Good & Bad: Harris, Return Game Excel; Depth Wanted


IRVING, Texas – As with all 8-8 seasons, the good goes hand in hand with the bad.

The Cowboys fixed some of their past problems from their previous two 8-8 seasons, while new ones popped up in the latest .500 finish in 2013.

This series takes a look at both the good and the bad, analyzing some of the positive, more promising aspects of the 2013 season alongside the negative, more troubling traits as the team prepares for a new year.

Our next edition focuses on the special teams unit, which thrived with the direction of special teams coordinator Rich Bisaccia in his first year in Dallas and became one of the league's best in large part because of Dwayne Harris' contributions as a returner and cover man.

Promising: Everything about Harris. He served as the team's best returner and best player on the coverage units. The possibility for something special to happen on special teams always existed when he was on the field, particularly back as a returner on both punt and kick returns. Harris was also one of the team's leading special teams tacklers, despite missing three games.

With the poor defensive play and increased takeaways last season, Harris didn't get many chances as a punt returner. But he made his opportunities count. He finished in the top three in both punt return average (12.8) and kick return average (30.6) in the NFL. He returned a punt for a touchdown and was second in the league in kick return average behind only Minnesota rookie Cordarrelle Patterson.

As a result, the Cowboys finished the 2013 season with a higher kick return average as a team in 2013 (25.5) than at any point in the 2000s. Their punt return average of 12.5 as a team was their most since 2010. Prior to that, you'd have to go back to 1998 to find the last time they averaged at least 12.5 yards per return. Every time a punt went back to Harris, he was a candidate to take it the distance.

Troubling: There were few elements on special teams that were troubling when it came to anything, let alone the return game. But one area that may need addressing is depth to the unit. The Cowboys weren't the same team on special teams when Harris was out, which was evident when they lost their top returner and cover player for three games. He'll play through a bevy of injuries, but his hamstring left him unable to go for a few games during the 2013 season.

That meant a move to Terrance Williams as a kick returner, and he fumbled on the opening [embedded_ad]

kickoff against the Raiders, leading to an Oakland touchdown the other way. Williams took one return 14 yards against the Bears and had a respectable but un-Harris like 23-yard average per kick return against the Packers. The Cowboys brought Michael Spurlock out of free agency very briefly, and while he had a terrific 62-yard punt return on his one punt return against the Redskins, he also struggled in the kick return game averaging just 17 yards per return on three returns and was barely with the team.

Beasley was the primary punt returner with Harris out and was consistent and steady but not at all the home-run threat the Cowboys had with Harris. Beasley averaged 6.8 yards per return on 10 returns and stayed right around that average mark on almost all his returns. He was reliable, but they lacked the big-play threat and a star cover player when Harris was off the field. Given their inability to sustain drives with poor third down numbers last year, having another big-play returner to back up Harris and put the offense in favorable field position wouldn't hurt.

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