It's time to dissect the specialists in Dallas, and that includes reviewing the long, winding road that led to Brett Maher in 2022, and how the Cowboys can finally fix their issue at kicker
FRISCO, TX — It was fun while it lasted, I suppose. Brett Maher took the Dallas Cowboys on a wild ride during the 2022 season, going from re-signing for his third stint with the team to save them from the abhorrent training camp "battle" between Lirim Hajrullahu and Jonathan Garibay to one of his best seasons as a pro — until it wasn't.
The wheels fell off of Maher at the end of the season, again highlighting the team's ongoing need to figure out a solution at kicker. Things fared much better for the other specialists, however, the injury to long snapper Jake McQuaide notwithstanding.
But this seemingly perpetual dilemma at kicker?
Let's just say it, unfortunately, isn't anything new for the Cowboys.
There's no other way to say this other than to say it directly: the Cowboys have not done well at the kicker position since their dynasty years in the 1990s. More accurately, it's been a cacophony of unpleasantry since the turn of the century, that was until Dan Bailey saved the day in 2011.
Prior to Bailey arriving, a dice roll that paid off with the former undrafted rookie eventually becoming the best kicker in the history of the franchise, there was a merry-go-round of players who attempted to be the long-term solution at the position for the Cowboys but, mostly, failed miserably in their pursuits; in varying ways.
Tim Seder gave way to Billy Cundiff, who then gave way to Jose Cortez. Cortez gave way to Mike Vanderjagt who was forgettably backed up by Martin Gramatica, and then came Nick Folk — who logged two solid seasons before falling off of the Yips Cliff in 2009.
Enter David Buehler thereafter, who would mercifully be the final bout of inconsistency in a period that should absolutely be labeled "Kicker Purgatory", not entirely dissimilar from the team's bout with QB purgatory in the pre-Tony Romo era.
Only the one involving kickers stretched all the way to the back half of Romo's career, and while Bailey became a nuclear weapon before himself succumbing to the yips (forcing the Cowboys back into the kicker market at the dawn of the Dak Prescott era), and things have been unsettled [again] ever since.
Much better luck was had in the ranks of long snapper and punter, to say the very least, thanks in large part to the greatness of L.P. Ladouceur. An undrafted grab in 2005, two years after the Cowboys traded Jeff Grau (spent one season in Dallas), Ladouceur is second to only Jason Witten in games played for the organization and his only blemish in an interstellar 16-year career was a controversial snap infraction against Washington in 2018.
But, for my money, he was literal perfection at the position.
He's since been supplanted by Jake McQuaide, a two-time Pro Bowler who suffered a torn left triceps en route to season-ending injured reserve, Matt Overton being added as a replacement — both of whom are free agents in 2023, though.
At punter, it was mostly about two-time All-Pro Mat McBriar who preceded Chris Jones, the latter being dubbed "The Puntisher" for his willingness and ability to rattle loose the fillings in the teeth of any returner who had the unpleasant opportunity to run up against him.
It's since been the Bryan Anger show at punter (a surgeon of precision and accuracy), and that's a trio of progression no one in Dallas could be more thankful for. If only the transition at the kicker position was as "effortless" as that of long snapper and punter.
Brett Maher, Greg Zuerlein, Kai Forbath, Lirim Hajrullahu and Jonathan Garibay have all recently tried their foot at solving the issue at kicker, Maher being the latest; and while Maher had a resurgent 2022 season in his third stint with Dallas after being called upon to save the day in training camp following poor showings by Hajrullahu and Garibay, the good times died a tragic death from Week 18 through the NFC Divisional Round.
Forbath was literally perfect in his brief time with the Cowboys, but was pushed aside for Zuerlein, and perfection at kicker hasn't been witnessed again since.
As noted, the 2022 season ended with Maher owning the role of kicker, but all of the shine he earned over the course of the first 16 games was blackened by his final three outings, where he'd miss a total of six PATs — four in the NFC Wild Card Game against Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
The Cowboys went on to win that matchup handily, in spite of Maher.
And the fact he helped save the day a time or two during the regular season isn't enough to wash the sour taste of recent failure from the mouth of owner and general manager Jerry Jones (more on that in a moment).
That means this offseason is yet another that requires the Cowboys to find the actual successor to Bailey, assuming they finally can.
"We are back to the drawing board."
Those were the words from Jerry Jones, speaking from the 2023 Reese's Senior Bowl in Mobile, Alabama, an unequivocal declaration that the Cowboys are moving on from Maher — who is again set to hit free agency this March. You can bet Dallas will take another swing at bringing in and developing a rookie, as they once successfully did with Bailey in 2011, but I also wouldn't rule out the possibility of them taking the rare path of using a late-round pick on one to better their chances of success.
It really is that dire of a situation right now, and one that will still require the team to likely add a veteran as well for training camp competition because, at this point, no one deserves to simply be handed the job (kudos to them for taking this competitive approach last July versus hoping for the best in the face of evidence to the contrary).
As far as which veterans are worth a look?
My eyes aim directly toward Mason Crosby, Robbie Gould or even Matt Prater as prime examples, considering all three are on their way to free agency.
Circling back on another deal for McQuaide should be paramount, one would think, but if something goes awry there, Overton acquitted himself very well in 2022 and, as such, would be an excellent alternative and safety net.
As for Anger, well, he's under contract through the 2024 season after signing a three-year extension last year.
Nowadays, the only … anger… to worry about is the emotion that stems from the inconsistency at the kicker position.