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Position Series: Bailey, Harris Lead Special Teams Units
(Editor's Note: This is the last of a 12-part series analyzing every position on the Cowboys roster, providing a quick look back before addressing the needs of each spot on the field and how it can be improved heading into the 2013 season. Today we examine the special teams.)
Pressing Matters: The Cowboys can’t have any qualms in the kicking game with Dan Bailey consistently knocking field goals through the upright with ease. The more pressing matter is in the punting game, where an injury to punter Chris Jones forced the Cowboys to bring in veteran Brian Moorman. Neither of the two punters ranked in the top 20 in the league in yards per punt. Jones only punted 12 times and got one blocked before hurting his knee, after which Moorman came in for the next 12 games. Jones averaged .4 more yards per punt and 2.4 more net yards per punt than Moorman, who’s now an unrestricted free agent. Jones is still under contract and is the likely punter next season, but he has to prove he’s healthy.
2012 Evaluation: While the Cowboys could strive to get better on punting the ball, they have few issues returning punts. Dwayne Harris thrived in his role as a punt returner after taking over for Dez Bryant. He returned a punt 78 yards for a touchdown and averaged 16.1 yards per return. Only the Bills’ Leodis McKelvin averaged more yards per return among players with at least 20 punt returns. While the Cowboys averaged 2.8 more yards per punt return than opponents, they finished with 1.4 fewer yards per kick return than their opponents, allowing a 108-yard return score to the Ravens. Lance Dunbar led the Cowboys with a 21.8 return average on 12 kick returns, but the Cowboys finished with the fifth fewest kickoff return yards in the game. One area they rarely had to worry about was the field goal unit, as Dan Bailey tied for second in league with a 93.5 field goal percentage, drilling 29 of his 31 attempts.
Need More From … : The Cowboys could have used more from their punting game and kick return game, but specifically the latter. With only 12 punts on the season, it’s possible Jones could have gotten better with more experience as the year went on. Injuries weren’t as much of an excuse in the kick return game. A fumbled kickoff return by Felix Jones began the rout by the Seahawks early in the year. The Cowboys never returned a kick for a score, and their longest return only went 44 yards, courtesy of Dunbar. The blocking never seemed to be there, and while Harris turned into an elite talent in the punt return game, the Cowboys are still searching for answers on their kick returns.
Dan Bailey – He was automatic on kicks he should make, drilling every field goal attempt from inside 50 yards. He also made three kicks of more than 50 yards and was a perfect 20-for-20 on field goals between 30 and 50 yards.
Chris Jones – Only suited up for four games and punted 12 times before hurting his knee. The Cowboys decided to place him on injured reserve, but he’ll likely return to his role next season.
Brian Moorman – Had a couple booming punts, but one of them outkicked the coverage and allowed a return score. He filled in for Jones, serving as the Cowboys’ punter the final 12 games of the year. The veteran’s now an unrestricted free agent.
Dwayne Harris – Demonstrated that Bryant’s not the only returner capable of making game-changing plays. Harris became a star as a punt returner after assuming the role, and that also led to more playing time as the third receiver.
Dez Bryant – The dynamic playmaker was taken off the punt return unit after a couple risky, questionable decisions with the ball. That opened the door for Harris and also allowed Bryant to focus solely on receiving, which worked out for everyone.
Lance Dunbar – He led the Cowboys in number of kick returns (12) and kick return yardage (21.8). Of the options at returner, he was the one who provided the most hope for turning nothing into something.
Felix Jones – Finished with second-highest return average, but he also fumbled on one of his 11 returns and never returned a kick more than 30 yards. He’s now an unrestricted free agent.