After the Cowboys earned a narrow victory over the Chargers in Los Angeles in Week 2 of the season, I made the argument that John Fassel’s call for a punt block - which resulted in a roughing the punter penalty - was the correct call. Let’s just say there was a large segment of Cowboys fans that vehemently disagreed with that analysis and made their voices known on these pages.
With the regular season now finished, the Cowboys lead the NFL in blocked punts and have scored multiple touchdowns off of them. For the second time in Fassel’s two seasons running the Cowboys special teams, his unit has finished in the top seven in special teams DVOA. They ranked 30th and 23rd in the two years prior to Fassel arriving.
In fact, throughout Fassel’s 14 seasons as a special teams coordinator his groups have finished in the top ten in special teams DVOA eight times. It’s why he was one of the few coaches retained from Jeff Fisher’s staff when Sean McVay took over the Rams, and why it was such a big deal when Mike McCarthy got him to come to Dallas. Fassel, widely regarded as one of the league’s very best special teams coordinators, knows what he’s doing. And he’s proved that a few times already in Dallas.
Yet it doesn’t seem like he’s earned the benefit of the doubt just yet. As the Cowboys enter the playoffs, Fassel has fielded several questions about the reliability of kicker Greg Zuerlein, whose missed kicks throughout the season have caused growing angst among fans. Fassel seems confident in Zuerlein, who he’s coached for the past ten seasons.
“I think it’s just psychological, and there’s actually something we’re going to do to help him out a little bit that we talked about,” Fassel said, via the Dallas Morning News. “But yeah, I think the biggest part is having confidence that this thing is going right down the middle every time.”
Based on the Twitter reactions to these comments, though, Fassel may be alone in that confidence.
John Fassel, overall, has done a really great job with the Cowboys special teams.— Tom Downey (@WhatGoingDowney) January 10, 2022
His attachment to the kicker is a problem.
Have some one love and trust you the way John Fassel sticks up for Greg Zuerlein, who has 6 missed PATs, 6 missed FGs heading into the playoffs:— Clarence Hill Jr (@clarencehilljr) January 11, 2022
"If I'm wrong, then I'll be wrong. But I really think I'm going to be right. I guess we'll see." pic.twitter.com/H4G05GDJ0u
Stop talking, John. (The one with an H) https://t.co/PGDoak3yBV— Patrik [No C] Walker (@VoiceOfTheStar) January 10, 2022
Just like the Chargers game, there’s a very real validity to those who are concerned about Zuerlein potentially costing them a game in a win-or-go-home scenario. However, Fassel deserves the benefit of the doubt here. He knows what he’s doing, and if he has confidence in Greg the Leg, then we should too.
Last week, I broke down Zuerlein’s struggles and why they really aren’t that bad. Most of Zuerlein’s misses have come in moments that had little to no material impact on the game, and the ones that have are points where Zuerlein has been at his best. On field goals that would either tie the game or give them the lead, Zuerlein has hit 11 of his 14 attempts this year. Only Justin Tucker of the Ravens, Chris Boswell of the Steelers, and Daniel Carlson of the Raiders have been better in this category. In other words, Zuerlein has come through when it matters most.
Furthermore, the data suggests that Zuerlein’s struggles don’t really matter in the grand scheme of things. Kickers are historically inconsistent, with a few rare outliers like Baltimore’s Tucker. Timo Riske of Pro Football Focus had an excellent thread on this reality back in 2018 that, ironically, featured Carlson as a goat. Here are some of the highlights:
Let us focus on what poor Vikings' rookie Carlson did yesterday. His 3 missed field goals and 3 made PATs mean that he was 6.8 points worse than an average kicker. From 2009 to 2017 (over 4000 kicker games), only 5 kickers had worse games.— Timo Riske (@PFF_Moo) September 17, 2018
What this means: A historically bad performance of a kicker loses your team a touchdown. Scoring a touchdown less is of course costly, but note that this performance was one in a thousand.— Timo Riske (@PFF_Moo) September 17, 2018
Compare that to the biggest EPA swings in the Bucs - Eagles game from yesterday. Those 75 yard touchdowns are worth 6.2 EPA and big offensive plays like this happen more than once a week around the NFL.— Timo Riske (@PFF_Moo) September 17, 2018
The fumble by Foles was worth -6.1 EPA and the fumble by Mike Evans was worth -5.5 EPA. The interception by Fitzpatrick was worth -5.3 EPA. Those type of plays happen in almost every game.— Timo Riske (@PFF_Moo) September 17, 2018
Riske compiled all of this and more into a very worth-your-time read if you have a PFF subscription, but the most important takeaways are present in this thread. Kickers really don’t make a big enough difference over the course of a game or even a season to worry about them as much as Cowboys fans are right now.
The times when kickers have mattered that much have been when a team’s offense is unable to score touchdowns, thus making the kicker their primary source of points. Considering Dallas scored the most points in the league this year, had the third-most yards per play, and finished seventh in offensive DVOA, this is certainly not a team that relies on their kicker enough for the misses to matter that much.
This is not meant to shame or heckle those who have concerns about Zuerlein. Quite the opposite, as it should be encouraging to know that what fans are seeing from Zuerlein is about on par for nearly every kicker. The position inherently has a small sample size too, and especially for an analytically inclined team like the Cowboys, where settling for field goals happens a lot less.
What’s not on par with this Cowboys team, though, is their exceptional offense and exceptional defense. They’ve scored more touchdowns than any other team this year and allowed the sixth-least touchdowns this year. Fassel and the rest of this coaching staff understand that their style of play mitigates the occasional miss from Zuerlein. And just as importantly, they know that when they absolutely need a big kick from Greg the Leg, he comes through much more often than not.