.
To comprehend the level of anxiety this might engender, imagine Jason Garrett undergoing an equivalent loss: Tony Romo and Jason Witten are traded; Andre Gurode retires, Marion Barber and Miles Austin are clearly going to be beaten out by younger, cheaper players. Next, imagine that the replacements for these offensive stars are top notch college athletes but that they've probably never played the positions into which they will be thrust. Lastly, consider that, in training camp, you will not be able to replicate actual game play in any realistic way without sending your entire team into a hospital ward. Now, try to develop an effective week 1 offensive gameplan. That was exactly DeCamillis's special teams challenge.
Not surprisingly, his units struggled early. According to the Football Insiders weekly special teams rankings, Dallas' units were the NFL's 27th most effective group after week one. Thanks in large part to Bryant's return, they found themselves in the middle of the pack (14th) after the Chicago game. The numbers show, however, that they were below the league average in kickoff returns (an area that plagued them last year as well) and well below on kickoff coverage. Against Houston, however, this last aspect of their game experienced a much-needed reversal. The Texans started drives after Dallas kickoffs at their own 21, 18, 24, 37 and 23. I'll take this as a crucial and necessary turnaround; I expect the Dallas special teams to continue to rise up the ranking and nestle comfortably in the top five by season's end.
The nature of special teams dictates that this is the unit that will be the furthest behind to open the season. Usually, this is because the ST coach has to decide which players from the bottom of the roster would best complement his core guys. What we have seen in the past three weeks is a remarkable achievement: Joe D has completely overhauled his teams, building around the one remaining core guy, Sam Hurd (and we wonder why he was kept on the roster!). He has developed a new "core" - Danny McCray, Barry Church, Akwasi Owusu-Ansah, Jason and Leon Williams and Victor Butler have joined Hurd as guys who show up on multiple units. Take a look at the play-by-play of the Houston game; you'll notice that these cats also join Hurd on the stats sheets. On seven Houston punt and kick returns, it was the above players who made all the tackles; Butler, Hurd, J. Williams and L. Williams had two apiece.
Churning the roster has multiple effects. Letting go of players like Bobby Carpenter comes at a significant, albeit hidden, cost. When a kick coverage unit surrenders several long returns in close losses, this cost becomes all too apparent. At the same time, the salary cap dictates that the bottoms of rosters be continually refreshed with younger, cheaper players. This is precisely why having a top-flight special teams coach is of such import; in a sport in which continuity is the watchword, he--and his players--must excel amidst (sometimes radical) turnover. As I have suggested herein, DeCamillis has done a superb job starting essentially from scratch.
But not without a couple of significant, and potentially damaging, early hiccups...