It rolled and rolled and rolled. So slowly, yet no one bothered it on its path. It was if that oblong object had Jedi powers fooling the players into believing that this was not the ball they were looking for. Once it completed its slight turn upfield and passed the 10-yard mark, perfection had been attained.
The Dallas Cowboys used one of the most unusual onside kicks you’ve ever seen to come back and beat the Atlanta Falcons 40-39. Instead of putting it on a tee and pounding it into the ground in order to bounce it high in the air, Greg Zuerlein put it flat on the ground and almost putted it on its way.
“With the new rules, you’ve got to have something slow where your guys can get to the ball,” [Zuerlein] said. “In years past you could run, so you could do different things. But now, you’ve got to have something slow. It gives our guys a chance to block and hop on it.”
But Zuerlein’s onside try Sunday – an experiment he and special teams coordinator John Fassel formulated during their days with the Rams – went untouched until it reached the required 10-yard mark for Dallas, even with several Falcons players crowded around it with a chance to recover first.
The upfront players on the “hands team” are taught to block the coverage team and let the hands specialists right behind recover the ball. They are used to a ball bounding high and over their heads. The unusual nature of Zuerlein’s kick froze them in bewilderment.
Falcons head coach Dan Quinn said the assignment for the front three on Atlanta’s return team is normally to block on a high-bouncing kick, not go for the ball first. Playing the assignment first gave the Cowboys a chance.
“It looked like it was a slow roller as opposed to a high bouncer. We’ve got to go capture it when the moment comes,” Quinn said.
“It’s all about communication,” Jones said on a virtual call with reporters after the game. “As far as myself and the ball guys, we have to be cautious if the ball gets kicked over our heads. We just have to communicate. If we’re going to decide the front line guys are going to attack the ball guys, let’s go get it. Regardless if it’s at five yards because they can’t touch us or touch the ball if its’ short. Or if it’s moving slow like that, communicate with the front line guys to go get the ball and we’ll cover you up. But it’s a lesson in that. We learned from it and we just have to move on.”
Calvin Ridley, the hands specialist on the other side of the field, could only look on in horror.
“It’s crazy. I wish it was my side, just can’t believe it, man,” Ridley said. “We gotta get that. I wish it was me, I would’ve — I don’t know. We take that as a group. We lost as a group.”
He wasn’t the only Falcon thinking that.
Asked what he was thinking on the onside kick, linebacker Deion Jones said: “Get on the ball. Onside kick, slow roll. Got to fall on the ball. Got to finish what we started.”
Some wondered if the Falcons didn’t know the rule that they could jump on the ball at any time. Falcons coach Dan Quinn says they definitely knew.
Had they forgotten they could recover it before the fateful 10 yards? “They definitely know (the rule),” Quinn said, but there the four were, bent over as if inspecting a frog in the backyard, Hayden Hurst and the great Julio among them.
Once the ball had travelled past 10 yards from the kick, it was up to the Cowboys to get on it. Special teams ace C.J. Goodwin was up to the task.
“I knew we were going to get that ball,” Cowboys special teams ace C.J. Goodwin said. “I told some of my teammates, ‘They’ve never seen an onside kick like that.’”
With that accomplished, the job wasn’t over. Zuerlein had one final task to do. He had to hit the game-winner.
“Just swing confidently and the rest will take care of itself,” said Zuerlein, a nine-year veteran who signed with the Cowboys in the offseason. “Anytime you get in a hurry or don’t swing confidently, bad things happen.”
The final kick was true.
And one of the craziest games ever came to an end.