Position Series: Looking For Special Player
Position Series: Looking For Special Player
DallasCowbys.com Staff Writer
July 27 2004, 7:45 p.m. (CDT)
(Editor's Note: This is the last of a 10-part series, DallasCowboys.com analyzing the Cowboys position-by-position as they begin final preparations for the July 31 start to training camp. Today will feature the special teams.)
IRVING, Texas -- Special teams have become very special these days in the NFL, and not just to some, but to everyone.
They are treated right up there with offense and defense, every organization realizing emphasis on special teams and quality play in this area can win games.
And Cowboys head coach Bill Parcells is no different. In fact, he stresses quality special teams plays as much, if not more, than any other coach in the league.
In his talks about field position and "hidden yardage," Parcells constantly reiterates just how valuable his special teams units are to winning games. When a player on the roster bubble is evaluated, his special teams contributions likely will determine his fate.
So as he enters his second season with the Cowboys, Parcells enters training camp this week looking for players who can help this team in the kicking game, as well as their assigned position.
The Cowboys made an attempt last year to improve their punting game by signing veteran punter Toby Gowin, who started his career in Dallas back in 1997. Gowin, however suffered through his worst season of his career, struggling to find consistency in both punting and kickoffs.
While Parcells checked out other punters throughout the season, he stuck with Gowin, who never broke out of a season-long slump. Gowin was released in March and now the Cowboys are taking two punters to training camp who have yet to kick in an NFL game.
Mat McBriar and Ryan Flinn were equally impressive in mini-camps this off-season at Valley Ranch, but that's practice. Certainly it's a different story when the lights come on for the preseason games.
Cowboys kicking coach Steve Hoffman is no stranger to finding hidden gems when it comes to punters and kickers, so it's conceivable McBriar or Flinn could emerge to win the job.
But if neither does, expect the Cowboys to keep a close eye on the open market, possibly being forced to sign a veteran punter if Parcells and Hoffman are still uneasy with the position by the end of training camp.
That should not be the case at place kicker, where Billy Cundiff was probably down to his last chance as early as Week Two last year against the Giants. He had missed a field goal and had an extra point blocked in a season-opening loss to the Falcons, prompting Parcells to hold a kicking tryout on the team's off day. But not only did Cundiff make his next kick in New York, he made six others, including a 52-yard game-tying field goal to force overtime and then a 26-yard kick to win the game and tie an NFL record for most made field goals in one game.
Cundiff went on to have a solid season, making 23-of-29 kicks. This year, he'll have to beat out Jonathan Ruffin, a first-year player whom the Cowboys signed in January and then sent to NFL Europe. Unless he suffers a slump, Cundiff should be able to win the job and likely take over the kickoff duties for the first time in his career.
Snapping the ball for both punts and field goals should be Jeff Robinson once again. In the season-ending press conference this past January, Parcells said the deep-snapping position was the only spot on the field that didn't need an upgrade.
But finding consistency in the return game is surely one of Parcells' top priorities for training camp.
The Cowboys drafted Zuriel Smith in the sixth round last year as a candidate to return kicks. And while he showed flashes of potential early, including a key 54-yard return that set up a winning field goal against the Eagles, Smith struggled to the finish.
In fact, by mid-season Smith was replaced by Joey Galloway on punt returns and the Cowboys signed veteran Michael Bates to handle the kickoff returns. Both Bates and Galloway are gone, and Smith will again get the opportunity to win the jobs, albeit with plenty of competition.
The Cowboys drafted a pair of rookies in the seventh round with returns in mind, including Northwestern Oklahoma State wide receiver Patrick Crayton, who played quarterback and wide receiver, along with returning both punts and kickoffs. He returned four kicks for touchdowns last year, and he led the entire NAIA with a dazzling 26.7-yard punt return average in 2001.
The Cowboys also drafted Rutgers cornerback Nate Jones, who had 1,902 career kickoff return yards, in the seventh round, 11 picks before Crayton.
And don't discount second-round pick Julius Jones from possibly returning kickoffs this year. With the addition of Eddie George, Jones probably won't be asked to carry the full load in the running game, which could free him up for the return-game duty.
Remember, Jones left Notre Dame as the school's all-time leader in kickoff-return yards, surpassing 1987 Heisman Trophy winner Tim Brown with 2,104.
"I don't really know how that's going to work out or if they'll even put me back there," Jones said of returning kicks. "I've done it and I'll do it if they ask me to. Right now, I'm just trying to learn as much as offense as I can."
Aside from Randal Williams alertly snatching an onside kick and returning it 37 yards to open the Oct. 12 game against Philadelphia, which does count as an official kickoff return, the Cowboys did not score a touchdown on a regular kickoff or punt return last season, and marked the first time since the 1996 season the Cowboys did not return a traditional kick for a score.
The return competition will be wide open from the start, beginning with Smith and the rookies, but a few others could creep into the mix.
Players such as running backs ReShard Lee and Aveion Cason and undrafted rookie wide receivers Brandon Middleton and Terrance Copper were also seen shagging kicks during the last mini-camp.
And let's not forget about Terence Newman, possibly the most talented return specialists on the squad. Parcells never gave a definitive reason last year for not using Newman to return punts, a duty he excelled in at Kansas State. But it's likely the Cowboys didn't want to risk Newman to injury last season, and wanted him focusing strictly on the cornerback position.
But after a stellar rookie year, which he finished second in the NFL's Rookie of the Year voting behind Baltimore's Terrell Suggs, Newman might get an opportunity this year.
In fact, Parcells didn't rule out the possibility when asked the question last month. Then again, the coach doesn't rule out too many things in June anyway, especially when it comes to all-important special teams.
Last edited by jdnalls : 07-28-2004 at 03:23 AM.