Are other fan bases arguing as much about special teams, or is this just a byproduct of the Cowboys special teams being particularly putrid in the two seasons that Keith O’Quinn was the coordinator? In fact, O’Quinn’s first year as Special Teams Coordinator saw them finish 23rd in Special Teams DVOA, and they regressed to 30th the following year. Which is why it was so impressive that John Fassel’s first year on the job – especially when he had no preseason games to work with – saw the Cowboys finish seventh on the DVOA special teams.
And yet, we found something that obsesses us about the Cowboys’ victory over the Chargers. Chances are, if you’ve clicked on that title, you know exactly what game it is. A rare sack from Leighton Vander Esch brought the Chargers fourth and -20 off the 46-yard line. The Cowboys were leading 14-11 as the two-minute warning struck. Fassel called for a punt block and Azur Kamara met Chargers punter Ty Long, giving the Chargers an automatic first try.
It’s easy to see why the fans were upset. The Cowboys were on the verge of getting the ball back and would likely have been the last to touch the ball in the first half. Instead, the Chargers kept possession and moved onto the pitch, although they missed a basket just before half-time. But challenging Fassel’s appeal there is misguided. It’s not that the play didn’t work because of what Fassel called it; it didn’t work because Kamara collided with Long. It’s like calling a run with a shooting guard and then saying it was a bad game to follow because the shooting guard was called for a take. A lack of execution on a game should not reflect on the call itself.
Not only that, but Fassel’s decision to go there for a clearing block is absolutely the right one. In a game as close as this, the Cowboys and Chargers both realized that to win they had to find points unexpectedly. That’s why Chargers head coach Brandon Staley went for two to make it a 14-11 game, and why Mike McCarthy has gone there several times in fourth. This punt was no different.
Many thanks to the great Joey Ickes for doing this research and tweeting it. Ickes pointed out that in 2020 there were 13 punters stuck in the league, compared to just seven penalties for roughing up the punter. Of those 13 blocked punters, five of them came on games where the punt team had more than 10 yards to go on the first down, making it a similar situation to which the Cowboys were faced.
Specifically, Ickes noted, three of those 13 blocked punters featured Long and the Chargers; Long led the NFL in blocked punters last year. Two of his three blocked kicks came with 14 or more yards to go for a first down. Ickes was even kind enough to provide video footage of all three of these blocks, noting how similar the bouldering teams were to what Fassel worked out on Sunday.
Basically, aside from returning a kick for a TD, the most impactful thing an STs unit can do in a game (per the EPA), is block a punt.
The Chargers had blocked 3 last year, tell me if the first one sounds familiar to you … pic.twitter.com/TYBFHR2wMy
– Joey Ickes (@JoeyIckes) September 21, 2021
So on closer examination it appears the decision to go for the block and the way they did it was a carefully crafted decision based on the opponent’s tendencies, despite all the sarcastic jokes Fassel explained why he called what he did. In other words, the game dictated that the Cowboys had a really good chance of blocking the punt there, so they went in doing what they saw work quite often against this team. Oh, and Cedrick Wilson (seen to the right of number 57 Luke Gifford, with an outstretched arm) almost blocked him.
A lot of people are angry that Azur Kamara was tackled in the punter and flagged for rudeness, but no one is talking about how they staged a free kick to the punter straight in the middle for Ced Wilson …
He was less than a foot away from blocking that kick pic.twitter.com/942ztiwhlz
– Joey Ickes (@JoeyIckes) September 21, 2021
Another criticism that has been leveled about this call is that the Cowboys should have just played it safe on the punt and let Dak Prescott have a chance to do his thing. It’s an odd refrain to hear from a fan base who spent ten years (rightly) lambasting Jason Garrett for playing it safe, but it also ignores the reality of the Chargers’ field position. They were alone 46, mainly in the midfield. Usually, in these places, the bettor has a good chance of pinning the other team in depth. And in the end, Long’s punt was taken down at the Dallas 10-yard line anyway. In other words, if Kamara doesn’t hit Long, the Cowboys’ reward for playing it safe calls for Prescott to run 90 yards in under two minutes against a defense that took everything deep.
On the flip side, if the Cowboys are successful on the punt block – just as they know other teams have done in the past against Long – it’s a massive impact play that gives Dak the ball. with a very short plot. Their chances of scoring on a practice that starts at their own 10 are only slightly higher than their scoring chances on the CeeDee Lamb-Ezekiel Elliott catch-and-run just before half-time, but the scoring chances after a punt stuck at this spot on the field is significantly higher.
Of course, the Cowboys don’t need to be made aware of the impact of a punt block. They still remember the one that happened against the Patriots in 2019 that got New England the first touchdown in what had been a defensive brawl at the time:
Being aggressive and trying to find ways to get any competitive advantage is the kind of thing coaches like Bill Belichick and John Harbaugh are good at, and it’s something Mike McCarthy has insisted on since joining. in Dallas. Whether it be go for that in fourth place, throw the ball on the first tries, or trying to block a punt in a high leverage situation, McCarthy has proven that – unlike his predecessor – he is willing to take calculated risks to win games. The inherent randomness in football means it won’t always work, but this approach is a winning one.
Three quick remarks
- A truly adaptable offense – After Kellen Moore called 58 assists and just 14 points to counter the Buccaneers‘solid before seven, he turned around this week and called 27 assists in 31 carries to take advantage of the light boxes the Chargers were showing. They ended up winning and scoring the Chargers, showing that this attack is really capable of beating defenses in very different ways from week to week.
- Winning the turnover battle – The Dallas defense didn’t get a lot of saves against the Buccaneers or Chargers, but they did generate takeaways. After four takeaways in Tampa Bay, they got two more against Los Angeles and currently have the best revenue differential in the NFL.
- Defense is where it needs to be – A common talking point this offseason was that if the Cowboys offense plays the way it has for the past couple of years – at least when Dak Prescott is out there – then Dallas just needs an average defensive game. to win a lot of matches. In two weeks against some very talented quarterbacks, the Cowboys defense is sitting just around average in EPA / game defensive set.