Five Moments That Altered The Cowboys' 2010 Season: #5--Gutting The Core Special Teams

Percy Harvin's big kickoff return, and other like it, can be traced to a set of decisions made in the preseason.

Over the next few days, I’d like to offer up a backward glance at five key moments in the 2010 season. The moments I’m interested in examining all had a local impact: they were heavily covered by the press and often changed the face of a single game. Yet they also caused significant global consequences: they either represented or forced a larger philosophical change that ended up having a long-term repercussions during the 2010 season.

As the philosopher George Santayana said, famously, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." Jerry Jones, Jason Garrett and company currently sit on the cusp of two seasons; in order to go forward with any effectiveness, they must take a careful look back so that they can determine what philosophical choices went well and which went bust over the past twelve months.  When they do so, I hope they’ll consider these moments and the ripples they made in the season-long pond as a history from which much can be learned—and then use what they learn to facilitate either changes that need to be made or to institute key philosophical building blocks for 2011 and beyond.

Moment #5: Preseason: Gutting Special Teams Core.

According to the Football Insiders final special teams rankings, Dallas' "teams" finished squarely in the middle of the pack, nestled in at number 15.  Their solid punt coverage and spectacular punt return numbers were offset by mediocre kickoff results, below average field goal and extra point work, and abysmal kickoff tallies.  No real surprises here; this all reflects what we likely surmised from the "eyeball test."

Yet it doesn’t tell the entire story.  The narrative begins at the end of the preseason, when it came time for the Cowboys’ Warroom to make their final cuts. Behind closed doors, a decision was made not only to trim some of the older player-bigger contract deadwood from the roster, but to do so using an industrial-sized chainsaw. This didn't affect the offense or defense terribly significantly; those units returned 20 of 22 starters. The roster churn deeply affected Coach Joe DeCamilis's special teams, however. More specifically, it decimated his core special teams guys.

In 2009, the "core" special teamers--the guys who played 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 kicker/ kick coverer, David 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 quietly slipping off the 53. And, due to their elevated level of responsibility, Ball and Beuhler would have reduced ST roles.

Not surprisingly, his units struggled early. They were the NFL's 27th most effective group after the close week one loss to the Redskins. Against Chicago, both kickoff units—return and coverage—struggled mightily, as evidenced by the 42-yard field-position-reversing KO return surrendered to Bears wideout Johnny Knox. Two weeks later, against the Titans, Beuhler missed a key third-quarter FG (much like he had against the Bears) and, after the Cowboys had tied the game at 27, the kickoff coverage unit allowed a crushing 73-yard return by Tennessee KR Marc Mariani. The following week, against Minnesota, Dallas had the game well in hand before surrendering a 95-yard Percy Harvin kickoff return to start the second half, a play that led to narrow Vikings comeback victory.

At that point, the Cowboys managed to more or less right the U.S.S. DeCamilis, but the damage had already been done. The lesson is this: churning the roster has multiple effects. A team must always search for ways to get younger and bring new blood into the mix. Yet, 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--a notoriously protean element--would best complement his core guys. Thus, when a team lets go of all its core guys, the problems accumulate significantly.

During the first five games of the season—when the Cowboys went 1-4, with none of the losses by more than seven points—the Dallas kick coverage unit surrendered multiple long returns, repeatedly missed field goals at key moments and found themselves on the short end of the field position battle (this actually ended up being a season-long problem; they finished the 2010 campaign ranked #27 in points relative to field position by FO). Looking back at the frustrating carnage that was 2010, its clear that entering the season with almost no known quantities on special teams was a significant mistake--one that had a tremendous impact on the tailspin that lead to Wade Phillips' dismissal and the season as a whole.

Lets hope that its a mistake the Jones-Garrett administration doesn't make again.

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