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Offseason | 2024

Mick Shots: Kicking around special possibilities


FRISCO, Texas – Lot of spare time for daydreaming during the offseason, and here is one that struck me just the other day.

And this pertains to the new NFL kickoff rules being employed in 2024 on a one-year trial basis, trying to increase the percentage of kickoff returns having fallen off to just 21 percent in 2023.

As we are well aware, while the kickoff will still be executed from the kicking team's 35-yard line, the other 10 members of the kickoff coverage team will line up at the receiving team's 40-yard line while at least nine members of the receiving team will line up at its 30-yard line, with as many as two players set up for returns.

Now then, the kicked ball must land in the 20-yard landing zone, between the 20 and goal line and the coverage and return players cannot move until the ball is either caught or hits the ground. Any kick that lands in the end zone or goes through the end zone is considered a touchback and the ball is brought out to the 30. A kick landing short of the 20 or out of bounds is brought out to the 40. If the ball lands in the 20-yard landing zone and rolls into the end zone without being touched, ball comes out to only the 20.

In Cowboys special teams coach John Fassel's eyes, this new rule will cause returns to "skyrocket," just what the NFL wants.

Thus, putting pressure on the kicker to be able to control kicks. First thought being kicking the ball high and landing it inside the numbers and the sideline. In other words, pinning the returner to a smaller area for the kicking team to cover.

But then this occurred to me. What if your kicker has the ability to line drive the ball into the 20-yard landing zone where neither of the return guys can get to it in time to catch the ball in the air? That then means once the ball hits the ground the coverage team is on the move, upgrading the ability to make a tackle. Also, line drive kicks bouncing would be much more difficult to handle, a potential for fumbles.

Now, your kicker would need to have great control of his kicks and was thinking since Cowboys kicker Brandon Aubrey is a former professional soccer player, he should be more capable of executing a variety of kicks with placement, sort of what those soccer players are naturally capable of doing.

Then there is this possibility, too. Just kick the daylights out of the ball into the end zone and settle for the ball coming out to the 30, just five yards further than where the previous touchbacks were placed. We're talking basically half a first down further but eliminating any chance of a huge return.

What are the chances of that, too?

"A team might not feel good about their ability to cover kicks that week," Fassel was quoted as saying after the new rule was passed at the NFL Meetings, "or the team feels like they're kicking to a great return returner or a kick return team that has an incredible drive start, it just might want to hit a touchback."

The Cowboys should have some valuable kickoff assets. First Aubrey, capable of placing the ball in the field of play or booming the kickoff out the end zone, opponents his rookie season only returning eight kicks. Then there is KaVontae Turpin's speedy kick-return ability in the open field for the Cowboys' own returns.

Hey, if my mind is tinkering with all these possibilities, you know these special teams coaches are all caught up with the various possibilities, too, especially now during this dead period, less than a month until the start of training camp.

  • Room At Inn: The Cowboys brought in four more UFL players for workouts on Tuesday, and just maybe the most notable one is Wyatt Cole Ray, and likely not for his 23 games of NFL experience over the past five years, most of that time spent with six teams either during the offseason, training camp or on practice squads. He did spend the 2024 UFL season with the San Antonio Brahmas, coached this year by former Cowboys head coach Wade Phillips. He might be best known, though, for being late singer Nat King Cole's grandson and nephew of his late singing daughter Natalie Cole. The Cowboys still have two open spots on the 90-man roster.
  • Coooop: Have pointed out former Cowboys wide receiver Amari Cooper, who Dalla signed to a five-year contract in 2020, then trading him in 2022 to Cleveland for salary cap reasons, is staging a holdout with the Browns, not wanting to play the fifth year of his Cowboys extension (five years, $100 million) with only a $20 million base salary scheduled for this year, void of guarantees. So when recently asked this offseason by a site wanting to time his 40-yard dash, Cooper declined, pointing out the last thing he wants to do is pull a hamstring because, "I'm trying to get paid."
  • Med Diversity: The NFL, NFL Physician Society and Pro Football Athletic Trainers Society recently released their roster of med students participating the the NFL Diversity in Sports Medicine Pipeline initiative started in 2022. The Cowboys are bringing in Mohit Bandla from Charles Drew University of Medicine and Science, a private college in the Los Angeles area.
  • Border Wars: The border wars between Missouri and Kansas go back to the Civil War Days and now just might be reenacting with the Battle of Arrowhead Stadium. The Chiefs attempt to acquire public funding to renovate Arrowhead has been defeated in a public referendum. But now the Kansas City part of Kansas is angling to lure not only the Chiefs but also the Royals to relocate across the Missouri River border, the Kansas governor signing a bill to help pay for two new stadiums with public funding.
  • June Tugs: Here are a couple of clouded stats because of the Cowboys' inability to at least advance to the NFC Championship Game for the first time since 1995: First, only the Chiefs' 37 regular season wins from 2021-23 exceed the Cowboys' total of 36, which is more than the Bills (35), Niners (35), Eagles (34) Bengals (31) and Ravens (31) … And second, again clouded by the inability to at least win two playoffs game in the same season, head coach Mike McCarthy's 42-25 record over his four seasons in Dallas is the highest franchise-winning percentage (.627) of any of the nine Cowboys head coaches. And to think he began that COVID season of 2020 at 6-10 … The NFL just informed teams there will be no Supplemental Draft this summer, normally held for players who for various reasons are not eligible for the regular NFL Draft … The Cowboys have utilized the Supplemental Draft five times, most notably in 1989 when using their 1990 first-round pick on Jimmy Johnson's former Miami quarterback Steve Walsh, and as it turned out, they ended up forfeiting the first overall pick in the 1990 NFL Draft.

And for today's last word, let's go to Cowboys' new defensive line coach Jeff Zgonina, the former NFL defensive tackle who spent 17 seasons playing for six different teams and a no-nonsense NFL defensive coach for eight seasons. He was asked how he's been getting along with Cowboys new-old defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer.

"'He's from Chicago like me," Zgonina began, he from Carmel High School in suburban Mundelein and Zimm from suburban Lockport. "We get along. He's Irish, I'm Polish. We get along.

"It's been great. He's got a vast knowledge in his head. It's crazy, like, some of the things he's said. Sometimes he thinks we've been together for 20 years."

Funny they would ask about Zimm's intensity, since just the little we've been around Jeff, seems to be a highly intense guy himself.

"Everyone once in a while," Zgonina said he senses Zimmer's intense side, too, "but I haven't caught the wrath yet. I know it's coming, but I'm fine with that. Makes you a better coach, makes you a better player."

Can't wait to see those guys in training camp action.

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