THE WULF DEN: POSITIONAL PREVIEW –SPECIAL TEAMS AUGUST 5, 2004 This is the eighth part of an eight-part preview of the positional battles Cowboy fans can currently watch in training camp in Oxnard, California. In this eighth segment, we will look at special teams, a unit that will determine many of the final roster selections. Bill Parcells wants his special teams units to be good. No, he wants them to be better than good. In fact, he wants them to be outstanding. When he came to the Cowboys last season, he said unequivocally that he wanted to improve the special teams play first. Why? Because it is the aspect of the game he believes can improve the overall performance of a team the fastest, and that can make the most overall impact. How much more likely is it that your offense will score points on a given drive if they can begin with the ball on their own 35-yard line instead of on the 20 after the kickoff? How big of a difference is it for your defense to have opposing offenses pinned inside their own 10-yard line after a punt, rather than lining up at the 20? What difference does it make in your play-calling when you know you have a kicker who can nail anything inside of 50 yards…and have a good shot at 50+? Is there anything that can build momentum faster than a big return on a punt or kickoff, or anything that can take the wind out of a team’s sails as fast as a big return by the other team? The reality is that Bill Parcells likes to play a smash-mouth, ball control, field position game. He wants to play the game in the opposing team’s end of the field for the entire 60 minutes, if possible. He trusts his defense to hold if offenses have to go the length of the field to score. He believes his offense can score consistently if the return game can set them up with good field position. He’s not alone in this regard, but he may put more emphasis on it than any other coach in the league. He regularly uses his draft picks in the sixth and seventh rounds to either take special teams players or move down to take special teams players. This year’s draft is the perfect example, trading down repeatedly and coming away with three guys who will either help the special teams or be cut. With this kind of emphasis from the top, you’d better believe the training camp battles will be intense. Of course, all of the non-starters (and some of the starters) will be called upon to contribute to special teams coverage in some manner. But the kickers, punters, long-snappers, return men, and gunners are specific special teams positions, and take a special type of player to excel. So, as the Cowboys continue to practice in Oxnard, let’s look at the special teams units, and the players we can expect to man those positions this season. Kicker Billy Cundiff When Billy “I see dead people” Cundiff arrived in Dallas two years ago, he was yet another in a long line of little known kickers and punters brought in by coach Steve Hoffman. He started all 16 games, and to say that he was sporadic is an understatement. By season’s end, he was 12 of 19 on FG attempts. In fact, the only place he was consistent was inside of 30 yards, where he was 3-3 and converted all 25 extra points. He showed some progress last year, not only increasing his accuracy (made 23 of 29 FG attempts, although he did miss an extra point, converting 30 of 31), but also showing that he could get it done with the game on the line, as he did early in the season against the Giants on Monday night. He still needs to increase his accuracy, however, if he wants to stay with the Cowboys and in Parcells’ good graces. But perhaps as important for him is the practice he has had to do kicking off this offseason following the release of last year’s punter, Toby Gowin. Gowin handled the kickoffs with a couple of exceptions last season, following a 2002 season where Cundiff’s kickoff average was sub par. In his rookie campaign, Cundiff allowed opposing teams to begin at their 28-yard line, on average, and had only one touchback. That’s not good. If he can improve this aspect of his game, it would solidify his position as the man to beat. Jonathan Ruffin Ruffin has some promise. He must have, considering that he is now with his third NFL team, all seeing something worth testing. He signed in 2003 with Denver as an undrafted rookie, then was traded to Seattle for a conditional 2004 draft pick. Seattle later released him, and the Cowboys brought him in at the end of the year, planning to send him to play in NFLEurope this spring. At Cincinnati, he got off to a rocky start. His freshman year, Ruffin made only 5 of 12 FG attempts, missing one inside of 30 yards and having one blocked. He also converted 23 of 25 extra point conversions. But his sophomore season, he exploded. He completed 26 of 29 FG attempts and 26 of 27 extra point conversions, winning the Lou Groza Award in the process. In 2001 and 2002, he went 12-16 and 19-22, respectively, and also completed 36-36 XP conversions in 2001 and 44 PATs as a senior. That sounds fairly consistent, although I doubt it would be good enough for Bill Parcells on a regular basis. In Europe, Ruffin only had the opportunity to attempt 6 FGs, and made only 4 of them, so he didn’t do anything to make you sit up and take notice. Also, there is a question of his leg strength. Between his college career and this spring in Europe, Ruffin has only attempted one FG of 50 or more yards in a game situation…and he missed it. In today’s NFL—and particularly on a team who is depending upon their defense to keep them in close games—you must have a kicker that at least has a chance to make a FG from 50+ in a clutch