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10 Burning Questions: #10 - Can The Cowboys’ Return Game Return?

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In this series we will count down (from 10 to 1) some burning preseason questions for the Dallas Cowboys.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys Rookie Minicamp Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Once upon a time, the Dallas Cowboys had a strong return game. You have to go back to 2013 to find it, when Dwayne Harris was the kickoff and punt returner for the Cowboys. That year, Harris averaged 12.8 yards per punt return, which was tied for third in the NFL with Antonio Brown. It included an 86-yard return for a touchdown, and only 10 fair catches. Harris also averaged 30.6 yards per kickoff return, which was good for second in the NFL. It included a 90-yard return that amazingly didn’t end up in the end zone.

Harris stuck around in 2014, but his returns declined to a 9.2 yard average on punts, which tied him for ninth, with no TDs and a 38-yard return as his best, and a 24.7 yard average on kickoffs, which left him 13th. He didn’t score a TD there either.

In 2015, Harris received a big contract to join the Giants, while the Cowboys kept UDFA Lucky Whitehead, and paired him with Cole Beasley on punt returns and Lance Dunbar on kickoff returns. Whitehead didn’t even show up on the leaderboard, with only 19 punt returns for a 5.8 yard average. On kickoffs, he was better, with a 28.3 yard average on 16 returns. It wasn’t enough to qualify him for the NFL leaderboard, but if it had been, he would have finished fifth.

In 2016, Whitehead improved on punt returns, posting a 7.8 yard average, but that left him 15th. On kickoffs, he didn’t return enough to qualify, but his numbers declined anyway to 23.2 yards per return. Since teams get to the 25-yard-line by not running the ball out, anything short of the high-20s on kickoffs is likely costing the team yardage.

Yet Whitehead was still the best Dallas had. Cole Beasley hasn’t averaged better than 6.8 yards per punt return in the three seasons he’s tried it, while Lance Dunbar was lost for the season on a kickoff return one season, and has never even averaged 25-yards in any year when he’s had more than a single return.

Enter Ryan Switzer. Switzer scored seven touchdowns on punt returns in his college career, which ties him for second place all time, behind Wes Welker and Antonio Perkins, who finished with eight. Five of those came as a freshman, and by his senior year, opposing coaches weren’t daring to kick the ball where he could field it.

Here’s one of his returns.

Here’s another one.

Prior to the 2016 season, ESPN had a nice salute to Switzer based on his return prowess.

We're just one week away from the college football season starting in earnest on Thursday, Sept. 1. As our countdown turns to seven, we salute North Carolina's Ryan Switzer for his seven career punt returns for touchdowns.

ESPN.com recently named Switzer as North Carolina's player who is worth the price of admission. He owns the UNC and ACC records for career punt return yards and touchdowns. He's just one touchdown shy of tying the FBS record held by Texas Tech's Wes Welker and Oklahoma's Antonio Perkins.

As a freshman in 2013, Switzer tied the single-season FBS record with five punt return touchdowns. In 2015, he returned 22 punts for 302 yards for a 13.7-yard average (second in ACC) and added two more touchdowns.

When you think of the impact a punt returner can have, think of Kansas City’s Tyreek Hill, who averaged 15.9 yards per return, for two touchdowns and 592 overall yards, which was 228 yards more than the next highest returner last year.

The return game is not just a field position issue; these plays can win football games. It looks like Dallas may have stud back there for the first time in many years. Will he help the Cowboys return game shine again? That’s burning question number 10.