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How the Cowboys’ special teams quietly turned in a Top 10 performance in 2020

You may not have realized it, but special turns quietly turned into a team strength last year for Dallas.

Dallas Cowboys v Los Angeles Rams Photo by Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images

After a tumultuous season with a small army of new coaches, injuries galore, a new defensive scheme, and a 6-10 finish, it’s hard to figure out exactly what to expect from the Cowboys in 2021. Especially today, where there’s no shortage of opinions on where the Cowboys stand, and more and more people talking about the Cowboys mistake their opinions for facts.

Add to that an alarmist Cowboys coverage that is constantly looking for the next topic to hyperventilate about, and it can get very hard to arrive at an accurate assessment of the state of the Cowboys heading into the 2021 season.

So instead of making grand, sweeping generalizations, we’ll narrow our focus today to special teams and look at what the data has to say about special teams performance in 2020.

In 2018, the Cowboys lost special teams coach Rich Bisaccia (in Dallas since 2013) to the Raiders and chose to promote from within instead of hiring an experienced special teams coach to replace Bisaccia. The same year, the team unexpectedly moved on from Dan Bailey. Couple those moves with a significant downturn in overall special teams play, and a team that had consistently been a borderline top 10 unit (per Football Outsiders) dropped like a stone in the FO rankings.

Cowboys Special teams
2013 2014 2015 2016 2017 2018 2019
Rank 8th 13th 11th 9th 7th 21st 27th

After two disappointing special teams seasons the Cowboys decided a coaching change was in order and brought in John Fassel, long considered one of the best special teams coaches in the league. Bones, as Fassel is known, and his unit started off the season with less than stellar performances. Dave Halprin summarized the many special teams gaffes after Week 3:

It all started in the first week of the season when kicker Greg Zuerlein missed a field goal. In a game the Cowboys lost 20-17, those three points were important. Last week the amazing watermelon onside kick overshadowed shoddy execution on a couple of fake punts and Tony Pollard deciding to return some kickoffs from inside the endzone.

Against the Seahawks, things bottomed out. The Cowboys missed two extra points. One was off the upright, the other was blocked when no one blocked the Seattle edge rusher. Tony Pollard gifted the Seahawks a couple of points when he inexplicably decided again to try and return a kick that would have been a touchback, instead he fumbled it and recovered just outside the Cowboys goal line. One play later, the Cowboys were caught in a safety. Those four points could have come in handy at the end of the game when they had to go for a desperation touchdown instead of a tying field goal.

In the overall analysis, even with the miracle against Atlanta at the end, the special teams unit has been a disappointment. Through two weeks, Football Outsiders had the Cowboys special teams DVOA at 22nd in the league.

But things steadily improved over the course of the season.

  • The Cowboys started covering kicks better (ranked ninth with 20.9 yards per kick return), and returned kicks better (ranked third overall with 26.1 yards per kick return).
  • Chris Jones was averaging just 42.6 yards per punt (ranked 33rd) in the first eight games (after averaging a league-low 41.6 in 2019) and was placed on IR after eight games. His replacement, Hunter Niswander, ranked eighth overall with 47.2 yards over the remaining eight games.
  • The return game also picked up and CeeDee Lamb ranked 11th in the league in punt returns, and Tony Pollard, despite his early mistakes, ended up ranked eighth overall in kick returns.

In the end, the improvements over 2019 were tangible and resulted in a big jump in special teams performance, as LB Justin March explains:

The “dude” March is talking about is none other than John “Bones” Fassel.

The rankings March is referring to are Rick Gosselin’s annual special teams rankings in which he scores teams across 22 different special teams categories and then adds everything up to one total score. According to Gosselin, the Cowboys were a top five unit in the following three categories:

  • Kickoff returns (third)
  • Field Goals (third)
  • Kickoff starting point (fourth)

Overall, that’s quite a turnaround for Fassel’s unit, and one of the reasons why he’s again getting consideration as a head coaching candidate.

And even the advanced analytics at Football Outsiders agree that the Cowboys made quite a jump, though they suggest Fassel’s boys were even better than what Gosselin’s compilation of volume stats shows.

Despite a super-slow start that saw them ranked 22 by DVOA after week 2 (coming off a 2019 season in which they ranked 30th) the Cowboys special teams unit finished the season ranked seventh overall.

Football Outsiders offer an array of special teams stats which are summarized for your reading convenience in the table below.

Special Teams
Overall FG/XP Kickoff Kickoff Ret. Punt Punt Ret.
2020 7 12 9 7 11 13

Overall, this bodes well for next season. Fassel is likely staying on in Dallas, Hunter Niswander will likely also be kept over Chris Jones, Greg Zuerlein is going nowhere, and a little more preparation time won’t hurt either. The team still has to figure out whether to keep long-snapper L.P. Ladouceur for another year, and the team will have to weigh the injury risk of keeping CeeDee Lamb as a punt returner.

But there’s no reason why special teams shouldn’t be a top 10 unit again in 2021.