Few people know more about the mentality and performance of a kicker than Cowboys' special teams coordinator John Fassel, and if that kicker is Greg Zuerlein then Fassel, who coached Zuerlein with the Rams in both Los Angeles and St. Louis and is the primary reason Zuerlein is on the Dallas roster, is probably the world's leading expert. According to the often optimistic Fassel, it isn't execution behind Zuerlein's relative inconsistency in the last third of the season.
"There are a few things that he knows how to tighten up that we've been working on," Fassel conceded. "But I think at this point, 17 games in, it's psychological."
If Zuerlein is going to need to bolster his confidence in order to succeed in the postseason then he should at least rest easy knowing that he has the full support of his coaching staff. Head coach Mike McCarthy more or less scoffed at the notion that the nine-year veteran's best years are behind him.
"When I look at Greg I think Greg has a lot left," McCarthy said. "He's very talented."
McCarthy then went on to provide a little perspective that his long coaching career has instilled in him, suggesting that there are a lot of factors that should prevent an organization from acting too rashly in the moment.
"I've had some personal experiences that I draw from," McCarthy said. "I had an experience early in my career [in Green Bay] with a young man by the name of Jon Ryan. Excellent punter, came to us from Canada. He punted for us for two years. There was a difference of opinion on him in the building. Frankly we gave up on him way too soon. Jon went on to have a very successful career in Seattle."
After the Packers let him go, the Seahawks employed Ryan as their starting punter for just under a decade, including during their Super Bowl run. McCarthy called the decision "clearly, clearly premature," and said that it's something that has guided him in his decision-making since. While that particular case concerned the evaluation of a young player, McCarthy also revealed another situation with a veteran kicker having to play through criticism.
"I went through a very similar situation with Mason Crosby about 2012," McCarthy said. "Mason was a very talented kicker going through a really rough year. I used to get tired of Troy Aikman asking me in the production meetings why we hadn't made a change. It was one of those hot topics weekly. You believe in the process. You stay the course. You believe in their mental preparation. As I recall, the following year Mason probably had his best career to date."
In 2013, Crosby tied the franchise single-season record for field goals. With a postseason run on the line, Cowboy fans are obviously hoping they don't have to wait until next year for Zuerlein to bounce back. In the regular season finale against the Eagles, he made his one field goal attempt (a 48-yard attempt) and six of his seven extra point attempts, but that one missed extra point in the second quarter was enough to be a point of concern. It made no difference in the Cowboys' blowout of the Eagles, but the 49ers are expected to keep the game much closer, making every point crucial.
"Anytime you miss you're going to wonder, 'What did I do wrong,'" Zuerlein admitted after last Sunday's game. "But that doesn't take away from the confidence that you have what it takes. Every kick is different whether it goes in or not."
Watching Zuerlein go through a stretch of missed kicks is something Fassel has experience with, and according to the special teams coordinator, he is still the kicker he wants to take into a playoff run.
"There was a season, I think in 2015, when he kind of got cold for a little bit, and he rebounded, like he always does," Fassel said. "I've been around Greg long enough to see him go through the valley and then rebound. I see no reason why he wouldn't this time."