After final cuts were announced yesterday, I couldn't help but wonder about the influence special teams coach Rich Bisacchia might have had on the choices - or on the importance the Cowboys place on the special teams play.
But before we go into details, let's step back a bit. Jason Garrett likes to constantly remind players, fans and the media that the Cowboys must be good "in all three phases". In fact, "all three phases" is right up there in the coachspeak pantheon alongside "process," "challenge," and "competition." But while it may be coachspeak, it is also relevant.
Football Outsiders tracks team efficiency over "all three phases", and Pro Football Focus uses their grading system for the three units as well. Here's how both sites ranked the Cowboys last year:
|Team Efficency, 2013 Dallas Cowboys|
|NFL rank||Offense||Defense||Special Teams|
|Pro Football Focus
These numbers just confirm what we know already: The defense sucked, the offense was pretty good, and special teams had a bigger impact on game outcomes than many traditional stats suggest.
When talk turns to special teams, it usually doesn't go far beyond the kicker/punter or the kick/punt returners. Or when was the last time you read or heard an analysis about the special teams gunners, the jammers, or the up-backs?
The Cowboys are certainly talking about these guys, even if we aren't - and that discussion may have driven a lot of the more contentious roster decisions (at the very bottom of said roster) made yesterday.
- The Cowboys kept Joseph Randle over Ryan Williams in part because he's a better blocker on offense, but in part also because he's much better on special teams.
- Similarly, the decision to keep fullback Tyler Clutts may have been driven by the Cowboys' plan to re-focus on the ground game, but in deciding between a fullback and a fourth RB, "Clutts’ abilities on special teams might have been the deciding factor," DallasCowboys.com opined yesterday.
- They kept a seventh linebacker, Cameron Lawrence, not because he'll be competing for playing time (unless bad stuff happens), but because he "is one of the Cowboys’ best special teamers," as ESPN Dallas wrote yesterday.
- Jeff Heath was a roster lock regardless of what you may think of his play at safety. Heath is the personal protector on the punt team, and is the de facto team leader, calling out the blocking schemes prior to the snap ("over right, over right"), and, when ready, calls out the snap ('hut, hut, go!").
- Finally, the Cowboys likely went with safety Ahmad Dixon over CB Terrance Mitchell for the ninth and final defensive back spot because Dixon offers more on special teams than Mitchell does.
The Cowboys know their defense is suspect. They also know that barring a miracle, their defense probably isn't going to show a significant improvement versus last year. Which means that like in 2013, they'll need a strong offense and strong special teams play this year to compensate for a subpar defense.
If I had written all of the above about any other NFL team, I'd feel pretty good about my analysis, and I'd feel pretty confident that these were the right decisions made by that team. But I'm a Cowboys fan. And every time I hear that the Cowboys "focused on special teams," unpleasant visions of the 2009 "special teams" draft invade my neural networks. Am I being a paranoid android, or is everything just hunky dory?