Everyone will be talking about the final seconds of the loss in Baltimore for quite a while, but if you actually want to understand why the Cowboys lost this game, you don't need to look any further than the kickoff return in the 3rd Quarter by Jacoby Jones.
Jones tied the NFL record for longest kickoff return when he opted to bring out a kick 8 yards deep in his own endzone.
It is altogether disconcerting that the special teams portion of the Cowboys this season has been such a mess from a standpoint of playing major roles in 2 of the 3 losses. This early in the season, that is way too high a number, but this is what we talk about every August. In fact, in only 5 games, the Cowboys have replaced or moved 6 of the 11 players on their kickoff coverage team. That is a lot of movement. Now, these moves may be related to injuries or roster changes, but the fact that they ran this kickoff like they had very little continuity might lead back to the fact that the units never stay the same.
All around the league, this is an epidemic. I have focused on this in the past in plenty of essays, but the New York Times tackled it too, this week, and you might want to read that. It is being ignored in the media quite a bit, but the fact is that in today's NFL with a small roster and salary caps, the special teams are being put together with the leftovers at the end of the roster - whether they are good at special teams or not. And, because of the minimum salaries of veterans being so much higher than that of rookies, you seldom see anything but rookies and 1st-contract guys on your teams.
Then, they make a mistake that costs you the game and the first thing everyone wants to do is fire the special teams coach. It is a thankless job and while Joe DeCamillis is not blameless, to put it at his feet when the GM of this squad allows very little for him to work with is being short-sighted.
Regardless of that, under DeCamillis since 2009, the special teams have had 6 occasions where the special teams have conceded a touchdown. The team has lost 5 of those games, which, in the NFL is a theme that is often enough to get a special teams coach fired.
Bruce Read lasted 2 seasons (2007-2008) and had 4 such plays before he was fired. His predecessor, Bruce DeHaven's special teams (2003-2006) had 4 years of service and just 1 special teams touchdown catastrophe (Rock Cartwright's kickoff return for Washington in 2006). Bill Parcells made special teams an emphasis and in 4 seasons, they almost never had a single issue. The late, great Joe Avezzano, who handled some great special teams units from 1990-2002, saw his squad's special teams concede 4 blocked punts in his final 2 seasons leading to his replacement by DeHaven when Parcells was hired.
Special Teams are an afterthought until they are not. And they are not when you lose a game or two because they have betrayed you.
Here, we breakdown the play that likely won Baltimore the game. Here is the video from NFL.com for you.
First, a brief primer on how they line up. Left 1 and Right 1 are the two sideline safeties. In fact, they are almost always actual defensive safeties, and their job (McCray and Sensabaugh) is to be the last line of defense - since we really shouldn't count on the kicker for much after the kick. So, if you watch kickoff coverage, you will usually see those two sideline players lagging behind. That is their job to clean up any messes.
The inside-most players, L5 and R5 are Andre Holmes and Lance Dunbar. They are just the opposite from the outside players. They are often sent to get down first and attract as many blockers as possible. Wedge-busters, kamikazes, or whatever you want to call them, they are usually there to give the other 6 players (L2-L4, R2-R4) the paths they need to make the play.
This is where I should tell you that word has circulated this week that this is supposed to be a kick to Bailey's deep right or the bottom left corner as you look at the picture below. As anyone who has ever played Madden knows, there are 3 basic deep kickoffs. Kick left, kick right, kick center. This is called on the sideline and it is vital information for the coverage unit as they plan their routes to the region of the field and alter their responsibilities by knowing where Bailey is kicking the ball. If you look below, Jacoby Jones is set up down in that corner, too. But, the kickoff is actually fielded almost perfectly down the middle.
I have drawn white arrows (instead of blue) on 4 different players who look like culprits on this play. However, at least a few of them might just be following the called "kick right" and if Bailey mistakingly kicked it down the middle (could be a mis-hit or a communication breakdown, but that doesn't matter) then they could be doing their job and are sabotaged by someone else's mistake. This is where we would love more specific information, but team's aren't likely to call guys out like that, leaving us to a bit of guesswork.
