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There was work to do to improve all areas for the Dallas Cowboys when Mike McCarthy arrived in January of last year. The offense was good but needed some fresh insight and the defense was regressing. The area that needed the most work, however, may have been the special teams units. It had been in decline for years and finishing 2019 as one of the worst units in the league, change was absolutely necessary.
In came one of the best teams coaches in the NFL, John Fassel who brought with him a commitment to improving all facets of the unit. Change was needed, both in approach and innovation, which Fassel provided. Under the guru, the Cowboys showed they were on the right path.
Dallas wasn’t resting on their laurels and continued to overhaul their special teams. It took just two offseasons to remake the units and the Cowboys now have a drastically different look than they did before McCarthy and Fassel took over.
Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports
The process began with bringing in kicker Greg Zuerlein to stabilize that phase after the team released Dan Bailey. Zuerlein came in as a Fassel favorite and he had a lot of success in his first season with the Cowboys. The veteran made 34 of 41 kicks, but six of his seven misses were on kicks from beyond 50-yards out and he nailed every kick shorter than 40 yards. On the flip side, he missed three extra points. Zuerlein needs to be more consistent there, but he was the only major change in the kicking units at the beginning of last year.
Much to team observers’ dismay, Dallas held onto incumbent punter Chris Jones to start the 2020 season. A core muscle injury to Jones changed that proposition and forced the Cowboys to look outside the organization, where they eventually found Hunter Niswander. Dallas got much better results from Niswander and he’ll now compete with recently signed Bryan Anger for punting duties in 2021.
The other major roster shakeup was the franchise choosing to not re-sign their longest-tenured player, long snapper L.P. Ladouceur. It was a shock to see the organization walk away from a player who had never missed a game in his 16 seasons with the Cowboys, nor did he ever have an errant snap.
To replace Ladouceur, Dallas signed LS Jake McQuaide, who played for Fassel with the Los Angeles Rams. McQuaide has also never missed a game and has two Pro Bowls on his resume.
The exit of Ladouceur this offseason meant the Cowboys have replaced all three of their main special teams parts, the team replaced its kicker, punter and long snapper in the span of 16 months.
Dallas also made key signings to keep the special teams moving in the right direction. Coverage unit ace C.J. Goodwin was brought back as one of the best players on the unit and the Cowboys added safety Jayron Kearse to give the coverage teams a bump as well. The 2021 draft also brought forth many players who should further boost the overall speed and athleticism of both the coverage and return units. Towering speedster Simi Fehoko (6-foot-4, 227 pounds, 4.44 40-yard time) immediately come to mind.
(AP Photo/Roger Steinman)
Last season, Fassel’s influence helped transform running back Tony Pollard from an unsure, hesitant return man to one of the league’s most electric options as he finally capitalized on the skills that make him a talented change of pace option.
Pollard’s timidity was still present early in the year, but by midseason he was breaking off big gains. From Week 7 on he had three different returns of at least 60 yards and improved his kickoff return average from 17.5 in 2020 to 23.9 in 2021.
Tavon Austin led the club in punt returns in 2019 with 17, averaging just 4.9 per return. Rookie CeeDee Lamb had 24 returns and averaged 7.2 per jaunt.
These are now the baselines for the competitions heading into 2021 training camp and Fassel’s technique coaching along with blocking schemes are to thank for the steps up.
Aside from the turnover in players to improve the units, Fassel has also brought in a new philosophy.
The Cowboys tried several trick plays on special teams, which came with a moderate amount of success. They didn’t all work, the Thanksgiving fake punt debacle is hard to forget, but there were several attempts that did work.
Zuerlein’s watermelon on-sides kick helped the Cowboys beat the Atlanta Falcons and the throwback punt return against the Pittsburgh Steelers was successful and well executed to the tune of a 73-yard explosion.
McCarthy and Fassel’s willingness to be aggressive and to force opponents to prepare for every situation was a different approach from the previous regime.
It only took one year, and two off-seasons, to change the direction of the Cowboys’ special teams. It’s a vastly different group now and the hope is that Dallas continues to improve from year one to year two.
The rebuild on special teams were needed and the Cowboys are in much better shape now than they were before the duo of McCarthy and Fassel arrived.
You can chat with or follow Ben on twitter @BenGrimaldi.
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