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Success For The Cowboys Will Come Down To A Game Of Inches

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Dan Bailey had a great year in 2012, but the 'Boys have plenty of room to improve when it comes to special teams play. Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images.
Dan Bailey had a great year in 2012, but the 'Boys have plenty of room to improve when it comes to special teams play. Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images.

Anyone who’s seen “Any Given Sunday” can recall Al Pacino’s speech and his now-cliché declaration that “football is a game of inches.” But being overused doesn’t make it a wholly inaccurate concept, and if you’re a Cowboys fan who buys it, then you’ve probably thought about the impact of your club’s special teams play this year (not to mention the length of Dez Bryant’s fingers).

Raw athleticism is the foundation of good special teams play. Kickers, punters, returners and long snappers are the positions subject to hero-or-goat labels, but they hardly embody the hallmark of special teams proficiency. A gunner or return man who displays vision and downward acceleration and a cover man who excels at quick-release blocking and open-field tackling are the guys who influence plays in ways the cameras don’t see, shape field position and give credence to Pacino’s pigskin philosophizing.

Rick Gosselin of The Dallas Morning News compiles a comprehensive ranking of special teams statistics every year. None of his variables are more complexly innovative than net punting — essentially a punt’s distance minus return yards — though categories that differ vastly in their actual impact on games, like extra-point percentage and points scored, are weighted the same. In short, Dallas was remarkably mediocre across almost every special teams metric in 2012. Check out the specifics here.

Will the shift to the 4-3 have any significant effect? Doubtful. Though logic says the linebackers’ combination of speed, size and wrap-up skills make them ideal contributors on special teams, a 4-3 base mandates fewer of them on the roster. But when you consider the injury histories of Sean Lee and Bruce Carter, you have to think linebackers — even second-stringers — are too valuable to be risked as regular special teams men. That’s not to say they’ll never be out there, but rookies like TE Gavin Escobar and defensive backs vying for reps like SS Barry Church should have the most opportunity to prove themselves on special teams early in the season.

The best way for Dallas to cover its shortcomings on defense is to control the possession battle on offense. The next best way is to win the field position contest on kickoffs and punts; it comes back to the Cowboys being thin at defensive tackle. If opponents have shorter fields to work with via poor special teams coverage, they have more leeway to establish tempo in their running games. That means more blockers converging on “the point” — the spot where the rusher hits the line of scrimmage — translates into more hits on the injury-prone Jay Ratliff and the unfamiliar Jason Hatcher.

The Cowboys have a new coach in Rich Bisaccia and numerous newcomers to inject some firepower into their special teams play. Dwayne Harris has shown promise as a return man (risking Bryant’s health would be, in a word, asinine), and Dan Bailey held the league’s top spot in place kicking accuracy. Should 2013 prove to be another season of inches and tight finishes in Big D, improved special teams play is a time-tested way of ensuring the Cowboys wind up on the right side of them.