Heading into the season there were a couple of question areas: Do the Cowboys really need a true #2 receiver to be successful? Can the Cowboys' defense turn the corner to become a championship caliber squad? Can Wade Phillips keep the team playing at a high level through December and January?
But nothing compared to the questions raised about the level of the special teams' play during the preseason. While fans were floundering trying to figure out how long it would be until special teams coach Bruce Read was fired, Wade Phillips was doing his best to explain that it wasn't that big of an issue. After all, the Cowboys were really trying to make a determination on individuals and not the unit as a whole. The Cowboys' head coach insisted that the coverage units would improve once the starting units started playing together.
Still, seeing teams continuously gouge the Cowboys on punt and kickoff returns during the preseason was painful to watch. My wife, who has a simple knowledge of football at best, proclaimed to me once that she couldn't believe how bad the special teams were playing and I had to agree. As we prepared for the regular season to start I was fairly apprehensive on just what we were going to get from our coverage and return units.
Who knew the Cowboys' would be this good?
Through the first three games of the season the Cowboys have been surprisingly consistent and solid in their special teams play. We were hoping that Isaiah Stanback or Orlando Scandrick could continue our decent return game; only in our wildest dreams did we foresee Felix Jones averaging 35 yards a return, including an electrifying 98 yard kickoff return against the Eagles. It's been a long time since Cowboys fans held their breath during kickoff returns, knowing that at any moment El Gato could break another long one. Currently the Cowboys are averaging 29.1 yards per return (5th in the NFL), compared to last season when they averaged just 22.3 (18th).
While we had hopes our return game would be good, it was the coverage units that were especially worrying. Last season the Cowboys allowed a number of big returns at the worst times, most notably during the playoff game against the Giants. So far in 2008, the Cowboys rank 4th in the NFL on kickoff coverage (18th in 2007)and 6th in net punting yards (8th in 2007). While I have been waiting for a big return to happen, it has yet to happen as the Cowboys return units have regained the swagger they had in 2006, when they were one of the top units in the league.
While the improved play can be attributed to the return of special teams captain Keith Davis, a lot of the credit should go to the excellent play of some young players. Patrick Watkins has emerged as a special teams ace, but it's the play of Martellus Bennett, Orlando Scandrick and Tashard Choice that has been the most surprising. Nearly every time a great one on one tackle is made or a big hit is landed one of the these rookies has been in on the play. These rookies won't get a lot of regular playing time (other than perhaps Bennett), so it's been great to see them take advantage of the reps they do get.
Special teams affect the flow of the game. If the offense is having a tough go or the team itself is a bit listless, a big return can turn the game around in a hurry. And never underestimate field position; in a close, hard fought division game the field position battle could be the deciding factor in the outcome of the game.
So far this season the Cowboys have exceeded the expectations of the special teams unit, but not every area has been perfect. Nick Folk has yet to kick a touchback and Adam Jones has yet to make an impact as a punt returner. Those problems aside, if the Cowboys continue their level of play on special teams it will make those tough, late season and playoff games that much easier on the offense and defense.