Let's not beat around the hedges here: the Dallas Cowboys special teams unit reeked heading into the offseason following the 2019 campaign, and the organization knew it had to do something with the rotting opossum tied to its belt. Unfortunately for him, punter Chris Jones had suddenly become one of the biggest liabilities on the unit, after having long been an asset dubbed "The Puntisher" -- a moniker earned for his brutality against any returner unlucky enough to make it to him.
That was then and this is now, however, and Jones has battled injuries that turned him into a shell of himself on all fronts, leading to the Cowboys releasing him in the first wave of free agency, and enjoying a $2 million savings toward the salary cap in the process. It marks the second divorce from a longstanding special teams player in only a matter of days, with Dallas also making the unexpected decision to move on from long snapper L.P. Ladouceur after 16 immaculate seasons with the club, and prior to the Canadian making any decision on his NFL future.
In moving on from Ladouceur, the club agreed to terms with Jake McQuaide, who follows kicker Greg Zuerlein as the second rollover from special teams coordinator John "Bones" Fassel's time with the Los Angeles Rams -- Zuerlein having replaced a literally perfect Kai Forbath in 2020 (who replaced a very imperfect Brett Maher).
The decision at kicker was roundly and justifiably questioned, but Zuerlein did improve on his accuracy over his final season with the Rams, upping it from 72.7% to 82.9% in only a year's time. There's still room for improvement, as evidenced in his three missed PATs and his 33.3% accuracy from 50 yards or greater, but he missed only one attempt from 49 yards or fewer; and this hints at the Cowboys needing to commit to being more aggressive on offense and not depending on 60-yard boots to win games.
Those days are presumably over.
With the moves on Jones and Ladouceur, and Zuerlein a year prior, Fassel truly puts his stamp on the unit in his second season, also pounding the table to retain special teams ace C.J. Goodwin on a two-year deal. But as the Cowboys move on from Jones, seeing as they've identified at least the 2021 successor for Ladouceur -- massive shoes for McQuaide to fill, although the two-time Pro Bowler is no slouch himself -- the question emerges of if Hunter Niswander can earn a shot at a long-term deal. Which makes this summer and beyond crucial for the Cowboys to determine how the special teams unit looks for years to come.
One thing they don't want to do is find themselves trapped in purgatory there.
Niswander was stellar after being brought in for an injured Jones in 2020, but the club also visited with Marquette King, and sources tell CBS Sports the Cowboys haven't ruled out a potential camp competition at punter that might include King. It appears Fassel is interested in short-term deals -- Zuerlein notwithstanding -- and competition, be it Niswander versus King or the former versus an unforeseen name that crops up this summer. That said, the Cowboys liked what they saw from him in the workout but not enough to pass over what they believed they could have in a less expensive Niswander.
The gamble paid off, considering Niswander played well and earned only $322,941 for his eight games of service.
King, however, can command the veteran minimum of a player with more than four but fewer than six accrued seasons, to the tune of $910,000. So, they instead rolled the dice and paid Niswander roughly three times less than what King would've cost, and were made to look smarter because of the decision. That doesn't mean Fassel isn't going to push Niswander in camp, though. He's entering a contract year and before the Cowboys commit to him beyond 2021, they want to dig in beyond the eight games he put on film. And that makes perfect sense, especially if it's only costing them pennies to do the evaluation.
In the inaugural season of the special teams makeover, there were certainly hiccups for Fassel as he adjusted to an offseason-less season in Year 1, but there were good things put on film as well, including the now legendary "Watermelon Kick" that led to an improbable one-point victory against the Atlanta Falcons in Week 2. He's hoping to again level up the special teams unit in Dallas in Year 2, the man never known for being afraid to gamble having started 2021 doing just that. Time will tell if he walks away with more winnings, or if he comes up snake eyes on one of the aforementioned moves.
At minimum, he's earned the right to keep rolling the dice.