It takes all three phases to win the game - offense, defense, and special teams. That’s a statement we’ve heard ad nauseam as coaches explain the importance of each element of their football team, usually to remind people that special teams also matter. In general, the offense and defense each take up roughly 40% of the game's snaps with special teams making up the remaining 20%. That number might be higher than some realize, but when you take into account all the plays involved in the kicking game (kickoffs, punts, and field goals), it adds up quickly.
The special teams unit is an area the Cowboys have struggled with in recent years, and the team looked to rectify that by hiring John Fassel last season. Despite failures in all three of their fake punt attempts, the special teams unit did show improvement last season. And despite some kicking woes from Greg Zuerlein, the special team's group as a whole are now starting to assert themselves as a real difference-maker and have come up big several times this season. In fact, they currently lead the league in three special teams categories.
Bryan Anger leads the NFL in net punt average
The frustration with former punter Chris Jones grew as you could see his leg start to wear down as the years passed. After five straight seasons averaging 45+ yards per punt, Jones’ numbers started dwindling. He averaged less than 42 yards a punt over his final two seasons combined. Last season, when Hunter Niswander was punting an average of 47.2 yards per attempt, it was quite the breath of fresh air for Cowboys fans. But that excitement was short-lived when Fassel secured the services of veteran punter Bryan Anger this past offseason.
At first, it seemed like a stubborn move for Fassel to mess with a good thing and go after his guy, but it’s clear now the coach knew what he was doing. Anger is kicking at a career-high 49.4 yards per punt this season. Not only is his leg booming, but the coverage has been outstanding. Anger currently leads the entire NFL with a 44.8 net punting average. Credit Anger with some big kicks and the wheels of C.J. Goodwin and company in corralling the returner.
The Cowboys haven’t been able to take advantage of the punting from Anger in recent weeks, but that shouldn’t stop us from appreciating him. Don’t take that leg for granted.
Tony Pollard leads the NFL in kickoff return average
Remember when Tony Pollard was disastrous as a kickoff returner? There was a time Pollard wasn’t sure when to come out of the end zone and in some instances even lost track of where the ball was and didn't catch it. Pollard even tried to do the “one foot out-of-bounds” trick to draw a flag on the kickoff; however, he forgot that doesn’t work if you touch the ball inbounds first.
Things are different now as he’s turned into an efficient kickoff returner. You may recall that Jim Nantz even commented that Pollard entered Week 12 as the leader in kickoff return average, and that was before his 100-yard return on Thursday. That average is even higher now as he continues with the lead at 29.2 yards per return.
The coaching staff likes the ball in Pollard’s hands, so he’ll get extra chances in the return game, especially if he keeps capitalizing on his opportunities.
No team in the league has blocked more punts than the Cowboys
In the 20-year span from 2000 to 2020, the Cowboys only blocked three punts. The first two came against the San Francisco 49ers at Texas Stadium (2002 and 2008) while the last one came on the road against the Philadelphia Eagles (2015). You may remember the one in against the Eagles as the punt was blocked by Danny McCray, who just so happens to be a cast member of the current season of CBS’ Survivor reality show. Go, Danny!
Three in a 20-year span isn’t great, which is why it’s been such a treat to watch this year’s Cowboys block two punts this year. That puts them in a first-place tie with the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Cowboys are close to being in sole possession of first place as they got a piece of a punt against the Denver Broncos in Week 9, but because it traveled past the line of scrimmage it technically doesn’t qualify as a blocked punt. Regardless, Fassel’s unit is coming after the punts and it’s paying dividends.
Fun fact: The last time the Cowboys blocked two punts in a season was back in 1992. I wonder if anything special happened that year? Here is a history of Cowboys blocked punts over the last 45 years courtesy of statmuse.com.