FRISCO, Texas – When Mike McCarthy completed and announced his full coaching staff earlier this year it was full of veteran coaches and familiar names. One of those names, John Fassel, was of note to anyone who's followed the NFL closely for the past decade.
Fassel is a well-respected and well-liked coach around NFL circles, partly because of his success in the league and partly because of his refreshingly cheery demeanor. He is relatively familiar with a number of players he's coaching now, as the Cowboys faced off against Fassel's former team, the Rams, in each of the three prior seasons.
"I really have some great unbiased scouting reports on them and they're really positive," Fassel said. "To be on their team is really cool to know the player behind the face mask."
Last year's special teams unit wasn't necessarily a disaster for the Cowboys, but there were certainly inconsistencies to the point where the team cut and signed a new kicker midseason as well as a disappointing performance from punter Chris Jones. It was generally assumed that Fassel would come in and make a number of decisions regarding the look of this season's special teams, and plenty of fans were anxious to see a training camp competition at either kicker or punter or both, hoping that competition could produce better results.
But that won't be the case. Soon after Fassel's hire, the team signed veteran kicker Greg Zuerlein to a guaranteed deal while still employing Kai Forbath, who didn't miss a single kick in his brief time with the Cowboys last season. One imagined the best kicker would earn the job, but it wasn't long before the Cowboys released Forbath.
Zuerlein was, at one point, one of the best, if not the best, kickers in football, but the eight-year veteran didn't live up to his usual standards last season. The decision to sign him and solidify him as the starter was clearly made by Fassel, who coached him for the past eight years with the Rams. "I've seen Greg at his best and not at his best," Fassel said. "That's the beauty of coaching and relationships. I would say Greg is right now pretty close to the best he's been. A few years ago he made the Pro Bowl, he was 95 percent [accuracy]. That was the best he's been, and he was healthy."
Now, healthy again and in a system with Cowboy mainstay L.P. Ladouceur long snapping and Chris Jones holding, Fassel feels the comfort is there and the results will follow. "I think he's going to perform as well as he ever has. That's my expectation and I think it's his."
Fassel claims that when he joined the Cowboys, he didn't realize that Jones had been punting through a back injury, but says that in training camp he's seen the best version of the veteran.
"Since I've been here, he's been great," Fassel said. "He hasn't shown any wear and tear from those injuries that he supposedly had last fall. I just see a guy that's strong, he's a veteran. He's been really consistent. I know he'll perform on game day because he's done it before, and he'll probably do it again better than he has in the past with a healthy body."
These are not insignificant decisions by any means. Games are won and lost by special teams. And Fassel's first time leading the Cowboys' third phase will be against the team he built his reputation with.
"I had a lot of great memories," Fassel said, while still trying to downplay the significance of the opponent. "Four years in St. Louis with the Rams. Four years in LA with the Rams. It will be cool in a way to compete against the guys I coached for eight years there."
Of course, special teams is about more than punters and kickers, and there are more decisions to be made, like who will return punts and kickoffs for example. But with the season opener coming up on Sunday Night Football, the cheerful Fassel decided to leave fans hanging on whether first round pick CeeDee Lamb would be utilized in the return game.
"I guess tune in," Fassel said, sounding as excited as anyone in the building.