FRISCO, Texas – Sunday's loss in New England might have been the lowlight, but it's not as if it was unexpected.
Special teams performance has been an issue for much of the 2019 season, and it culminated in that 13-9 loss. Asked about it Monday, Cowboys chief operating officer Stephen Jones summarized the performance by special teams coordinator Keith O'Quinn and his kicking units pretty perfectly.
"I know Keith takes a lot of pride in getting our guys prepared, but it was pretty obvious to anyone watching that we didn't have one of our better days," he said. "A blocked kick, a couple of muffed kicks and then you know the punt situation there between the third and fourth quarter where a couple penalties cost us pretty serious field position."
This latest game was the most glaring example, but it's been a trend through the month of November.
You can run it back in chronological order. Against the New York Giants on Nov. 4, the kickoff team struggled offensively and defensively. Tony Pollard muffed the opening kickoff at his own 12-yard line, relegating the Cowboys to their own red zone to start the game.
Defensively, Giants return man Cody Latimer torched the Cowboys for 181 yards on kickoffs, including returns of 41 yards and 50 yards. The former set up a Giants field goal on a night when they'd only score 18 points.
"You do some positive things on offense and do some positive things on defense, you kick the ball off and they get the ball right back at midfield, obviously it's not up to our standards," said Cowboys coach Jason Garrett at the time.
The Cowboys' miscommunications with their punt return team the next week probably don't need to be recounted. Trailing the Vikings, 28-24, with 24 seconds to play, Minnesota punter Britton Colquitt skied a kick to Tavon Austin, standing at his own 46-yard line -- where he promptly called for a fair catch.
To be fair, it's unlikely Austin would have scored a touchdown on the return, as many had speculated. But the decision still cost the Cowboys valuable field position in a situation where time was of the essence.
"I think if you look at it, you say maybe there was a chance to have him catch it and go north and south and maybe make 10 or 15 yards and maybe start that drive a little closer to the end zone," Garrett said following the loss.
The theme is becoming obvious at this point. The Cowboys' kick return team is the worst in the NFL, averaging 12.5 yards per attempt. Their punt return team averages just 5.6 yards per attempt, good enough for 26th in the league. That showed up in a winning effort against Detroit, when Jamal Agnew returned a punt 32 yards to set up a 45-yard touchdown drive for the Lions.
All of this helps explain Jerry Jones' frustration on Sunday night, when he was asked if his team's continued special teams struggles came down to coaching.
"It's 100% coaching. It's strategy, it's having players ready," he said. "I believe special teams is effort, special teams is savvy, special teams is thinking. Anybody that can play a position on offense or defense ought to be a great special teams player."
Strictly speaking, there's one more opportunity this month, thanks to the Thanksgiving game against Buffalo on Thursday afternoon. But that also doesn't leave a ton of time for the Cowboys to work on their mistakes.
To hear it from Stephen Jones, the Cowboys are optimistic their special teams will respond the right way. If the Cowboys are going to improve their fortunes over the final five weeks, they'll need them to.
"It was just not one of our better days," Jones said. "But we've had that type of day on offense, and we've had those days before on defense. We rebound and respond, and I know Keith and his group will do the same."