It’s a feel-good week for the Dallas Cowboys after reversing their early season fortunes in a nerve-frying win over the Los Angeles Chargers, after just narrowly losing to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 1. The latter was fueled mostly by uncharacteristic drops and a poverty-stricken showing by kicker Greg Zuerlein, who redeemed himself in a major way by adding eight points to Sunday’s contest — delivering 100 percent accuracy in the process — including the game-winning 56-yard boot to send the Cowboys to 1-1; and staving off a second consecutive week wherein special teams ruined the day.
It’s another special teams play that nearly stole the show and the victory from the Cowboys, though. With the score tied at 14-14 and less than two minutes to play in the first half, the Cowboys defense pushed the Chargers to a fourth-and-20 from the Chargers’ 46-yard line, and were readying to field a punt to give quarterback Dak Prescott a chance to extend the lead going into halftime.
Instead, in one of the more questionable moves you’ll see, the Cowboys and special teams coordinator John Fassel decided to attempt a punt block — leading to a roughing the kicker penalty that awarded the Chargers a first down and 15 yards. Luckily for the Cowboys, who went on to win by three points, the Chargers missed the field goal to end the half. In a game wherein every single point mattered — for a second consecutive week — it took a missed field goal by Chargers kicker Tristan Vizcaino to help the Cowboys avoid another week of disaster on special teams.
The penalty itself was questionable at best, yes, but Fassel is unapologetic about his decision. If anything, he says he’s giving Cowboys fans what he feels they so desperately crave on special teams: aggression.
“The thought process was I think Cowboys fans aren’t the play-it-safe type,” he told media after the win. “So I was going to give them what they wanted: come after their ass on the punt rush.”
You’d be hard-pressed to figure out if he’s being serious, trolling or a combination of the two but, either way, he’s not budging.
“I hope they’re happy with it,” Fassel added. “We came after him. Kind of the mindset going into the game, we’re going to come after this football. But I’m still not so sure we actually roughed him.
“… I didn’t get an actual jersey number [of who was penalized] because it was a train wreck right there at the block spot. But when I got on film was that their No. 40 hooked [defensive lineman Azur Kamara] and pulled him back into the punter. You can make a great case it was holding, or that the punter hit his own blocker. But there was a lot of bodies at that pile, so.
“Our goal was to come after him.”
The penalty was indeed called on Kamara, and while Fassel has been responsible for a couple of game-changing special teams calls — most notably the famed “watermelon kick” that helped them complete a one-point comeback win over the Atlanta Falcons in 2020 — there have also been times when things have blown up in his face, and that of the Cowboys on the whole. An example of the latter being a failed fake punt reverse against the Washington Football Team on Thanksgiving, with Dallas down four points in the fourth quarter and standing on their own 24-yard line on fourth-and-10.
They’d go on to implode after that play, losing 41-16 on their own field. So when it comes to Fassel, every special teams call is an adventure in riverboat gambling, but it’s also that style of coaching that landed him a job on Mike McCarthy’s staff last year.
That doesn’t mean owner Jerry Jones is always on board with the dice rolls, though.
“To be candid with you, I’m a little more conservative,” Jones told 105.3FM the Fan on Tuesday. “We won a national championship with special teams when I was in college. So, I’m a fanatical special teams interested fan, whatever. I do believe the turnovers or the bad plays in the kicking game are the equivalent of turnovers.
“They’re usually change possession and can change field position. And, so, I’m a little — I really like to choose my spots on taking those kind of risks. You’re taking a risk every time you try to block a punt, and getting the ball back.”
The Hall of Famer harkens back to his own playing days as an example of when risk might outweigh reward, and vice versa.
“I played on a team that actually punted from the 29-yard line going in to have better field position,” he noted. “Yes, Frank Broyles punted. But he was very conservative, but we spent 25 minutes — our first 25 minutes — of every practice doing nothing but special teams. We would practice with broom handles behind our back so we wouldn’t use our hands. And, so, we wouldn’t get those penalties. And, so, it was a really conservative way but a big emphasis on special teams.”
It also sounds like Jones’ public criticism of the call followed a conversation he might’ve had with Fassel.
“I’m sure as we go along that will find its way, going forward,” said Jones.
Fassel is defending his decision, though, and passionately.
“Any time you rush the punter, there’s a risk,” he said. “But last week, Pittsburgh’s up by three points in the fourth quarter and they rush the punt and blocked it and ran it in for the touchdown. So the reward is high, but the risk is high.”
For anyone wondering, it wasn’t a McCarthy decision, nor was he aware of it before the snap (which isn’t abnormal in the NFL). Fassel made that clear as well, explaining the process of play-calling in that (and other special teams) situations.
“To rush that punt? That was my decision,” he said. “I just made the play call on third to fourth down. That was what we were going to do. I think right before that we got a sack and knocked them back a little bit out of range. We had a different call and once we got the sack and moved them back a little further, we changed the call.
“We thought we’d come after it.”
Did McCarthy approve of the aggression after the fact, though?
“That’s a good question. I would say yes with an asterisk.”
Well, Jones didn’t, no asterisk needed, and it’ll be interesting to see if Fassel does more picking and choosing of his spots going forward, as Jones is not so subtly predicting — or rather calling for outright.