Do other fan bases argue this much over special teams, or if it’s just a byproduct of the Cowboys’ special teams being especially putrid in the two seasons that Keith O’Quinn was the coordinator? In fact, O’Quinn’s first year as the special teams coordinator saw them finish 23rd in special teams DVOA, and they regressed to 30th the next year. Which is why it was so impressive that John Fassel’s first year on the job - especially when he had zero preseason games to work with - saw the Cowboys finish seventh in special teams DVOA.
And yet, we’ve found something to obsess over in the Cowboys’ win over the Chargers. Odds are that if you clicked on this headline, you know exactly which play that is. A rare sack from Leighton Vander Esch brought up fourth-and-20 from the Chargers 46-yard line. The Cowboys led 14-11 with the two minute warning having just hit. Fassel called for a punt block, and Azur Kamara ran into Chargers punter Ty Long, giving the Chargers an automatic first down.
It’s easy to understand why fans were upset. The Cowboys were about to get the ball back, and likely would have been the last ones to touch the ball in the first half. Instead, the Chargers kept possession and moved down the field, although they did miss a field goal right before halftime. But to take issue with Fassel call there is misguided. It’s not that the play didn’t work because of what Fassel called; it didn’t work because Kamara collided with Long. That’s akin to calling a run with a pulling guard, and then saying it was a bad play to call because the pulling guard was called for a hold. A lack of execution on a play should not reflect on the call itself.
Not only that, but Fassel’s decision to go for a punt block there is absolutely the right one. In a game as close as this one was, the Cowboys and Chargers both understood that in order to win they’d have to find points in unexpected ways. That’s why Chargers head coach Brandon Staley went for two to make it a 14-11 game, and why Mike McCarthy went for it on fourth down several times. This punt was no different.
Some thanks goes out to the great Joey Ickes for doing this research and tweeting it out. Ickes pointed out that in 2020, 13 punts were blocked across the league, contrasted by just seven penalties for roughing the punter. Out of those 13 blocked punts, five of them came on plays where the punting team had more than 10 yards to go for the first down, making it a similar situation to what the Cowboys faced.
More specifically, Ickes noted, three of those 13 blocked punts featured Long and the Chargers; Long led the NFL in blocked punts last year. Two of his three blocked punts came with 14 or more yards to go for a first down. Ickes was kind enough to even provide video footage of these three blocks, noting how similar the block teams were to what Fassel drew up Sunday.
Basically, other than returning a kick for a TD, the most impactful thing a STs unit can do in a game (by EPA), is block a punt.— Joey Ickes (@JoeyIckes) September 21, 2021
The Chargers had 3 blocked last year, tell me if the first one looks familiar… pic.twitter.com/TYBFHR2wMy
What about the 2nd? pic.twitter.com/svZmR5rgPN— Joey Ickes (@JoeyIckes) September 21, 2021
And #3? pic.twitter.com/2nCnTcAZB0— Joey Ickes (@JoeyIckes) September 21, 2021
So on further review, it appears that the decision to go for the block and how specifically they went about doing so was a carefully crafted decision based on the opponent’s tendencies, despite any snarky jokes Fassel made about why he called what he did. In other words, the matchup dictated that the Cowboys had a very good shot at blocking the punt there, so they went for it by doing what they’ve seen work pretty often against this team. Oh, and Cedrick Wilson (seen to the right of #57 Luke Gifford, with an outstretched arm) very nearly did block it.
Lots of ppl are mad that Azur Kamara got tackled into the punter and flagged for roughing, but no one is talking about how they schemed a free run at the punter straight up the middle for Ced Wilson…— Joey Ickes (@JoeyIckes) September 21, 2021
He was less than a foot away from blocking this kick pic.twitter.com/942ztiwhlz
Another criticism that’s been levied about this call is that the Cowboys should have simply played it safe on the punt and let Dak Prescott have a chance to do his thing. That’s an odd refrain to hear from a fan base that spent ten years (rightly) lambasting Jason Garrett for playing it safe, but it also ignores the reality of the Chargers’ field position. They were on their own 46, basically midfield. Generally in those spots, the punter has a great chance of pinning the other team deep. And as it turns out, Long’s punt was downed at the Dallas 10-yard line anyway. In other words, if Kamara doesn’t hit Long, the Cowboys’ reward for playing it safe is asking Prescott to drive 90 yards in under two minutes against a defense that was taking away everything deep.
On the flip side, if the Cowboys do succeed on the punt block - just as they know other teams have in the past against Long - that’s a massive impact play that gives Dak the ball with a very short field. Their odds of scoring on a drive that starts at their own 10 are only slightly higher than their odds of scoring on the CeeDee Lamb-Ezekiel Elliott catch-and-run right before halftime, but the odds of scoring after a blocked punt in that spot on the field is significantly higher.
Of course, the Cowboys don’t need to be told about how impactful a punt block can be. They still remember the one that happened against the Patriots in 2019 that allowed New England to get the first touchdown in what had been a defensive slugfest at that point:
#Patriots captain Matthew Slater blocks the #Cowboys punt which is recovered inside Dallas territory.— Devon Clements (@DevclemNFL) November 24, 2019
Rinse, repeat. pic.twitter.com/43H12UUUWp
Being aggressive and trying to find ways to gain any sort of competitive advantage is the sort of thing that coaches like Bill Belichick and John Harbaugh are great at, and it’s something that Mike McCarthy has emphasized since the moment he arrived in Dallas. Whether it’s going for it on fourth down, throwing the ball on early downs, or trying to block a punt in a high-leverage situation, McCarthy has proven that - unlike his predecessor - he’s willing to take calculated risks to win games. The inherent randomness of football means it won’t always work out, but that approach is a winning one.
Three quick observations
- A truly adaptable offense - After Kellen Moore called 58 passes and just 14 runs to counteract the Buccaneers’ stout front seven, he turned around this week and called 27 passes to 31 runs to take advantage of the light boxes the Chargers were showing. They ended up out-gaining and outscoring the Chargers, showing that this offense is truly capable of beating defenses in wildly different ways from week to week.
- Winning the turnover battle - The Dallas defense didn’t get many stops against the Buccaneers or Chargers, but they did generate takeaways. After four takeaways in Tampa Bay, they got two more against Los Angeles, and currently boast the best turnover differential in the NFL.
- The defense is where it needs to be - A common talking point this offseason was that if the Cowboys offense plays like it has the last two years - at least when Dak Prescott is out there - then Dallas just needs average defensive play in order to win plenty of games. Through two weeks against very talented quarterbacks, the Cowboys defense is sitting right around average in overall defensive EPA/play.