Sunday was quite an oddity for the 2012 Dallas Cowboys. For a team that has almost no success scoring points this season, they were given the gift of help from their defense and special teams. The defense has had a decent year, but almost nothing in terms of takeaways and setting up short fields, or even better, actually putting points on the board themselves.
Meanwhile, the special teams have been anything but special. Kick returns have ranked in the bottom third of the league the entire year. Punt returns, through 7 games, showed the Cowboys at 31st in the NFL, with 15 returns for 83 yards (5.53 per) - even though Dez Bryant had a 44-yard return back in Week 3 against Tampa Bay. The average drops to about 2 yards a return if you subtract that one large return.
It has just been very difficult to improve the opportunities of the offense if you can never present them with a short field. Jerry Jones, who proclaimed that Dez Bryant and Felix Jones would handle his return responsibilities this year after an equally feeble 2011 from the return game, finally seemed to soften his stubbornness after Bryant in particular went through a few weeks of poor decision making and ball security on punt returns in Carolina and against the Giants.
So, to start the Atlanta game, we have seen Dwayne Harris, the Cowboys 6th round pick in 2011, take over the duties, and has shown the same game-breaking ability that he demonstrated at East Carolina as a player who won several honors due to his ability as a return man where he returned over 150 kicks and punts over his 4 years with the Pirates.
Compare that to Dez Bryant, who already has more returns in the NFL than he ever did at Oklahoma State or a guy like Cole Beasley who never returned kicks or punts at SMU, and you can understand that Harris might have always been the best candidate for this type of duty.
However, in fairness, Dwayne Harris was given opportunities as a rookie in 2011 to return kicks and punts and didn't make much of an impression. It could certainly be the nerves of a rookie who was more focused on not making a mistake rather than trying to make a play, but for whatever reason, his numbers in 15 punt returns last season were that same paltry 5 yards a return.
But, in 2012, it appears Harris has a different swagger. Consider the mentality of someone replacing Dez Bryant as a return man. Why was this move made? Because Dez did not protect the ball and make sound decisions. So, you might expect his replacement to go back there and to become a fair catch machine. And yet, Harris has stepped right in and made 2 returns that directly impacted those games and has injected life in the Cowboys special teams.
Let's take a look at them below:
This first one is in the first minute in Atlanta. The Cowboys have pushed the Falcons off with a 3-and-out, and now Harris is back to return this kick which the Cowboys hope to put into a good spot.
You can see at the punt return formation that the Cowboys are double teaming the gunners on each side of the field and therefore have just 5 players on the inside looking for a fake or a potential block opportunity. This is easily the fewest players you will ever see up on the punt team.
This tells us the Cowboys have their best return on.
Looking at this Atlanta return on film, it is difficult to see exactly how the Cowboys had this blocked. If it is a return left, you can see a path up the sidelines, but many times your intention is at the mercy of the punter who often steers his punt to set up his coverage team. His punt lands at the blue circle below, and as you can see, Harris has some room here, but there are plenty of red jerseys at midfield or beyond that seem to have a clear path to Harris.
But, this third frame is what you really want to see from your return man: North-South running. You aren't going to always have a big play, but if you head north when the opportunity is there, you have an actual chance to get some positive yardage. However, if you go sideline to sideline - or East-West - your valuable cushion of time disappears in a blink of an eye, and you have the dreaded 3 yard return.
But, look at Harris. He has darted straight north with great conviction and suddenly, those Falcons who were trying to keep contain on the edges have been left behind and now Harris actually has a path. The punter stands on the logo and already you can see that he understands he might have to make a play here.
Right below the blue circle, you can see Atlanta Tight End 87-Tommy Gallarda who also has a clear path to Harris, but his sprawling attempt will not be enough to bring him down.
Now, below, please note the red circle around Mike Peterson. I am not sure what opinions you have about Peterson, but my respect for him grew immensely when watching this film. If you go back to previous frames, you can see that he has been occupied by a Cowboys blocker the entire way down the field and did not have great success getting past Orie Lemon. Peterson is a 36 year old veteran who is perhaps best known for his time in Jacksonville and has put in 14 seasons in the NFL. If you know anything about special teams, you hopefully know this: 14 year veterans seldom make great special teams guys. Why? Because it is an awful job that many veterans believe is below them.
Peterson has been a top player for a long time, but now is a back-up in Atlanta, trying to part of something special before his career ends. On this night, because Sean Weatherspoon isn't playing, Peterson is starting on defense. But, he keeps his spot on punt coverage.
