David Buehler hasn't removed all doubts
Strong-legged Cowboys kicker has shown potential but remains a work in progress
Some of that might have been the arrogance many had in evaluating the Cowboys' roster before the season with a team that finished 11-5 last year and was minus only two starters each on offense and defense.
With a 5-9 record in 2010, the Cowboys will have larger questions in the offseason than kicker. While he has had some positive moments, Buehler has not removed all of the doubt that many had when the season began.
On the season, Buehler has made 76 percent of his kicks (22 of 29). The conversion rate is better than the last kicker the Cowboys hoped would solidify the spot for years to come, Nick Folk, who has made 27 of 36 tries for the New York Jets.
Buehler has connected on game-winners in two of the past three games. He beat Indianapolis in overtime with a 38-yarder and downed Washington from 39 yards with 50 seconds to play in regulation. But he has the worst percentage (57.1) in the league from 30-39 yards among kickers with more than two attempts.
He has made six consecutive attempts twice this season, but just when it seems safe to think the Cowboys have their kicker of the future, he badly hooks a 35-yarder, like he did Sunday against the Redskins.
Five of his misses have come in benign conditions either at Cowboys Stadium, whether the roof and doors were open or not, and Indianapolis' Lucas Oil Stadium.
"I always had dreams of him going 30-for-30," kicking consultant Chris Boniol said. "I'm always optimistic. He's missed a number of kicks he should have made. Inside the 40, those are the money kicks that you've got to make. And he's had a couple of 45-, 46-yarders that he should've made. With his leg strength, he could make every kick."
Boniol made 27 of 28 kicks in 1995 (96.4 percent) for the Cowboys, and his lone miss -- a 20-yarder at Minnesota -- still upsets him 15 years later. Even though Buehler has missed more attempts in the past six games (four) than he did in the first eight (three), Boniol sees a better kicker.
Buehler's conditioning is better than it was earlier in the season. The ball flight of his kicks is more consistent. The bad kicks, even on made attempts, are fewer. His kickoffs have improved, too. Fourteen of his 20 touchbacks have come in the past five games.
Buehler said he has taken more aggressive steps, "to kind of rev up the engine a little bit," before he approaches the ball on kickoffs. Boniol said the improvement is more geometrical because Buehler's angle to the ball is wider with the longer steps.
"He receives corrections very well," Boniol said.
Buehler hopes he has done enough to end the carousel of kickers the Cowboys have had since Boniol departed after the 1996 season. Richie Cunningham (1997-99), Eddie Murray ('99), Tim Seder (2000-01), Jon Hilbert ('01), Billy Cundiff (2002-05), Jose Cortez ('05), Shaun Suisham (2005-06, '09), Mike Vanderjagt ('06), Martin Gramatica ('06) and Folk (2007-09) have all been short-term answers.
"I've just got to keep continuing to do my job," Buehler said. "As long as I put the ball through the uprights, that's all I can control. I've got to go one-for-one every single time and make each kick. Whatever the guys do up top, that's their decision. They're obviously the shot-callers. I can only control my destiny."
The Cowboys stood by Buehler through his critical misses early in the season against Washington and Chicago in September. He rewarded them with game winners against Indianapolis and Washington in December.
But an edge-of-your-seat anxiety remains when he comes on the field. They would rather have that warm, safe feeling they had with Boniol in 1995 or even Folk in 2008 when he made 20 of 22 tries.
Buehler remains a work in progress but one worth keeping, just to see how far he can go.
"There's no question he has the potential," Boniol said. "He's done a nice job this year, but he's got to keep going. When the season's over, from Day 1 he's got to commit himself on his technique, his training and clean some things up. He's got to work and say, 'I've got to do more.'"