The hidden value of special teams

Dallas Cowboys

The special team phase of football never gets enough press. For most people who watch football, they are only concerned about how the team’s offense and the defense looks. Think about it. Do you read about weekly breakdowns about special teams? Do you play punt gunners on your fantasy teams? Probably not. Anytime the kickers walk on to the field, that’s usually a good time for people to grab some food or use the restroom.

But special teams decide games each and every week in the NFL. Teams who win in the kicking game consistently win at a higher rate than the rest of the league.

Consider this; since 2010, teams that score a touchdown on a kick or punt return for a touchdown have a record of 119-54, according to Pro Football Reference. Teams that block a punt have a similar record (62-36-1), but yet, special teams are mostly an afterthought to NFL fans.

On Sunday, the Dallas Cowboys had their ups and downs in the kicking game. Their new kicker Mike Nugent was solid, making four out of five field goals in the rain, with his only missing being from 49-yards out.

The biggest play of the game came on a Washington Redskins’ field goal attempt in which Tyrone Crawford blocked and it was returned by Cowboys’ cornerback Orlando Scandrick down inside their opponent’s five-yard line. While the Cowboys didn’t score on that specific play, it set up an Ezekiel Elliott touchdown run on the next down. Like any play on special teams, the momentum instantly switched and from that point on in the game, Dallas took control.

But the Cowboys have a problem on special teams and his name is Ryan Switzer. In the offseason, Dallas decided to try to improve their return game by selecting Switzer in the fourth round out of North Carolina. They also decided to release veteran returner Lucky Whitehead, who was a serviceable returner last season.

Despite their relatively high investment for a special team’s player, Switzer has not returned value on that selection. Switzer is averaging just seven yards per punt return and only 21.5 yards per kick return. And as bad as those numbers seem, it’s the hidden yards that have actually hurt the Cowboys more. Let’s take a look at Switzer’s day as a returner to see what went wrong for him on Sunday.

The first return we are going to look at is one of Switzer’s worst. The Cowboys lined up in a punt-return formation with Rod Smith and Jeff Heath protecting him up the middle. Essentially, they are making sure Switzer will get a clean chance to catch the ball and make some sort of return.

But despite the fairly decent blocking and a high punt, Switzer inexplicably allows this punt to touch the ground. If Switzer just calls for a fair catch, the Cowboys would have had the ball around the 22 or 23 yard-line. But instead, he allows it to bounce and the Redskins down it at the 11. That’s a loss of at least 11 yards and potentially a whole lot more:

Unfortunately, that wasn’t Switzer’s only miscue of the night. He also had another punt earlier in the game that was very catchable, but Switzer allowed for it to bounce at the 23-yard line and the Redskins were able to down the ball inside the Cowboys’ nine-yard line. If Switzer just calls for a fair-catch, he’s likely able to catch the ball around the 24 or 25-yard line. But instead, his mistake costs the Cowboys at least a dozen yards and pins them back in their own end zone.

The most controversial play of Sunday’s game for Switzer came in the fourth quarter when the Cowboys trotted out their hands’ team, suspecting that the Redskins were going to attempt an onside kick. Instead, they kicked the ball deep and forced Switzer to return this kick.

Now, I understand why Switzer didn’t try to return this kick more aggressively. The last thing the Cowboys want to do is turn the ball over to the Redskins in scoring position. However, Switzer’s lack of aggressiveness ended up pinning Dallas inside their own 15-yard line. Switzer could have tried to get to the sideline to gain a few more yards, but all in all, it wasn’t a terrible decision by Switzer.

Many will read this piece and wonder why am I harping on a returner in a game in which the Cowboys won by double digits on the road, in the rain against a divisional opponent? Because these are the types of plays that win and lose games against better opponents.

The Cowboys want to play a ball-control style of offense and to do so, they need to win in the kicking game consistently. To play this style of football, you can’t allow a returner to change the momentum of a game. Unfortunately for Dallas, their returner has now done that twice this season. Luckily for Dallas, it’s only cost them one game and not two.

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