ARLINGTON, Texas - There are plenty of NFL games where special team plays can feel like the obligatory break from the real action happening on offense or defense. In Sunday night's game against the Eagles, however, a combination of playmaking and miscues by the Cowboys' special teams had plenty to do with the final score.
The game took a nerve-wrecking start for Dallas when Lucky Whitehead chose to return the opening kickoff from deep in the end zone. He only made it to the 11-yard line before taking a hit and fumbling the ball and recovering it at the 10-yard line. The poor field position led to a Dallas punt from their own 19-yard line.
The Eagles took advantage of that field position with a field goal on their opening drive that included an exaggerated and comical flop by kicker Caleb Sturgis when Morris Claiborne landed near his feet. Sturgis sold his fall well enough for Claiborne to get tagged with a penalty for running into the kicker. The Eagles denied the five-yard penalty, but it wouldn't be the last time the Cowboys' special teams would be penalized.
The Cowboys special teams were repeatedly flagged on punting plays including numerous infractions of offensive holding, an illegal chop block, and a 12-men on the field penalty that extended an Eagles' drive.
[embeddedad0]And yet for all the hiccups and mental mistakes the Cowboys' special teams made, they also executed perhaps the most surprising play of the night with 4:46 left in the third quarter and the Dallas punting team on the field. Facing a fourth and eight, the Cowboys caught the Eagles by surprise with a fake punt run by punter Chris Jones who sped down field for a 30-yard gain.
"What they gave us was favorable for that [play], so we tried to steal a possession to get back into the game, and it worked," said Jones who claims it was the first time he had run a fake punt since high school."
For as many special teams mistakes as the Cowboys committed, Jones' conversion turned out to be a crucial spark with the team down 10 points and desperately needing to make up the ground. By extending the drive, Dallas eventually got a field goal.
"He and Dan [Baily], they're maybe the two best athletes on our team pound for pound," Jason Witten said after the game. "That was a huge play in the game."
Unfortunately, the Eagles took the following kickoff 53 yards to the Cowboys' 45-yard line. And after a Cowboys' fourth quarter comeback and a defensive stop that gave the ball back to Dallas with 37 seconds left there came another crucial special teams penalty. Kyle Wilber was called for holding before a Whitehead fair catch, costing the Cowboys 10 yards and beginning a drive at the 28 yard line thus hurting their chances of winning the game in regulation.
The Cowboys managed to defeat the Eagles in dramatic fashion. But if steady reliability is what you look for in a special teams unit then Dallas failed to provide that. The consistent tally of special teams failures were almost enough to cost Dallas the game. Even so, Dan Bailey was a perfect three for three on field goals, and in an overtime game where every score mattered, Jones' 30-yard sprint in the third quarter was as important of a play as any.