Now, as you look at this frame, do you think a 36-year old linebacker is going to be able to run down a speed demon like Harris? Well, he is going to need punter Matt Bosher to at least slow him down.
Bosher does that much, but Harris has an awesome spin move at full speed to lose Bosher in his tracks. But, that change of direction leaves an opening for Peterson who is now at full sprint. Again, if this veteran linebacker is not playing as hard as he can, this is a touchdown return. And, this is why veterans cannot play special teams - because too many of them are out there running at 80% and trying to avoid getting hurt. Special teams is for rookies or guys trying to make it in the NFL. A Special teams coach can only put guys out there who are going full tilt.
But, look at Harris. He just spun the punter to the ground and has nothing but clear water all the way to the endzone.
Except, Peterson gets him by the ankles at the Atlanta 33 yard line.
It is a great return and a great touchdown-saving tackle by the last line of defense. To see video from NFL.com, simply click on this link.
That optimistic return might have been the blind squirrel finding a nut, or it might have been Harris deciding to prove he belongs in the NFL. Either way, the 37 yard return was the 2nd longest Cowboys return since November of 2010. Think about that. Since Bryan McCann's 97-yard return against the Lions back in the early days of the Jason Garrett era. And if you can recall McCann's big moment, it was anything but a traditional punt return.
So, could they do it again the next week?
Not only could they, but history might claim that it won them the game in Philadelphia and perhaps saved the 2012 season (stay tuned for that).
But, here is the return. You can see, that the Cowboys are not quite as feisty in their deployment. Perhaps they think this is a place to look for a block or also to be mindful of a fake from an Eagles team that has nothing to lose, but there is no double teaming the gunners, this time. 7 players on the inside, and Lance Dunbar is Harris' up-man, back at the Cowboys 25.
This return is much easier to define, and perhaps could be a text-book example for special teams clinics. Look at the left return set up down the hash marks. As you see every Eagles cover man, there is a Cowboys player at his hip, on his right. The Eagles are already out-flanked when Harris touches the ball.
At the 28 yard line, it appears Orlando Scandrick really flirted with an illegal block in the back. In fact, if an Eagles' fan is reading this, it is highly possible that they would argue it was much more than a flirt.
But, beyond that, this is about two things. The inside positioning of the Cowboys players - so much so that they almost don't need to do more than retain their positioning, and the breakaway speed of Harris.
Depending on your source, you can find Harris running between a 4.38 and a 4.53 in the 40 before the 2011 draft, but here on the video you can see pretty easily that he has the speed to prove that he has plenty of speed when he needs it heading down the sideline. The first return for a TD conceded by the Eagles in 71 games says something.
Again, it would be unfair to not point out all of the blockers who make this return so successful. I realize that positive reviews of the Dallas' special teams is a rarity these days, but let's point out a moment of brilliance. It should not be this easy, but the Cowboys have clearly out-flanked the Eagles and Harris has never had an easier path to the end-zone.
It looks like James Hanna, Eric Frampton, and Scandrick get the big blocks early, but again, there isn't a whole lot of "blocking" as much as positioning that takes place. They have almost just used inside positioning to seal off the entire side of the field.
Now, in the picture below, Danny McCray has to only keep Mat McBriar from ruining the opportunity. Troy Aikman certainly called McBriar out for not doing better here, but I think that was a bit harsh. As you can see, a starting safety versus a punter who really doesn't have a great angle is not a matchup that is going to go the punter's way. It looked feeble in the replays, but really, the Eagles were dead long before the play got to the punter. Even in the frame below, you can see there are almost no Eagles anywhere close to the convoy of white jerseys.
The rest is all Harris. You wonder what this does to a career path for a guy who was not assured his roster spot unless he could separate himself from the others at his position on the roster. But, clearly, moments like this make all of the difference. Especially if he shows this 2 weeks in a row.
A big play from the special teams can make all of the difference in the world. Not only does it swing the game, but it puts winds in the sails from a morale standpoint.
We certainly don't want to suddenly suggest that special teams are now back and a factor, but at least you can see the big play potential again. There seemed to be too much on Dez Bryant's plate, and now he can focus on all of his responsibilities as this team's supposed #1 Wide Receiver. Meanwhile, Harris, who has yet to impact the squad as a wide-out, finds his niche on the team by turning in 2 of the 3 biggest returns in 2 seasons in back-to-back weeks.
I am guessing special teams coach Joe DeCamillis is enjoying his week a bit more than usual, for a change. And suddenly, the Cowboys have a little spring in their step.