When it comes to forecasting the 2021 Dallas Cowboys so much of what we believe will hopefully happen rests on the shoulders of Dak Prescott and the rest of the offensive arsenal working around him. Defense wins championships as legend tells us, but in a game where the team with the most points wins, how frequently you can score points is sort of important. While touchdowns are the ultimate end-all, be-all in the point-scoring category, there is also another way to light up the scoreboard - field goals.
Nobody is advocating for field goals over touchdowns. We are simply pointing out the importance that a three-pointer can have in an NFL game, especially for a Dallas Cowboys team that two years ago was in a lot of one-possession games.
When it comes to field goals on the Cowboys the man putting watermelons down to go and get them is Greg Zuerlein. Many were excited to see what John Fassel’s hand-picked kicker could do for the team in his inaugural flight with them, but outside of the onside kick named after a fruit there was a mostly mediocre season.
Perhaps that could change in 2021.
Greg Zuerlein could be due for a bounce back year with the Dallas Cowboys
It is important to take everything from last year’s Cowboys with a grain of salt given that Dak Prescott’s injury, among all of the others, makes contextualizing what happened difficult. We hardly have a normal sample size as far as Mike McCarthy’s tenure with the team is concerned.
Still, Zuerlein had moments that kept us up late at nights (both for good and bad reasons) and a lot of the reason for that is that he attempted more field goals than any other kicker in the league. As noted, the 2020 Cowboys offense wasn’t exactly a whole lot of fun.
Standard regression suggests that Zuerlein won’t attempt as many kicks in 2021, but a huge part of that will also likely/hopefully be that the Cowboys are scoring touchdowns in situations where they had to settle last year. Kickers who are a part of teams with great offenses still find ways to score generally (even if it is extra points) which means that Zuerlein could be among the top kickers in fantasy, which is what served as the inspiration for this conversation.
Mike McCarthy in his first season with Dallas seemed all too happy to settle for field goals inside the 33 yard line. Perhaps it was all the analytics studying he did during his year off. It’s very much noteworthy that Greg Zuerlein — the boomers call him Legatron — led the NFL with 41 field goal tries on a wretched team that went 6-10 by winning three of their last four games. Quietly — quieter than a deceased church mouse, some would say — Zuerlein was fantasy’s No. 5 kicker in 2020, tied with the much-ballyhooed Rodrigo Blankenship. If Zuerlein, who made three of his nine kicks beyond 50 yards in 2020, had registered his career average from over 50 (56.25 percent), he would have been fantasy’s third highest scoring kicker. That makes me think. Maybe it makes you think too.
That Zuerlein had a middling 2020 field goal conversion rate (82.7 percent) shouldn’t obscure his fantasy potential in a Dak Prescott-led Dallas offense with a head coach who’s fine with field goals inside the 33. Maybe that changes with Prescott under center for a whole season, but McCarthy’s penchant for field goals should be a tidbit we tuck away come August. Zuerlein will surely be a forgotten kicker with top-three upside in 2021.
It is fair to assume that an entirely Prescott-led Cowboys team will not be as keen to settle for field goals as the group was last year. Consider that Zuerlein attempted 1.8 field goals per game through the contest in which Dak Prescott was lost, and 2.9 from every game after on. That is more than an extra field goal attempt per game.
What stood out at first glance was Zuerlein’s make percentage from beyond the arc (50+). It is true that Zuerlein’s current career average from that range is now 56.25%, but prior to 2020 it was 60%. He was characteristically off last season with only a 33.33% success rate from downtown.
Second seasons in new environments have been kind to Greg Zuerlein
Prior to joining the Cowboys last season Greg Zuerlein had only ever played for the Rams, both in St. Louis and in Los Angeles.
As Zuerlein has only one team in his history we can’t exactly look at a situation where he changed teams to see how long it took him to establish success, but being a bit creative in that spirit we can look at his second seasons in each different city/location.
Zuerlein was drafted in 2012 and posted what is currently his second-worst performance of his career percentage-wise, outdone only by the 2019 season that saw the LA Rams let him walk. The following season after he got his bearings though he posted a success rate of 92.9% which was a bit unique for his game given that he only attempted two field goals from 50 yards out or over.
Moving on to Los Angeles, his first season in the city of angels was just your normal sort of performance as he was successful at hat tricks 86.4% of the time. Zuerlein’s second season in Los Angeles (2017) is his career performance to date though as he converted 95% of his field goal attempts which is all the more impressive when you consider that he attempted 40 of them (only one less than last season with Dallas). This was also his greatest season from 50 yards out as he went 6/7, an impressive 86% success rate.
Obviously 2021 will be Zuerlein’s second season with the Cowboys, and it goes without saying that John Fassel has a high level of belief in him. Ideally he will experience the same boost during his second year in a new city as well as a more stable environment with an elite quarterback commanding his offense as opposed to the carousel that the team had last season.