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Cowboys Special Teams: It's the Blockers, Not the Backs

Joe DeCamillis' first season as special teams coach proved an unqualified success.  DeCamillis erased the bitter memories of Bruce Read's units so thoroughly you're probably wincing at being reminded of them. 

Coach D's improvement were strong almost across the board.  The coverage units which broke down so regularly and painfully corralled opposition returners.  Dallas new blocking schemes helped Patrick Crayton leap from league average punt returner to among the league leader.  His average  rose from a solid 9.5 yards per return to a stellar 12.1 per attempt.  The team's punt return average jumped almost 60%, from 6.4 yards per in '08 to 10.9 in 2009.

The one area where DeCamillis failed to re-create the plot came on kickoff returns.  The '08 unit was fractionally better than D's bunch (22.2 yards per return to 22.0). The team kept the same primary returners, using Felix Jones and Miles Austin, even though both were offensive starters by season's end.  Kevin Ogletree also got his chances, but no player could break the kickoff-return blahs: the three were within two yards of each other, with Ogletree's 20.8 average setting the floor while Jones, who averaged over 27 yards a return as a rookie, saw his average dip to a still-team-best 22.6.

The culprit?  I blame the NFL's new kickoff return rules.  The league banned four-man wedges last year, citing safety concerns.  In 2009, blockers could only cluster in two man groups.

DeCamillis spent all of camp experimenting with new blocking schemes.  This piece from week two shows the coach trying to re-invent the return wheel, changing the number of linemen blocking and their positioning on the field.  My observation from that August day persisted through the season -- opposing coverage teams were very good at running around the edges of the Dallas wedge-area blocking to sabotage returns. 

As we look to 2010, there are reasons to be optimistic about improved returns.  Dez Bryant, a college punt return demon (I know, I know, he had very few total returns, but look at his mind-blowing average) could represent an improvement over Crayton.  He's bigger, faster and has as much full-speed shake as any big man I've seen in a while. A lot will depend on rust and on aggression.  Recall that Pacman Jones was supposed to be the guy to supplant Crayton in '08, but Pac looked timid and by season's end his lame 4.5 yard average had Bruce Read all but shoving Crayton onto the field.  Jones' suspension didn't help matter either.

On the kickoff returns, who knows?   Joe D is a smart guy, and I'm sure he's spent a great deal of his off-season time reviewing his league peers to see who got the hang of the new return rules.  There's a maxim in the teaching profession: "you'll never be a good teacher if you're not a good thief."  It means that all great instructors subordinate their egos to a better idea somebody else created.  NFL coaches are nothing if not good thiefs.  No good package, play or return will be exclusive for very long.  I'm sure DeCamillis has already imported a few return lesson plans into his file.

An equally big challenge will be finding some wedge blockers to carry out the new schemes.  Cory Proctor and Pat McQuistan were the busiest '09 wedge blockers.  Proctor has moved on and McQuistan starts '10 on the thinnest of ice.  Take a look at all the backup o-linemen for wedge candidates.  DeCamillis will also need to replace Bobby Carpenter and may need successors to Pat Watkins and Sam Hurd by camp's end.

Looking for a real camp battle?  Take a close look at the people DeCamillis rotates on his mini-wedge and on the edges of his kickoff returns.  If he finds a handful of coachable, effective blockers, we'll have long kickoff returns to look forward to.

But don't tie your mind up in knots debating Felix versus Miles versus Kevin here.  On this unit, it's the blockers, not the backs.

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