The Dallas Cowboys finished in the top 10 in both yards gained on offense and yards allowed on defense last season, including finishing number one overall on offense. For two-thirds of the football being played, the Cowboys were one of the stronger units, yet they finished the season with an 8-8 record. A big reason for that was that their special teams unit was especially hideous.
Before finally being released, kicker Brett Maher was leading the league in missed field goals with ten. Punter Chris Jones finished the year ranked last in the league with a 41.6 yards average. And only one team in the NFL had fewer return yards than Dallas. The Cowboys special teams were inept.
So, when the Cowboys hired one of the top special teams coaches in the league in John Fassel, there was this great celebration among Cowboys Nation. Over the last four seasons, Fassel’s units with the Los Angeles Rams have finished in the top three in DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average) twice.
Fassel hopes to bring some of that goodness to the Cowboys, but how realistic is it to think that such a transformation is possible? Recently, he spoke about the importance special teams brings to a team’s success. Bones, as he is known, is placing an emphasis on taking away some of the chaos that has accompanied this unit in recent years. With a more simple approach and dialing in on the fundamentals, he hopes to help his guys become more comfortable with their assignments. Having a squad that possesses better chemistry, where every player has a real sense of purpose, is very important to him.
For Fassel, there is a lot of work ahead of him as he prepares to assemble this new cast of players that will make up his special teams unit. Right now, it’s hard to tell who that will consist of. As it stands, seven of the Cowboys top 10 special teams players in terms of playing time last year are entering the offseason as unrestricted free agents.
Not only is that a lot of special teamers not under contract, but some of them are key guys. C.J. Goodwin, Justin March, Joe Thomas, and Darian Thompson are all in the top five in terms of snaps played. Which of these players are going to stick around?
Finding the right personnel is important, but what type of change lies ahead for the Cowboys roster? Fassel has a lot of film study to go through as he decides which players he’s interesting in keeping. The good thing is - he’s already done a little bit of study with these Cowboys players as he has faced Dallas in each of the last three seasons. He should have some idea as to what type of players are a good fit for what he wants to do.
One thing that is interesting about Fassel’s unit with the Rams is that he seems to have a core group of four or five players that make up the bulk of the reps on special teams. The Cowboys, in contrast, spread the wealth among several players. Not only does Bones unit have core guys, but those guys usually come from two different positions. Over the last three seasons, a total of 13 Rams players have logged over 50% of the snaps on special teams for the year. All 13 guys play either safety or linebacker. Is that a clue as to what type of players Fassel with be looking for?
Possibly. If you look at the Cowboys roster, that could mean that players like Joe Thomas or Justin March are brought back. The same bodes true for players like Jeff Heath and Darian Thompson. Could it mean the team moves away from Jamize Olawale? Could it open the door for younger players like Donovan Wilson or Luke Gifford to play a bigger role in 2020?
With so much uncertainty still remaining as the team still sorts out their own free agents, it’s unclear what the group will look like, but at least we have some type of feel for what Fassel could be looking for.