The Dallas Cowboys won on Sunday. It is often said that winning cures all, and while that is true, there are still things to diagnose. The Cowboys are not a team without flaws, but winning when things don’t feel perfect is how it has to get done sometimes in the NFL.
Ultimately the Cowboys coached up a pretty solid game against the Chargers, but they had moments where they could have certainly made better decisions. For the second week in a row one of these moments came in the third phase of the game on special teams. Dallas entered Week 2 with the 32nd-ranked special teams group by DVOA and in one particularly frustrating moment near the end of the first half showed why.
The Dallas Cowboys need to stop behaving recklessly on special teams
Rolling the dice in the NFL is a risky proposition. When things work out your way you are a genius and when they don’t you are a fool. Consider how the world is reacting to the Baltimore Ravens going for a critical fourth down on Sunday night against the Kansas City Chiefs (the correct decision regardless of the outcome). Casual viewers think it was the right call because it worked, but if it hadn’t people would be upset with John Harbaugh.
What happened with the Cowboys at the end of the first half against the Los Angeles Chargers is a very different thing. Dallas was up by three with two minutes left (two timeouts still in their pocket) and was going to get the ball back around their own 10-yard line after your normal, standard, conventional punt.
Keep in mind that the Cowboys offense had scored touchdowns on half of their possessions at that point in time. They had crossed midfield on three of their four possessions at that (Dallas turned the ball over on downs on a fourth down attempt that was also the right call).
Given all of the circumstances here, especially the fact that it was 4th and 20, it made sense for the Cowboys to take the punt and work on getting points before the half. That isn’t what they did, though. John Fassel sent the house to try and block the punt. Disaster ensued.
The house comes tumbling down and the Cowboys draw a penalty, giving the Chargers offense a new set of downs to work with. People focused on results over process will note that Los Angeles did not score on their free possession, but they missed a field goal meaning that they were within range to earn three points in a game that the Cowboys won by three.
This is the second straight week that the Cowboys have gotten too cute on special teams at the end of the first half. Against the Buccaneers they attempted a 60-yard field goal (with a kicker who they spent the week telling everyone he was only recently activated off of the PUP list after having offseason surgery) that gave Tom Brady and Tampa Bay great field position to get points before halftime. Like on Sunday against the Chargers, the Buccaneers did not score, but Brady was able to heave a pass into the airspace of the endzone. The threat of points was there when it shouldn’t have been and more importantly wouldn’t have been if the Cowboys acted more responsibly.
Hindsight doesn’t matter, but obvious would-be mistakes can be avoided
As mentioned, the Chargers went on to attempt a field goal after Fassel sent the house for no reason and ultimately missed it. But what if they made it? Not to dwell in a world of hypotheticals, but the Cowboys won this game by three points. There are three that the Chargers could have very easily had, but shouldn’t have ever had the opportunity for after the defense forced a punt to give the offense the ball back. If we assume that L.A. makes their field goal for a moment and that the Cowboys could have pulled one off themselves we are talking about a hypothetical six-point swing that John Fassel caused.
To be fair to John Fassel, he helped improve the Cowboys special teams from 2019 to 2020, but last season wasn’t without fault. Remember how poorly Tony Pollard was handling kickoffs early on?
As the second week of the NFL season is coming to a close many people who cover the league are noting how thrilling the action has been with all of the one-score games that have been happening, many decided in the final moments like the first Cowboys win that we saw on Sunday.
Special Teams coaches have been fired for much less.
— Bob Sturm (@SportsSturm) September 19, 2021
I don’t really care what happened on the play. If the punter hits the ground, a flag is going to come out. The decision to bring pressure on that kick was a bad one, & it has the potential to completely flip this game.
— David Helman (@HelmanDC) September 19, 2021
The potential gain from Fassel’s decision here in no way outweighed the would-be cost, which as discussed was even potentially a six-point swing. It worked out for him and the Cowboys that Los Angeles missed their field goal, and for what it’s worth Dallas almost pulled off a miracle at the very end of the half with the CeeDee Lamb catch and run.
Sometimes life gives us an opportunity to learn a lesson when we don’t have to face any sort of consequences. The Cowboys won this game so it is a chance for them to dial Fassel’s aggressiveness back, but they have already paid a price given that Greg Zuerlein (who should be celebrated for Sunday as mentioned) is who John Fassel insisted on and wound up costing the Cowboys four points in their opener that they lost by two.
Playing with fire is dangerous. Hopefully the Cowboys learn this lesson immediately.