There is no question that 2020 has presented an innumerable amount of unique challenges, situations, and circumstances for our entire world, and obviously that has rippled into how the Dallas Cowboys football season has gone.
Dallas chose to go a new direction for the season and hired Mike McCarthy as they viewed themselves as a team that could compete in the here and now. Injuries have decimated the names that were on the depth chart during McCarthy’s introductory press conference, but in addition to that he (like other new head coaches) didn’t have the normal opportunity to implement his ways in various capacities.
It’s been fair to wonder just how big of a factor this has been with the Cowboys this season, specifically on defense and special teams. The Mike Nolan hire was suspect even when it happened given the recent history of the current defensive coordinator, but there was justifiable hype surrounding bringing John Fassel in to man the special teams.
Perhaps Fassel’s methods needed time to fully take hold. What we saw on Sunday was very promising, and it was a little familiar, too.
John Fassel’s punt return trickery has been around the NFL for a while
The NFL world lost their mind after the Cowboys came back against the Atlanta Falcons in large part thanks to the watermelon kick that Greg Zuerlein pulled off. Not even half a season later we saw other teams attempt the same thing, clearly John Fassel is an inspiration of sorts, although that tends to happen when you have success. Soon enough we will see other quarterbacks go in motion like Patrick Mahomes did for the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday.
Sticking to special teams here, the punt play likely recalled your memories from the Music City Miracle that the Tennessee Titans pulled off long ago. The play on Sunday was an incredible moment that almost helped the Cowboys win.
The MCM Titans were of course led by head coach Jeff Fisher, someone whom John Fassel knows well. Fassel worked with Fisher during their days together with the St. Louis (and later Los Angeles) Rams which is where a lot of Fassel’s time on special teams has been spent.
One particular moment from Fassel’s time in St. Louis jumped to my memory when we saw the trickery between Cedrick Wilson and C.J. Goodwin. You might recall a particular day during the 2014 season (better times!) when the Rams were hosting the reigning Super Bowl Champion Seattle Seahawks. This is obviously a divisional matchup and an important game and generally Jeff Fisher’s Rams gave the Seahawks fits.
At one point the Seahawks punted the ball and the Rams put their plan into action. Tavon Austin, who would later become a Cowboy himself, faked the Seahawks out (thanks to some help from his Rams teammates as well) into thinking that he was going to field the punt. Spoiler alert... he did not.
Stedman Bailey actually caught the punt on the side of the field that the Rams knew Jon Ryan’s kick would land thanks to their film study (a point Daryl Johnston notes in the highlight). It was all very clearly pre-designed to take advantage of a situation that John Fassel knew would unfold and it worked to perfection as the Rams scored a touchdown.
Part of what sells this whole thing is the return team running to Tavon Austin (they obviously know that the ball is not landing there) as so much of this process comes down to muscle memory. The Seahawks special teams group is doing what they have done thousands of times before and running to where they see the action unfolding. They got hoodwinked by the combination of their own instincts and the acting chops of the Rams players.
Tony Romo pointed out a similar Oscar-worthy performance on the return that the Cowboys ran during the game’s broadcast. You can see C.J. Goodwin tugging at his hamstring as if he has no potential involvement with anything that is going to happen. As a result the Steelers all flock to Cedrick Wilson which creates the opportunity for this all to stun them. Watch the clip again and look at Goodwin.
Some of this obviously has to do with what Fassel and Co. have seen on film from their opponents, but as noted it is possible that his practices and teachings are finally starting to materialize after legitimate time working with his group. Ask any Cowboys fan you know and they will all say today that they feel mighty confident about the future of Fassel’s group when this certainly didn’t seem to be the case at season’s beginning.
Hopefully this is indeed the case and the promise that we are seeing from the Cowboys is justified and something the group can build on for the future when their stars return. This was one of the more well-coached games that the Cowboys have played in the Mike McCarthy era. Here’s to it being the first of many.