Cowboys’ Fassel on Week 10’s unsung special teams hero: ‘Like nothing I’ve seen before’

Within the highly-focused world of special teams, John Fassel has certainly seen some stuff.

In 2012 with the Raiders, his entire three-man kicking battery (kicker, punter, long snapper) made the Pro Bowl. With the Rams, his specialists combined for seven Pro Bowls. Over his time with that franchise, his players won NFC Special Teams Player of the Week honors 15 times.

To be sure, in almost a quarter-century of coaching, Fassel’s been around plenty of exemplary special teams play.

But what Cowboys linebacker Luke Gifford did on Sunday in Green Bay left even the 48-year-old coordinator grasping for adjectives.

“Like nothing I’ve seen before,” Fassel told reporters on Monday. “Five legitimate tackles in one game, on special teams. I haven’t ever been a part of a game where one guy had that many tackles. And he had a fumble recovery, too. He was very productive; he actually missed one [tackle] on a punt at the end of the game. It could have been six.”

And Gifford, the undrafted Nebraska product who’s been with the club since 2019, did it while playing just 26 snaps, all on special teams. It’s the same stat line that safety Jayron Kearse delivered… only it took Kearse 57 snaps.

“Really proud of him,” Fassel said of Gifford. “He said this morning, ‘When it rains, it pours.'”

Gifford’s latest pop-up shower represents an absolute downpour of points on an in-house scoring system that Fassel uses to grade his special teams players.

“We’re doing the math on it right now, and it shot him up the chart,” he said. “It might be a 100-point game. For the season, the benchmark is 500 points, so you see 100 points in one game, that’s a lot.”

Fassel employs the scoring system as just one way to motivate his guys, who are often younger or less experienced players- like Gifford- just trying to do enough to earn a chance on offense or defense.

“Bonus points for tackles, fumble recoveries, forced fumbles,” Fassel explained. “Proud of him, because he’s been under the radar, playing really good football. Maybe the stat sheet doesn’t show it. Also his leadership. I think the best is yet to come for him.”

Gifford has gotten in on defense over his three-plus seasons, but very sparingly. He’s played with the regular defensive unit in just seven games; he logged double-digit snaps exactly once.

But on special teams, the third-string linebacker has been a mainstay. He’s participated in over half of the special teams snaps in 33 of the 38 games he’s dressed for as a Cowboy.

So Fassel’s leaderboard may be his best shot at getting noticed within a position group that includes phenom Micah Parsons, fan favorite Leighton Vander Esch, veteran Anthony Barr, and high-potential newcomers Jabril Cox and Damone Clark.

Fassel says he adopted the special teams point system from one of his early coaching stops.

“I got it back when I was an assistant with the Baltimore Ravens in 2006,” he recalled. “I worked for Frank Gansz Jr., who was a coordinator. And his dad, Frank Gansz Sr.- arguably the most legendary special teams coach in the National Football League- I kind of got it from him. We’ve obviously changed it over the course of all the years with how do you score points, how much this production is worth, a tackle’s worth this many points, a forced fumble’s worth this many points, a blocked punt’s worth this many points, just doing your job is worth this many points. So it has to do with two things: participation and production. And 500 points is the goal for the end of the season. Usually we have about six players, on average, that will hit 500 points per year.”

Being the year-end winner would earn Gifford plenty of recognition- plus an added bonus- from one of the top special teams minds in today’s game.

“A lot of love, and a lot of cool other something,” Fassel laughed. “Maybe a big old dinner at the house or something.”

But what would be even better for Gifford is if his ultra-rare special teams performance simply leads to more regular chances in the defensive huddle.

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Story originally appeared on Cowboys Wire