The picture below shows that at this juncture - where Jones is catching the ball at the top of the "A" in the end-zone, the Cowboys are in perfect formation. Holmes and Dunbar are leading the way, with 3 players lined up on each side behind them, and then two safeties falling in at the rear. This is exactly where everyone needs to be.
Now, below, we see that Dunbar and Holmes have done a great job, because Dan Conner and James Hanna seem to have Jones all to themselves if they can pinch in and close the gap. Hanna, however, slows up and allows himself to get sealed off by his man and doesn't close in. He effectively took himself out of the play. Meanwhile, Conner on the other-side does pinch in. He does everything right here except make the play. If this tackle is made, then the Ravens start inside their 15. But, Jones bursts through Conner's arms and it is over.
Now, going back to the top pictures, remember the roles of Albright (L3) and Tanner (L2). If they are on the left convoy, we wonder why both of them are so far into the middle of the field. Again, if this is supposed to be a kick deep right, then their path makes sense. But, once the kick is down the middle, then their positioning on the picture below shows the Cowboys all inside the hash-marks besides McCray the left safety. This, of course, is very bad if Jones chooses a path to his right.
His lead blocker - 35 - Anthony Allen - runs past Conner and ultimately gets McCray blocked very well. But, it is tough to blame McCray for anything. If a return man and a lead blocker are free after the initial impact, the play is not going to be saved by a safety and a kicker very often. Conner and Hanna have to do better. And Tanner and Albright cannot get washed inside so badly. The Cowboys were simply out-flanked to their left.
But, at the heart of it is that Dan Conner is untouched and gets two arms on the return man. It is likely noted by many that he also appeared to be the main bust on the punt block in Seattle. That is not a good trend for a veteran player.
This picture just shows the final moment. A few people have suggested to me that if David Buehler was kicking, he could make this tackle on Jones. Maybe, but there isn't a special teams coach in the world that wants to leave a kicker to clean up a return guy with 4.5 speed. Bailey is 4.9 and Buehler was 4.6, for those that care what the 40-time is of kickers.
So, in the end, who busted? Well, Conner for sure. Hanna needs to do better. Albright and Tanner maybe, and Bailey might be the biggest culprit of all if he didn't get his kickoff where it was supposed to go.
But all that matters was that the special teams have really been subpar this season. As I always try to remind people, before you blame the coach, no jockey has ever won the Kentucky Derby on a donkey. You must, as an organization, emphasize talent and continuity on your special teams as opposed to simply duct taping a unit together each week. This was Lance Dunbar's 1st NFL game, and he was playing a key role here. That is a lot to ask, but that is what the job calls for.
Below, here are the special teams plays that pop quickly to mind for each of the last several special teams coaches - I linked video to as many as I could find:
Against: Cowboys suffer 3 blocked punts (at Phil, At NYG, SF)
For: Reggie Swinton Punt Ret TD vs Denver
Against: Cowboys give up blocked punt (Wash)
For: Woody Dantzler KO ret TD vs SF
For: Marcus Steele blocks punt vs Wash
For: Randall Williams returns Philadelphia Onside Kick for TD
Against: Rock Cartwright returns KO for TD vs Washington
Against: Terrence McGee returns KO for TD at Buffalo
Against: Dante Hall returns Punt for TD vs St Louis
For: Felix Jones returns KO for TD vs Philadelphia
Against: JJ Arrington KO Return TD at Arizona
Against: Mat McBriar has punt blocked at Arizona for TD
For: Carlos Polk blocks punt vs SF
For: Patrick Crayton returns Punt for TD vs Seattle
For: Patrick Crayton returns Punt for TD vs Atlanta
Against: Dominek Hixon returns Punt for TD at New York Giants
For: Dez Bryant returns Punt for TD vs Chicago
For: Dez Bryant returns Punt for TD vs New York
For: Bryan McCann returns Punt for TD vs Detroit
Against: Percy Harvin returns Kick for TD at Minnesota
Against: Mat McBriar gets punt blocked at Indianapolis for TD
Against: Mat MacBriar gets punt blocked at New York Jets for TD
Against: Dan Bailey blocked FG vs New York Giants
Against: Chris Jones gets punt blocked at Seattle for TD
Against: Jacoby Jones returns Kick 108 yards for TD at Baltimore
Feel free to remind me of others or to send video of any I missed.