situation. His chances of unseating Cundiff are slim, at best. Punter Mat McBriar When asked who on the roster could have the greatest impact on the Cowboys team coming into training camp, Parcells, without hesitation, said, “Mat McBriar.” That’s pretty high praise for a punter, but it is reflective of the importance Parcells places on his special teams, and in particular the importance of winning the field position battle. McBriar has a cannon for a leg, and it seems to just keep getting stronger. In college, he steadily improved his stats across the board. In 2000, McBriar had 43 punts, averaging 38.3 yards per punt and placing 10 inside the 20-yard line. His long for the season was 65 yards. In 2001, he had 40 punts, but his average went up to 43.4 yards per punt, and he placed another 10 inside the opponents’ 20-yard line. His season long was 69 yards. In his final season in Hawaii (2003), McBriar punted 48 times, raising his average to 44.8 yards per punt and placing 12 inside the 20. His season long was 73 yards. Hmmm…a 45-yard average, able to place 25% of them inside the opponents’ 20-yard line, and boom a 70-yarder when necessary? That would be a significant improvement over last year, where Gowin struggled all season, in part due to an early-season quad injury. If McBriar could channel that strength into possibly helping with the kickoffs as well, it would be icing on the cake. Ryan Flinn If he has a shot at the roster, it is as a result of an injury or a Quincy Carter-level screw-up by McBriar. His last year at Central Florida, he punted 37 times with a 41.1 yard average, with a long punt of 61 yards. But Flinn split time as a place-kicker and a punter throughout his college career, and that puts him behind the curve in terms of experience at the position. His best hope is that he shows enough to get picked up by another team. Long-Snapper Jeff Robinson There’s not much to be said here. Robinson helps out occasionally (and I’m talking on VERY rare occasions) on the offense, although both of his receptions last year went for TDs. But he is one of the best long-snappers in the game, and is guaranteed a roster spot if he stays healthy. Kick/Punt Returner RB Julius Jones As a kickoff returner at Notre Dame, he returned 59 kicks for 1,435 yards (24.3 avg) and a TD over his career. That’s very respectable. And, with Eddie George in camp, Parcells will be less hesitant about using his top draft pick in the return game. Jones has blazing speed, and will be a threat to go all the way every time he touches the ball. RB ReShard Lee Lee has been looking very good in training camp thus far, according to numerous reports, just as he looked pretty good in preseason last year before going down with an injury. And he is getting an opportunity to return kicks. He’ll have to show something in the return game if he wants a spot on the roster, as both Jones and Aveion Cason are kick returners. He is eligible for the practice squad, but may not make it through waivers if he continues to shine throughout camp. RB Aveion Cason Cason got a chance to be a kick returner last season, and was so unremarkable that Parcells went out and got someone else. In addition, he is coming off of season-ending knee surgery, so his ability to cut with confidence is going to be a question mark. With his limited size, and the likelihood of Richie Anderson being the third down back, Cason has to win the kick return job to make the roster. Say goodbye, Aveion. WR Patrick Crayton In a recent press conference, Parcells said he was looking for guys who could show something as a wide receiver first, and then that they would be able to contribute something specific to special teams. At Northwestern Oklahoma State, Crayton returned 39 kickoffs for 923 yards (23.7 avg) and 2 TDs, and returned 72 punts for 1,496 yards (20.8 avg) and 10 TDs. That’s very impressive, even if it is against a lower level of competition. And, thus far in both mini-camp and training camp, Crayton has shown that he may be able to keep that kind of production coming. What may be as important, however, is that he has also shown some ability at catching the ball as a receiver. He has as good of a shot at the fourth, fifth, or sixth (if they keep six) WR spots as anyone else on the squad. WR Cedric James James has been playing well in training camp, and may actually be showing some of what caused him to be a 4th round pick of the Vikings a couple of years ago. He has very limited game experience, but is familiar with the Cowboys’ schemes after spending last season on the practice squad. If he continues to show that he has solid receiving skills, he could catch Parcells’ eye. If he can return kicks, however, it would increase his chances geometrically. He returned 10 kickoffs for the Vikings, averaging 22.8 yards per return. He could be the sleeper for the #4 receiver spot, as well as a viable alternative for the 5th or 6th slots. WR Dedric Ward Ward has been a punt returner throughout his career, but his production has been only average (10.3 avg). That’s not bad, but certainly not great. Parcells wants Dante Hall, not Monte Hall. Working in his favor is his familiarity both with Parcells’ schemes, and with new starting QB Vinny Testaverde. However, I think he has to win the #4 receiver spot to make the roster. The last couple of receiver positions will likely be reserved for young players who can not only contribute on special teams, but also have long-term potential as receivers. Ward has seen his best days as a receiver, and they weren’t that good. WR Zuriel Smith Smith was drafted last year to be the punt returner, and made the roster in