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Cowboys Autopsies: Special Teams

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It was a mission doomed from the beginning.

The Cowboys staff was well aware of their special teams shortcomings in '07, and gave unit coach Bruce Read maximum assistance this year.  In camp, every special teams drill was broken down into small units, with multiple coaches giving the players personalized attention. 

Here's how a punt-coverage drill was coordinated:

The special teams punt coverage session was an ensemble production today: While ST coach Read focused on the inside blockers, Dat Nguyen coordinated the rotation of rushers. On the outside, TE coach John Garrett worked with the gunners on their releases.

-- "Building Blocks," Blue and Silver Report, July 26th

All the Wade's horses and all of Jerry's men couldn't help poor Bruce in the end. 

The job was simply too big for him.  Nearly all the team's talent was placed at his disposal.  Every linebacker save Demarcus Ware and Greg Ellis participated on the unit.  Every secondary player except Terence Newman and Ken Hamlin took part. 

It didn't matter.  The Cowboys special teams were awful -- across the board.  There was no single area in which they excelled, or were even middling.  They were:

  • 31st in kickoff distance;
  • 26th in kickoff yardage allowed;
  • 21st in kickoff returns;
  • 17th in punting;
  • 23rd in punt yardage allowed;
  • 24th in net punting
  • 30th in punt returns;
  • tied for 26th in scoring.

There was no benefit to be found in any area.  On a team with disciplinary problems, special teams more than contributed to the malaise.  The Cowboys led the league with 119 penalties.  19 of them were committed by special teammers. 

Coaches will tell you that good special teams units will win a game for you over the course of a year, and sometimes steal a second.  Read's units cost Dallas the Arizona game, with sickening symmetry:  they allowed J.J. Arrington to rip them for a 93 yard TD on the game's opening kickoff and broke down on the game's final play, when Mat McBriar's punt was blocked and recovered for a second touchdown. 

It was fitting, given the copious breakdowns, that Dallas was penalitzed for an offsides penalty on the play.  It was also cruel, but typical, that McBrian was injured on the play, and was placed on I.R. the next day.

In between, Nick Folk negated the one good play the special teammers made that day.  He smacked a field goal attempt off an upright three plays after Tashard Choice recovered a Cardinals fumble.

It was that kind of year.  Finding a quality replacement for Read should be treated with the same seriousness as finding a coordinator.  A wiser, more decisive coach could iron out a significant percentage of the unit's penalties and give the Cowboys consistently better field position.

Special Teamer of the Year:  It's sad when your MVP has a handful of black marks.  Nick Folk was his solid self, but he had that key miss in Arizona to ponder, and missed a short field goal early in the 2nd half at St. Louis which helped build the Rams avalanche.  He also yanked two kickoffs out of bounds.

Runner up -- Felix Jones made the special teams play of the year in week two, when he returned an Eagles kickoff 98 yards for a score.  He made several more big returns before he was lost in game six with a hamstring injury.  He's thekickoff return playmaker this team has lacked for years decades.  Heal well, Mr. Jones.

Knucklehead of the YearPat Watkins.  The Cowboys entered the season with a core group of players who participated on every unit.  Watkins, Kevin Burnett, Bobby Carpenter, Justin Rogers and Keith Davis were the assumed leaders on special teams. 

Watkins couldn't stand the pressure.  He committed one third of the special teams' penalties, most of them of the fifteen-yard variety.  (No other special teammer committed more than two.)  He took three in the first Eagles game.  Two weeks later, against Washington, he committed another special teams' penalty and took a critical 12-men-on-the-field penalty when he failed to sub out after a time out.   Watkins demonstrated on more than one occasion that his mind was not always in the game.

This is the type of player who gets coaches fired.  Wade Phillips sent Bruce Read packing.  If Wade values his own job, Pat Watkins may not be far behind.