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Cowboys' special teams woes may be impacting the scoreboard more than you think

The early struggles on defense are well documented, but the lack of execution on special teams is not to be overlooked, either.

FRISCO — The task sounds simple enough.

Count to 11.

Last Sunday, against the New York Giants, a Cowboys return unit was set for a short-field punt from their own 41-yard line. Unfortunately, safety Donovan Wilson was ready, too. On the field as an illegal 12th man, Wilson realized the error upon hearing shouts from the Dallas sideline. He sprinted that direction, racing against the snap.

Too late. Penalty.

If only that was the lone miscount.

At some point, be it this season or beyond, the franchise expects to have a well-oiled special-teams unit under coordinator John Fassel. Through five games, the Cowboys clearly are not there yet. They hope for a cleaner effort Monday evening against the Arizona Cardinals.

Coach Mike McCarthy introduced new coordinators on defense and special teams in 2020.

The struggles on defense are well-documented, but the lack of execution on special teams, including on some of the most basic concepts, is not to be overlooked. This element of the team is very much still working into form.

Growing pains have hurt the Cowboys (2-3) in field position while directly or indirectly impacting them on the scoreboard.

Last Sunday, the inability to get properly aligned showed up three times in the second half of a 37-34 win over the Giants. The costliest occurrence came when Wilson couldn’t run off on time before a third-quarter punt. The 5-yard penalty moved New York into field goal position. Instead of punting, the Giants converted a 54-yard field goal to trim their deficit to 24-23.

On that 54-yarder, the Cowboys had only 10 players on the field instead of 11. Later, in the fourth quarter, they again had 10 players on a 28-yard field goal.

Those three occurrences notably came two weeks after Dallas had 10 players on the field for a midfield punt; running back Tony Pollard was missing. The team took a delay of game.

“That’s my job,” Fassel said of player count. "I’m usually pretty good at math. Three go in, three gotta come out. Four come out, four gotta go in. The tough part is, as a defense, you celebrate some good plays, and then the bodies are kind of spread everywhere, and I’m trying to herd everybody and peripheral count. And I haven’t really had any problems with that. But it hit me [Sunday], and there’s nobody else honestly to point the finger at on the count. …

“Ultimately, it’s my job to make sure we’re right, and it will be an easy fix. If it ever happened again — then I don’t know what. It would be a problem. But it’s not going to happen again.”

There, of course, have been other problems.

There was a Week 4 extra point the Cowboys blocked. But cornerback C.J. Goodwin, the man who blocked it, was offside, and Dallas booted the recovery into the end zone, where the Cleveland Browns recovered the ball for a two-point conversion.

Late in a Week 2 win, a Cowboys “watermelon” onside kick was a thing of beauty. Earlier, two failed fake punts gave the Atlanta Falcons possession in Dallas territory, leading to a combined six points. Execution was the undoing in the first kick. The call itself was more questionable in the second.

Through five games, Dallas has struggled in the kickoff return game. Its average starting position after an opposing kickoff is the 23.4 yard line, which ranks fourth-worst in the NFL.

Pollard dropped a Week 3 return against the Seattle Seahawks, leaving the Cowboys with awful field position at their 1-yard line. A safety followed. In Week 4, Pollard misread a kickoff and fielded it late, forcing Dallas to open at its 12.

Last Sunday, the team fielded two kickoffs in play. The drives started at its own 21- and 19-yard lines.

“After we got those two, we kind of drew up something different on the sideline, and then we didn’t get another kick again,” Fassel said. "But it’s good for me to be prepared for all types of different kicks: left kick, right kick, short kick, medium squibs. There’s a lot of possibilities to prepare for, and as I continue to evolve here with the guys and get to know them, we continue to schematically grow.

“So, that’s part of being just five games into it, working on some of those very unique situations, kicks that we’ve all got to have answers for. I’ll continue to provide them for the team. It’s taken a little while. It seems like we’ve been hit with a lot of different stuff early, and hopefully, it will pay dividends in the next couple of months.”

Eleven games remain this regular season. The Cowboys have to make them count.

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Dallas Cowboys

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  • Offensive Coordinator: Kellen Moore
  • COO: Stephen Jones
  • Executive Vice President/Chief Brand Officer: Charlotte Jones Anderson
  • Chief Sales and Marketing Officer/Executive Vice President: Jerry Jones Jr.
  • Head Coach: Mike McCarthy
  • Owner: Jerry Jones
  • Defensive Coordinator: Mike Nolan

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Michael Gehlken. Michael Gehlken joined the Cowboys beat for the Dallas Morning News in August 2019. This marks his 11th season covering the NFL, previously having reported on the San Diego Chargers and Oakland Raiders.

michael.gehlken@dallasnews.com GehlkenNFL
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