Throughout the preseason, I've had an uneasy feeling, gnawing away at me. I tried to ignore it, but it just refused to go away. After each and every preseason game, there it was, staring me in the face as I penned the fastest post game recaps in the world. OK, during the games to be exact... I don't think my "mind meld" excuse is fooling anybody that I wasn't cheating and writing while the game was still going on. I alluded to the concern in each of the articles, but still never wanting to come out and truly say what worried me to the point of antacids and stress relief exercises. The Cowboys special teams was set to derail what could have been a glorious season.
I had visions of the Cowboys offense and defense doing exactly what they were capable of, and having the specials give up a game-tying punt return, a momentum-changing kickoff return, a blocked game-winning kick... taking what should be a playoff team and making it one on the cold, blustery outside-looking-in come January. Apparently, Jason Garrett and Jerry Jones had that same queasy feeling when breaking down film and decided something must be done about it. The Cowboys have seemingly firebombed the special teams units in hopes of saving the future of the 2013 season.
Fans were excited over the offseason when the team canned Joe DeCamillis and brought in Rich Bisaccia. DeCamillis' units have struggled for some time and it led to many to speculate that he was being retained as a courtesy to the accident that nearly paralyzed him at the Cowboys practice facility a few years back. The team reportedly told him he wasn't going to return for 2013 and DeCamillis parlayed a head coaching interview with the Chicago Bears (to skirt the rules? you don't say!) into their ST coordinator position.
In came Bisaccia, recently of the San Diego Chargers and formerly of the Super Bowl champion winning Tampa Bay Buccaneers. As most unit coaches must do, Bisaccia couldn't rely on what he saw on tape, he had to experiment with players in his schemes to see what he truly had. The preseason results were scary.
Over the course of the five games, Dallas allowed a blocked field goal attempt, a punt return touchdown, muffed a punt, fumbled a punt return, gave up a 30 yard punt return after it was muffed, and gave up a 50 yard kickoff return after taking a fourth-quarter lead. To top it off, they also tackled a guy calling for a fair catch on a punt. Twice.
Owner and GM Jerry Jones poo-poo'd the issues to the press, saying the following earlier in the rehearsal game schedule (via SportsDay DFW):
"The thing you have to remember is that the other night, we had maybe as many as 35 players that won't be on the team in two weeks," Jones told the New School show Tuesday on 105.3 The Fan [KRLD-FM]. "And one of the places you see them involved the most is on special teams. So you have quite a make up of different players on the field."
"I think you get better execution when you start to put the players out there that have made the 53."
The special team's execution? I'm in favor of it.
But the Cowboys brass saw the problems, exacerbated by losing 2012 leading ST tackler Alex Albright for the year, and I believe they saw the same images of a great season going by the wayside if it wasn't addressed. So when it came time to round out the 53-man roster... special teams seemed to take precedence over every other camp battle.
First, the team negotiated a reduced contract with three-year ST captain, safety Danny McCray. McCray was to count $1.323 million against the cap and for that reason I had him being a cut. Media and fans quickly assumed that would mean that Eric Frampton would be pushed out. Nope, Frampton also made the final 53. The Cowboys then raised their bet as they kept a prior unthought of six safeties not named Matt Johnson on the active roster, giving a spot to UDFA rookie Jeff Heath. Most thought a five-safety roster would include Johnson, so six without him is eye-brow raising.
Heath had been incorporated to more and more special teams plays as the preseason progressed and handled himself rather well.
Everyone knew that Dallas would most likely keep four tight ends. Nope, they kept five of them, including Andre Smith. Tight ends and safeties, as well as linebackers, normally make up the core of the special teams units.
Over the last few weeks, we've been told that there was no chance that fourth-string running back Phillip Tanner wouldn't make the club or be used in a trade because he worked on every special teams unit. Sure enough, Tanner is part of the club's 53.
A surprise cut by many was the fact that Sterling Moore wasn't kept on the team as a fifth cornerback. Moore didn't make an impact on special teams last year (he failed to record a tackle in 41 special teams snaps) and that could have gone a long way in the decision not to bring him with the team into 2013.
To further hammer home the point, when Dallas found themselves with an extra roster spot after sending G Nate Livings to IR, they went out and acquired ST guy in Edgar Jones from Kansas City. Jones spent the first five years of his career on teams with Baltimore.
If you include Dante Rosario, who was supposedly signed at the behest of Bisaccia for his ST prowess but has struggled so far, Dallas now has four "gurus" out there: Rosario, Frampton, McCray and Jones. Throw in guys that can play every unit, such as Tanner and Heath, and one would hope that's enough to get consistent play over the season. Their first test will come next Sunday night, along with the rest of the team when they open the year against the New York Giants.
Here's hoping that things for this Cowboys team end up being special, as opposed to their special teams being what ends things for this Cowboys team.
[UPDATE] The team has claimed LB Kyle Bosworth from the New York Giants. Bosworth recorded 8 special teams tackles for the Giants in 2012.
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