The Cowboys kickoff unit, which was 20th in the league last year, and allowed opponents 23 yards per return, has been much better during the early part of 2008. This year the kick coverage team is ranked the second-best in the league, allowing only 19.2 yards per run-back on average.
With one of the league's top punters in Mat McBriar, the Cowboys averaged 38.5 net yards per punt last season. This year the net average is up to 41.5, sixth-best in the league, and best the team has enjoyed in any season this decade. On Sunday in Green Bay, McBriar helped get the Cowboys out of a deep hole with a 72-yard change-of-field position during the third quarter. Of course, it helps that McBriar's leg is always fresh.
"They're keeping me off the field," McBriar said. "I think Seattle had 11 punts in the first game and I've only had eight in three games."
Felix Jones busted a 98-yard touchdown in the Monday-nighter against Philadelphia, the first kickoff return touchdown for the Cowboys since the 2006 Wild Card game, and their first in the regular season since Randall Williams returned an onside kick for a score in 2003. Even with Isaiah Stanback's poor fielding on one hurting the team stats, the Cowboys are averaging 29.1 yards per return, fourth-best in the NFL, and Jones is second among all returners with a 35.1-yard average.
Ah, an area ripe for improvement. Cornerback Adam "Pacman" Jones flashes the speed and moves to break a long return every time he touches the ball, so surely it won't be long until he takes one to the house, right? Maybe so, but the Cowboys would like his production to improve on every return. He is averaging just four yards per return, and the Cowboys rank 30th in the league.
Adam Jones has shown a tendency to dance across the field and back on punt returns, and twice during Sunday's game the Cowboys were called for penalties while trying to bust him free. Cowboys coach Wade Phillips has talked this week about getting Jones to adhere to the return scheme while not taking away his playmaking ability.
"It's like a quarterback that scrambles around," Phillips said. "You can't just say don't ever scramble. He's going to know where the blocks are coming from a little better than we have, and be able to set up whatever he wants to set up.
"It just hasn't happened so far."
Phillips said the team has planned extensive punt return practice for Thursday. If the Cowboys can get Adam Jones to work within the scheme and boost his average while keeping the other special teams units at their current production level, the Cowboys will have to be considered as having one of, if not the best kicking game in the league.
For one, the team is getting top production from their core special teams players. Watkins, Kevin Burnett, Bobby Carpenter and Justin Rogers have all made plays covering kickoffs and punts, and Keith Davis has resumed his role of special teams captain.
"It's guys just giving it up each and every week, a complete team effort," said Davis, who re-signed with the Cowboys after spending the off-season with the Dolphins. "I knew what I was coming in for and I knew what those guys expected, and I knew that if I was going to be out here doing this, I was going to give 110 percent and I was going to try to bring those guys along with me and have those other guys feed off of me."
Burnett is the Cowboys leader in special teams tackles so far, with six. Rogers and cornerback Orlando Scandrick each have five, Davis has four and Watkins and running back Tashard Choice have three apiece. In the past, Burnett has been outspoken about wanting a bigger role on defense, but he realizes the importance of special teams. If Davis is a vocal leader to the coverage units, Burnett is leading by example.
"If that's what I'm looked to do, that's what I'm looked to do," Burnett said. "Right now, I feel like I've got to be a playmaker out there, because you can never have enough of those. I'm probably the second-most experienced guy on the team, next to Keith. We're looked to for opinions, we're looked to to go out there and make plays."
The Cowboys have had success plugging young guys into their coverage teams in spots vacated by injured players so far this season. The rookie class has been particularly stellar, with Scandrick and Choice piling up tackles, and rookie Martellus Bennett making a play in his first game covering punts. This week they'll make defensive end Stephen Bowen a wedge-buster for just the third time in his career.
"Every week it's been somebody different," Davis said. "You've got a guy like Bennett who steps in and plays great for us. Choice is a guy who's just high energy, high-strung. You've got a bunch of guys . . . I think this time last year compared to this time this year, we're better overall. This year it has more room for growth. I think you can see that coming little bit by little bit each and every week."
If they can improve at the same rate they have since the end of last season, the coverage and return units could be scary by year's end.
"It's still early," Burnett said. "I hesitate to say anything early. But I'll say that we have potential. We all know that potential means nothing if you don't reach it."
As with the offense and defense, the special teams can't fully reach its potential until those big games late in the season and in the playoffs, where there was some trouble a year ago. And if no one in the press box mentions the special teams at all come January, things must be going right.