We can debate outside linebackers, free safeties, right tackles, centers and the like until we collectively hyperventilate. But there can be no debate about the primary special teams' need.
Dallas must find a placekicker.
Dallas has lived off the skill of kicking coach Steve Hoffman and a bit of luck during the Jerry Jones era. Jones has been unwilling to sign an expensive kicker in the salary cap era, leaving Hoffman to make do with cheap no-names. Dallas did spring for veteran Eddie Murray in '93 when Lin Elliot lost his touch. Murray saved the season when he kicked a 43 yarder in overtime to push Dallas to a 16-13 overtime win over New York in the season finale. Emmitt Smith separated a shoulder during the game and the win gave the team a two week bye. A loss would have forced them to play a divisional game without Smith and made their defense of their Super Bowl title much harder.
Jones considered signing free agent Morten Anderson the following year, but folded when Atlanta offered him a contract averaging roughtly $1.5 million.
The cheap philosophy blew up in Dallas' face this year, as the team lost games against Washington, Seattle and Denver that could have been won had kickers Jose Cortez and Billy Cundiff made mid-range kicks. The team almost lost a fourth game against Carolina when Cundiff missed a potential game tying field goal but was roughed.
The team released Hoffman before the season started and he that probably factored into the decrease in performance. (Hoffman signed with Atlanta this past week.) However, special team's coach Bruce DeHaven had handled the kickers in his previous stints at Buffalo and San Francisco and wanted control in Dallas as well.
There is no reason for Jones to keep avoiding experienced kickers. In 2001 the team lost veteran snapper Dale Hellestrae and had six kicks blocked. Poor field goal snaps cost Dallas two games. In the offseason, Jones gave Rams' snapper Jeff Robinson a four-year, $4.8 million deal, a record for his position. If Jones will pay his snapper $1.2 million a year, why not his kicker?
Jerry will no longer dispute this point, stating at the Senior Bowl two weeks ago that he is "absolutely" prepared to sign a veteran.
For some perspective on how much poor kicking cost Dallas, look at Morning News columist Rick Gosselin's recently published special teams rankings. Dallas finished a respectable fourteenth overall in 2005. The team performed poorly -- meaning in the bottom ten -- in only four categories: punt return average, field goals, field goal percentage and extra-point percentage. Had Dallas fielded a good kicker, ranked just tenth overall in the three categories listed, it would have finished seventh overall and second in the NFC.
This year's free agent kicking crop is deep, which should give Dallas quality at a reasonable price.
If the Cowboys want to pay top dollar, they may bid on the Patriots' Adam Vinatieri, who personifies big-time kicking. He has three all-timers on his resume, a long kick in a snowstorm to beat Oakland in the divisional playoffs and two last-second Super Bowl winners. He's the NFL's highest paid kicker, at $2.6 million per season and should cost at least that much if the Pats let him test the market.
Dallas could also look at Colts' K Mike Vanderjagt who sports the highest career average in league history, having made 87.5% of his kicks.
Other names to consider are Seattle K Josh Brown who was an impressive 5 of 8 on kicks 50 yards or longer in 2005 and Tampa Bay's Matt Bryant a former Baylor Bear.
My choice is Green Bay's Ryan Longwell. The man with the best kicking name ever will cost less than Vinatieri, even though Longwell's career average is only fractions of a point lower (81.9% to 81.6%). Like Vinatieri, Longwell has made his reputation kicking well in the wind and cold. He would almost certainly welcome a chance to kick on synthetic turf in a stadium where wind is not a factor.
The new kicker's salary will be exorbitant by Jones' standards, but it will still be Jerry's smallest free agent signing of the offseason. It could also turn out to be his most important.