Special teams weren’t so special for the Dallas Cowboys in 2019. Sure, that joke has been written a couple of hundred times this offseason, but it still remains true. There’s been plenty of time spent dissecting how a team with the number one offense in some statistical measurements, with an average defense, managed to miss the playoffs. How does a team with a plus-113 point differential end up 8-8? Part of the reason is the play of special teams. At crucial moments, and on an on-going basis, this third phase of the game failed spectacularly.
This was brought up again in a tangential way today when ESPN discussed one player from each team that could benefit from a change in scenery. For the Cowboys, that player was Tavon Austin.
WR Tavon Austin
He produced little in the two seasons after the Cowboys traded for him in 2018. Some of it was due to injury. Some of it was due to circumstance. There are only so many touches to go around when an offense has Ezekiel Elliott, Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup, Randall Cobb, Jason Witten and Blake Jarwin. Austin did not impact the return game much either, and some of that might not just be his doing. The entire special teams unit struggled. But the Cowboys can find somebody younger to fill Austin’s role, or use that money to fill other roles. — Todd Archer
Much of that assessment has to do with Austin’s limited impact on offense, but it also discusses a part of his game most Cowboys fans thought would be a plus for the team. His punt return ability. During his two years in Dallas, we only saw that make a difference on a couple of occasions.
As noted, that might not all be on Austin as the special teams in general were awful. Brett Maher lost his job as the kicker to Kai Forbath, and punter Chirs Jones had an abysmal season.
Dallas plans to right the ship by bringing in John Fassel, generally acknowledged as among the very best special teams coordinators in the league. His job will be to improve that phase of the game, and he might be doing that with plenty of new faces.
Consider this, of the Cowboys top 10 players on special teams by snap count percentage, seven are free agents. C.J. Goodwin, Justin March, Joe Thomas, Darian Thompson, Jeff Heath, Byron Jones and L.P. Ladouceur are all free agents. Another special teams ace who didn’t play much in 2019, Kavon Fraizer, is also a free agent. Punt returner Tavon Austin is a free agent as is kicker Kai Forbath.
There is normally some turnover on special teams because players on those teams tend to be backups or guys signed almost exclusively for special teams, so they can move on when contracts are up, or be cut to save money, more frequently than starters. But the Cowboys are facing an inordinate number of their top special teams players exiting in free agency.
Of course, in the Cowboys case, that might be a good thing considering how bad the unit was last year. Fassel might have cleaned house anyway but now that job is a little easier. If this is going to happen, at least the Cowboys have a guy like Fassel to trust in, his track record speaks for itself.
When free agency arrives and the Cowboys are deciding which free agents to keep, and which free agents to bring in from other teams, keep an eye out for their abilities to play special teams. For the Rams last year, Fassel used mainly defensive players for the bulk of special teams work, and most of those guys were either linebackers or safeties, with a few corners thrown in.
Something to keep in mind when it comes to reshaping the Cowboys for 2020. Besides decisions to be made on the kicker and punter, the rest of special teams may look dramatically different.