Commentary

Cowboys' special-teams woes stand out

Mix of inexperience, veteran mistakes make unit less than ordinary

Updated: October 20, 2010, 1:43 PM ET
By Calvin Watkins | ESPNDallas.com

IRVING, Texas -- When you look at all the problems regarding the Dallas Cowboys in 2010, the special teams look glaringly bad.

The kicker, David Buehler, is 6-of-9 on the season on field goal tries, but he's just 1-of-4 on field goal attempts that can tie or put his team ahead this season.

On touchbacks, Buehler, as a rookie, led the NFL with 29 touchbacks.

This season, he has only three. And we're just getting started.

Dallas has the worst kickoff coverage unit in the league and, using basically the same players, have the fourth-best punt coverage unit.

What gives?

"If I knew the answer, we wouldn't be here," coach Wade Phillips said. "We're going to try to work some different things. Work in different ways. Work more on what we need to work more on. That's the only way you're going to get better."

Part of the problems regarding the Cowboys' special teams is the personnel. Gone are Patrick Crayton, Steve Octavien, Pat Watkins, Deon Anderson and Bobby Carpenter, core special-teamers who were replaced by younger and inexperienced players.

The inexperience has shown at times, but even veteran players have made mistakes.

Alan Ball, third on the team in special-teams tackles last season, was flagged for holding in Sunday's loss to Minnesota, eliminating a 34-yard punt return by Dez Bryant. On a 95-yard kickoff return for a touchdown by Percy Harvin, rookie Barry Church took a bad angle and missed him. Gerald Sensabaugh also had a chance to touch Harvin and failed to do so.

Marc Mariani
Matthew Emmons/US PresswireDavid Buehler has struggled with directional kickoffs this season. After a penalty forced the Cowboys to kickoff from the 15, Tennessee's Marc Mariani returned Buehler's kickoff 73 yards to set up the game-winning TD.

Buehler has struggled to kick the ball away from top returners on a regular basis this season. After a post-touchdown celebration penalty forced the Cowboys to kick off from the 15, Buehler kicked the ball down the middle of the field instead of on an angle.

He's also sent another kickoff out of bounds.

It's the directional kicking that special-teams coordinator Joe DeCamillis is trying to get Buehler to do more of. Buehler said he can do it.

"I've had a few misses this year," Buehler said. "The first one I kicked off was a mis-hit -- it was supposed to go left but it went out of bounds, and that's disappointing. This is the first time in my career I've kicked one out of bounds, and I believe the first time I've given up a touchdown."

DeCamillis' distaste for churning the bottom of the roster, where some special-teams players come from, hasn't occurred on the Cowboys under coach Wade Phillips.

DeCamillis said that's an old-school way of thinking and there is now more talent on rosters to prevent this. But other issues hurt as well.

The Cowboys elected to let Watkins go, and his $1.17 million salary, legal and health issues pushed Anderson away. (He signed with the Miami Dolphins on Tuesday).

Carpenter's inability to make plays on defense forced him to get traded to St. Louis. But he was later released by the Rams and, after three miscues in Miami on special teams, was cut there, too.

The loss of Crayton isn't much of an issue. He was scheduled to make $2 million with the Cowboys this year, but Bryant has returned a punt 69 yards for a score this season.

Dallas released Watkins -- who was second on the team in special-teams tackles last season -- in favor of Danny McCray and Church, both rookies. With Anderson gone, rookie fullback Chris Gronkowski moves in and at times struggles with the point-of-attack blocking needed.

With these new players, on kick returns, opponents' average start position is the 32-yard line. Last season, Dallas' opponents average start was the 20. This season there have been four returns of 40 or more yards, including two long ones the past two weeks. Last season the Cowboys allowed just one return of 40 or more yards.

It seems the entire season is one big frustration for the Cowboys.

Phillips is trying to solve the issues on offense, defense and special teams.

With his team at 1-4, the Cowboys need a boost from somewhere. Anywhere.

"That's the good thing about this group. I think they are prideful," Phillips said. "I like to say it means a lot to them. I think that's an important thing at this point where we are in the season and what our record is."

Calvin Watkins covers the Cowboys for ESPNDallas.com. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.

Calvin Watkins joined ESPNDallas.com in September 2009. He's covered the Cowboys since 2006 and also has covered colleges, boxing and high school sports.

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