Saturday, March 19, 2011

Special Teams - Big Play Files - #6 McCann Punt Detroit

Let's continue our series on the big special teams plays of the season. Already this month we have covered the following plays:

1. Week 2 - Dez Bryant's Punt Return vs Chicago

2. Week 4 - Tennessee's Marc Mariani Kickoff Return

3. Week 5 - Minnesota's Percy Harvin's TD Kickoff Return

4. Week 6 - Dez Bryant's TD Punt Return vs Giants

5. Week 8 - Bryan McCann's fumble and TD return by Nick Collins at Green Bay

Today, we focus on a play that changed the entire momentum of a game that Dallas could have very easily lost back in November to the Detroit Lions. This play was written about by me the day after the game so I wanted to give you a chance to relive that from the Monday after the win:

Oh yes, a punt. One that looks like it is going to rest inside the 5 again. John Wendling, who downed the last punt at the 4 yard line, must leap into the end zone and bat the ball back into play and hopes a fellow Lion will down the ball to pin the Cowboys defense back in deep yet again.

Instead, here is Bryan McCann, who has a much better grasp of the rules than I do, grabbing the ball on a perfect bounce and looking to make something happen for the Cowboys. You see, McCann knows that once a Lion touches the ball, there is no risk whatsoever to taking the ball and trying to make something happen positive for the Cowboys. This fact was lost on me in the post game, but McCann is far more familiar with his job than I am. Even if the ball bounces off his hands and to the Lions, the ball is dead because of Wendling's touch prior.

McCann, who has a story that is what the NFL dream is all about, played his first professional game 15 days ago in Green Bay. As we talked about last week, he joined fellow rookie (although a significantly different trail to the NFL) Dez Bryant as the only real bright spots out of the trip to Lambeau field. We immediately saw that he had speed and burst that was not possessed by the kick return game before he arrived.

Then, at Giants stadium, this undrafted rookie who has already been cut twice in his NFL career, had the presence and courage to jump a slant route in the end zone and in most people's estimation turned the game on one play. He stepped up, made a play and won a game. What a story, right?

Well, what if this same undrafted rookie with local ties pulled off the same trick the very next week? The same trick means he won a game on one play that mixed presence of mind with courage with seizing the opportunity. Otherwise, the two plays had nothing in common - one was while defending Hakeem Nicks, one of the better receivers on the schedule, and one was making a play on special teams when you are not the return man, because Bryant was. But, both mixed his obvious world-class speed and turned the game on a dime.

This undrated free-agent rookie from SMU has won 2 games in a row for the Cowboys. OURLADS Scouting Services, an industry leader in the talent evaluation business release their "Guide to the NFL Draft" each year. They list hundreds of player reports, and offered a several paragraph description of pretty much anyone who is anyone in the spring. 32 Corners were evaluated in great depth, but when I went to look for their report on Bryan McCann this morning, I simply saw his name listed at the bottom. They provided his name, height (5'10), weight (180), and what seems like a very inaccurate 40-yard dash time (4.48). Maybe that explains why he wasn't drafted.

After watching him win 2 games in his first 3 as a pro (something that I think we could suggest has probably never been done) I feel I can safely say that he is not running a 4.48. He is the fastest played on the field, and he has demonstrated that he mixes that with a very impressive amount of belief that although he nearly never got a chance to play at the NFL level, he is not going to go quietly into the night. He is going to try to do anything he can to turn the game, even if he is only on the field because those in front of him are unavailable. Remember, if Akwasi Owusu-Ansah never gets hurt, there is a very good chance that McCann never gets a chance to be called up from the practice squad. Now, he is the Cowboys lowest paid player, a team that has won only 3 games all season has won 2 on the back of this kid from SMU who even those from SMU are surprised to be seeing this. Google his name, and google will try to convince you that you must mean "Brian McCann", the Atlanta Braves' catcher.

OK, let's look at it from the "X's and O's" perspective.

This is a rather aggressive punt block look from the Cowboys with 8 men up tight. They seldom take this posture, as they generally have 6 players up on the line, 2 out wide, 2 in shallow center (about 5 yards back, in line with the center, and cheating deeper), and then 1 all the way deep on a typical return. Instead, the Cowboys - down 12-7 in the 3rd Quarter - look like they are at least willing to try a punt rush and see what happens.

Let's also not forget 2 other elements that make this play a bit more interesting (to me, at least). In the 1st Quarter, John Wendling was lined up wide right from the formation and across from Bryan McCann. The result was great hang-time and Wendling running down and downing the punt at the Cowboys 2 yard line. In the 3rd Quarter, Wendling did it again. This time, he had Jesse Holley covering him, because McCann was returning the punt, but Wendling jumped over the goal-line and tossed the punt back to a teammate (33-Brandon McDonald) who downed the punt at the 4. It certainly appears that Nick Harris the Lions punter and John Wendling have quite a neat little trick that they had already executed twice in the game. Incidentally, Wendling is famous on youtube for this amazing feat. It has nothing to do with this sequence, but I think if we are going to tell you about Wendling, we should go all the way.

The other thing that jumped out earlier in the game was that young Bryan McCann almost had a 100-yard Kickoff return early in the 2nd Quarter but was somehow tackled at the Dallas 40 yard line by the Lions kicker, Dave Rayner. I would imagine this was pointed out by his teammates, but to me it just further pounds home the point that he is possesses the type of rare, electric speed that his contributions this year should not be minimized.

Well, on this punt, the Cowboys drop Dez Bryant back to take the punt, and deploy McCann back to the left wide position across from Wendling. Wendling again is there when Harris' hang time takes away Bryant's ability to get a return. He again gets his hands on the ball while leaping into the end-zone. Daryl Johnston thought Wendling might have just landed at the 1-yard line, but that seems questionable to me. Anyway, he tips the ball back in, but this time his mate, 33-McDonald is not right there to catch it. Instead, McCann sees an opening and grabs the ball because of the rule where nothing bad can happen once the kick team touches the ball.

From there, it is his blazing speed combined with 1 or 2 downfield blocks. One of those blocks should be credited to 23-Tashard Choice who gets in the way on the numbers, and then 32-Orlando Scandrick and 57-Victor Butler both get a piece of 28-Maurice Morris who was going to force McCann out of bounds at the Detroit 35 if Scandrick doesn't get his body in there.

The replays will show that McCann actually stepped out of bounds, but if they don't call it, they don't call it.

A great play that should solidify Bryan McCann's NFL career as a very important special teams cast member for 2011 - provided he can navigate through his offseason without any further speed bumps. Well done.

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