"You've got one job." That's a phrase used often when discussing specialists in the NFL, e.g., punters, kickers, long snappers, etc. So when it comes to the mostly abysmal outing put on film by veteran kicker Greg Zuerlein against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 1, it most certainly applies. Zuerlein's return from a back injury saw him sail a 31-yard field goal wide in the second quarter that would've shrunk the Bucs' lead to only four points, before then missing a PAT after Dak Prescott found Amari Cooper in the end zone on the Cowboys' next drive -- preventing a 14-14 tie and instead leaving a fourth point on the field.
There was an additional field goal attempt that was of the much more difficult variety -- a 60-yard miss toward the end of the first half -- but that can justifiably be dropped in the lap of head coach Mike McCarthy, who took a big gamble in allowing Tom Brady to get the ball back at midfield to end the half. Brady couldn't add any points on that drive, as the Cowboys exhaled on the sidelines, but the risk wasn't worth it, considering Zuerlein made only three of his nine attempts in 2020 that were from 50 yards or greater and, as noted, he's returning from a back injury.
But to his credit, Zuerlein isn't blaming anyone but himself for his misses on Thursday night.
"No excuses," Zuerlein told media following the game. "If I'm out there, I should make the kicks. No excuses."
That said, contrition doesn't win games. Points do, and the Cowboys left too many on the field in hostile territory against a seven-time Super Bowl winning quarterback tied to a top-5 defense. Some of the errors were drops by CeeDee Lamb that stalled the opening drive and aided in stalling another drive or two later in the game, but it's the four-point shave (if you agree the 60-yarder should've never happened) that will stick in the gut of Zuerlein -- who did make the potential game-winning field goal in the waning minutes of the contest that turned out to be too little, too late.
"I know we played well enough to win," said Zuerlein. "If I did my job, we win that game. I feel bad for the guys in there that played their ass off, and I didn't hold up my end of the deal. If the team that that's good, returning every player after a Super Bowl victory, and we're right there, I just have to do my job."
So where do the Cowboys go from here?
The simple answer is right back to Zuerlein. They did away with any potential competition with they cut loose Kai Forbath to award Zuerlein the job and reunite him with special teams coordinator John "Bones" Fassel, who does so love "his guys." And there was no true kicking competition to be had in this year's training camp due to Zuerlein starting camp on the team's physically unable to perform (PUP) list, not activated until the final preseason game. In his absence, the team tried punter Hunter Niswander out at placekicker before waiving him injured and signing Lirim Hajrullahu for all of a week -- the experiment on Niswander being a failure and Hajrullahu's time in Dallas having had a readymade expiration date.
"We're very confident in Zuerlein as our kicker," said team exec Stephen Jones to 105.3FM the Fan on Friday. "Just felt like his timeline [for recovery] was on a good path, and felt like he was the best kicker out there for us. There wasn't gonna be a competition because Greg wasn't kicking until the last couple of weeks [in August]. ... I thought he answered the bell well after he had the two misses, but I think he'll right his ship and make a lot of big kicks for us, and win a lot of big games for us."
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Head coach Mike McCarthy was a bit less forgiving, however.
"Obviously, you'd like to see him make those kicks," said McCarthy immediately following the game. "Greg was part of the reason I went for the 60-yard [field goal]. ... I had a lot of confidence in Greg to make the kick.""
But he'd stop short of hinting a any potential roster moves to come at the position, mirroring the overarching optimism on Zuerlein that's emanating from the front office, at least publicly.
"I have great faith and confidence in him, and we need him," McCarthy added. "He made the clutch, clutch kick there at the end to give us the lead before the two-minute drive of Tampa. You get into a game like that, you need all the points you can get."
Missing a 31-yarder in any regular season contest is a big no-no, though, and especially when you're trying to slay Goliath.
"Obviously, missing such an easy kick, you don't even practice that," Zuerlein said of the missed 31-yarder. "It's automatic. You miss something like that and you analyze it for two minutes, figure out what you did wrong. You have to move on."
Moving on involves taking on a Los Angeles Chargers team in a matchup that, for a second consecutive week, might put a premium on points scored by both teams. If Zuerlein continues to struggle, it'll be on the Cowboys front office to determine how much rope they want to give him.
For now, it sounds as if he still has quite a bit.