that capacity. But he was less than spectacular, causing Parcells to deactivate him for several games and use a variety of other players—including starter Joey Galloway—in the position. He is also small, and his receiver potential is likely limited to the slot. That’s not enough to make the roster, and considering the amount of competition for the return spots this year, I think it unlikely he returns. WR Brandon Middleton Middleton has already been cut and re-signed once, which doesn’t speak very highly about his chances of making the roster. To make matters worse for him, he only had 7 kick returns last year for 151 yards (21.6 avg). The low number of returns was, in part, because he had moved up to a starting position, and he had a good average. But it didn’t give him much experience. The previous year, he had 19 returns for 386 yards (20.3 avg), but he’ll have to be able to do that again—and then some—to stick around. WR Terrance Copper Copper is built like a possession receiver, meaning he has good size, but is more quick than fast. That is usually enough to be a halfway decent punt returner, but he had very little production last year, returning 27 punts for only 124 yards (4.6 avg). That simply won’t get it done. He’ll have to show a lot as a receiver to have even an outside shot at the roster. CB Nathan Jones Jones was drafted specifically for his ability as a return man. He has had only average success as a CB thus far in mini-camp and in Oxnard, and that isn’t enough to earn a roster spot. But if he can return kicks the way he did in college, he has a chance to be the #5 or #6 CB (if they keep 6). In 2002, he returned 26 kicks for 736 yards (28.3 avg). That’s pretty amazing. The production wasn’t quite as high in 2003 (19 kicks for 489 yards and a TD), averaging 25.7 yards per return. But that’s still very respectable. Still, his work is cut out for him, and he’ll have to at least show the ability to back-up as the slot corner to have a chance. He could very well land on the practice squad. CB Terence Newman Terence Newman didn’t get the chance to return punts last year, as he needed to focus on learning the CB position. He may not get the chance this year either, as Parcells may not want to take the chance on his best—and only—shutdown corner getting injured on special teams. But Newman has the ability if push comes to shove, and we can only watch and hope someone else steps up. CB Bruce Thornton Thornton is going to get a chance as a return man, possibly on both punts and kickoffs, and he could do fairly well. He played RB for a bit at Georgia, so he does have the ability to move with the ball. But his primary focus must be on competing with Jemeel Powell for the back-up spot behind Pete Hunter. He’ll be expected to contribute on special teams, of course, but his way onto the roster is on defense. S Tom Crowder I felt compelled to mention Crowder here because this is his place to shine. Crowder was signed exclusively for his play on special teams. In fact, he prepared a videotape of his best plays to hand out to team representatives at Arkansas’ workout day. On the tape were 0 defensive plays, 3 offensive plays, and 65 special teams plays. And he’s not even a return guy. He’s a potential gunner, punt blocker, and all-around hell-raiser. Head Coach Houston Nutt said that many of the plays on that tape were “jaw-dropping”. He also said he had never had a player with this kind of dominant special teams ability. If he was right, Crowder is in the right place, as no one will appreciate and value that ability more than Bill Parcells. If he’s wrong, he’ll be cut. It’s as simple as that. WR Randal Williams Again, I felt compelled to include Randal Williams here. After all, thus far, it is the only place he has shown any value to the team at all. He set the tone with that return for a TD against the Eagles last year, and has become a good coverage guy from the gunner position. But Parcells has made it clear that he’ll have to contribute as a receiver to make the squad this year, and, so far, he has had a horrible camp. If he doesn’t pick up the production—and soon—he’s history. Closing Thoughts Again, everyone who is not entrenched as a starter will be expected to contribute on special teams. In fact, even entrenched starters, like Pro Bowl LT Flozell Adams, are expected to chip in—or, in his case, slap down opposing kicks. But to see what roster spots will be determined by special teams play, we have to determine how many players may be kept at each position. Parcells typically uses what he calls the 20-20-10-3 rule, which means keeping 20 offensive players, 20 defensive players, 3 special teams specialists, and 10 players who provide depth on offense and defense AND contribute on special teams. At the moment, I would expect something like the following: 3 quarterbacks, 5 running backs/fullbacks, 5 wide receivers, 3 tight ends, 10 offensive linemen, 8 defensive linemen, 6 linebackers, 5 cornerbacks, 4 safeties, a kicker, a punter, and a long-snapper. That leaves one roster spot available, and it will go to the person who can help the most on special teams. It could be a 6th wide receiver, a 7th linebacker, a 5th safety, or a 6th cornerback. Of course, injuries could play a role as well. If Darren Woodson looks to miss more than the first week, for example, perhaps they keep an extra safety as insurance…at least until his return. But the fact remains that, if you want to play for Bill Parcells, you’d better be really good at your position or special on special teams. And it doesn’t hurt to be both. Wulfman Comments? Send a private message to Wulfman on this site.