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The Cowboys poured their guts out on the turf in Tampa and came within two points of beating the defending world champions. After such a loss, it’s hard for players to not scrutinize every move they made over the course of the contest, looking for something else they could have done that might have been the difference.
Greg Zuerlein didn’t have to look long. The kicker, entering his tenth year in the league, left a total of seven points on the field in a rough night where he went just 3-of-5 on field goal attempts and also missed a point after touchdown.
“I know we played well enough to win. If I do my job, we win that game,” Zuerlein said outside the visitors’ locker room after the 31-29 season-opening loss. “I feel bad for the guys in there that played their ass off, and I didn’t hold up my end of the deal. A team that’s that good, returning every player from the Super Bowl victory, and we’re right there. I just have to do my job.”
Particularly concerning to the 2017 All-Pro was his first miss, a seemingly easy 31-yarder that sailed very wide left.
“Obviously, missing something [that’s] such an easy kick- you don’t even really practice them; it’s just automatic,” he explained. “When you miss something like that, you analyze it for about two minutes, figure out what you did wrong, and then you’ve got to move on. It does you no good dwelling on it.”
Two minutes of analysis is all Zuerlein had. The defense regained possession on the Bucs’ next play, recovering a fumble and setting up Dak Prescott and Co. with a short field and an eventual touchdown five snaps later. But Zuerlein then banged the extra-point attempt off the left upright.
The 33-year-old said that during a game, he may make small adjustments to his mechanics based on what he thinks he did wrong on an earlier miss, but there’s a danger in overthinking or trying to change too much all at once.
“I think the approach is always the same, whether you make it or miss it,” Zuerlein said. “You don’t just throw things straight out the window. You figure out what you did wrong, and you can make a slight tweak. But you’re not going to wholesale change everything. You’ve just got to keep swinging.”
Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy subscribed to the same theory, sending Zuerlein out to boot a 35-yard field goal on the team’s next series, and then to try a 60-yarder just before halftime. McCarthy admitted that he wanted to provide a confidence boost to his kicker who’s coming off spring back surgery and missed most of training camp.
“Obviously, you’d like to see him make those kicks,” McCarthy said in his postgame press conference. “Frankly, it’s part of the reason I went for the 60-yarder. I have great faith and confidence in him. We need him; he made a clutch, clutch kick there at the end to give us the lead before the two-minute drive of Tampa. You get in a game like that, you need all the points you can get.”
True, Zuerlein had better rhythm after the intermission, sinking field goals from 21 and 48 yards, the latter giving Dallas the lead with under 84 seconds to play.
But that was more than enough time for Tom Brady to work with, and he drove Tampa Bay to inside the Cowboys’ 20. Zuerlein’s earlier missed kicks had left just a slim margin; they ended up allowing Buccaneers kicker Ryan Succop to win the game with a 36-yard field goal of his own.
If Zuerlein doesn’t miss 2 kicks that are made 99% of the time in the NFL Cowboys are winning this game.
— Michael Strawn (@LifeInCharts) September 10, 2021
Zuerlein had not missed a field goal attempt of under 40 yards since 2019 and had missed just two from that range in the last five years. And while his physical rehab this summer kept him out of all but one preseason game (and forced the team to try both a punter and a CFL All-Star at kicker during camp), the man they call “Greg the Leg” wouldn’t chalk up his Week 1 misses to rust.
“No excuses. If I’m out there, I should make the kicks.”
Whether or not Zuerlein should, in fact, be the one out there is sure to be a question asked a lot this week in Cowboys Nation.
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