Special teams often gets overlooked but it is vital to winning football games. John Harbaugh, a former special teams coordinator, fielded the best team in the league this year and already has a Super Bowl ring on his finger. Joe Judge, the Patriots special teams coordinator since 2012, just got hired as the New York Giants head coach. And Bill Belichick has repeatedly professed the importance of quality special teams play.
Well, it seems like new Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy understands this too, since he he will reportedly hire John Fassel as his special teams coordinator. Fassel, widely considered to be the best special teams coordinator in the league, will have a tall task waiting for him in Dallas.
The Cowboys special teams unit was objectively terrible this season, and that’s a trend that was consistent under special teams coordinator Keith O’Quinn. In 2017, the final year with Rich Bisaccia in the role, Dallas ranked seventh in special teams DVOA. In O’Quinn’s first year leading the group, they regressed to 23rd. This year, they finished 30th; they were at one point dead last, but the addition of Kai Forbath helped to boost their production a bit.
Not only were the coverage units bad under O’Quinn - Dallas ranked 28th in average starting field position on defense - but kicker Brett Maher and punter Chris Jones both regressed as well. Maher’s 80.6% field goal rate in 2018 (which was 25th in the league) dropped to 66.7% this year before he was released, and Jones had the lowest yards per punt in the entire NFL. As a result, Dallas ranked third worst in average starting field position on offense.
Fassel has fielded excellent special teams units everywhere he’s been. Known by his nickname as “Bones,” he is the son of longtime Giants head coach Jim Fassel. He first became a coordinator in 2008 with the Raiders and inherited two greats in Sebastian Janikowski and Shane Lechler. But he also had a unit that finished 29th in DVOA the year before, and by the end of his first season in Oakland his group was second in the league.
Unfortunately his unit didn’t stay consistently great for the rest of his tenure in Oakland, which saw three different head coaches in his four years there. All the turmoil resulted in a lot of roster turnover, which seemed to complicate things for him. After Al Davis’ death ushered in a house cleaning after the 2011 season, Fassel moved on to the Rams, joining newly hired Jeff Fisher.
It was here that Fassel gained a reputation for truly great special teams. After a down first year, Fassel’s unit improved to fourth in DVOA in 2013 and they never ranked lower than seventh for the remainder of Fisher’s tenure. During this time, Fassel helped develop kicker Greg Zuerlein and punter Johnny Hekker into two of the best at their positions and earned the Rams a penchant for highly successful fake punts.
When Fisher was fired with three games to go in 2016, Fassel was selected as the interim head coach. While his team lost all three games, it spoke to the level of trust he had built in the organization that he was the one chosen to finish the year out, especially considering there were three others on the staff at the time with head coaching experience.
This respect is what led new Rams coach Sean McVay to retain Fassel, and in the video above McVay describes Fassel as “a great human being that has an unbelievable way of connecting with his players.” McVay also said, “I think really what you love the most about him is how fearless he is. You know, we always talk about being an attacking team. We never feel pressure, we apply it.”
Furthermore, when Michael Gehlken of the Dallas Morning News reported on Fassel’s hiring to the Cowboys, he included a similarly praiseworthy quote from an anonymous Rams assistant coach:
“He makes it cool to play special teams,” the Rams source said. “He’s pretty rare. He’s different in a good way. ...He’s very positive in his whole teaching.”
In short, Fassel is a home run hire who should bring a significant boost to a special teams group that desperately needs it. For a team that far too often suffered the consequences of poor special teams play in 2019, it seems that McCarthy has gone out and hired the greatest guy he could to oversee that side of the ball.