As the NFL postseason prepares to make landfall 10 days from now, the Dallas Cowboys find themselves hoping to repair some obvious offensive issues that could be made more challenging by the loss of game-breaking wideout Michael Gallup with a torn ACL. But that's not the only thing that needs some attention. Their special teams unit has been mostly stellar this season, but the weakness in that phase of the game has been kicker Greg Zuerlein, who's been exceedingly boom or bust in 2021.
Zuerlein, who signed a three-year, $7.5 million contract in 2020 that ultimately supplanted the newly signed deal for incumbent kicker Kai Forbath, has both been responsible for helping the Cowboys win games this season as well as helping to cost them victories when they could least afford it. Returning from a back injury that landed him on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list in training camp, the 34-year-old missed two field goal attempts and a PAT attempt in the Week 1 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, a seven-point dent in a contest the Cowboys lost by two.
As insurance against it happening again, and despite their initial vote of confidence following that performance, the Cowboys re-signed kicker Lirim Hajrullahu for a second time (the first was in August to kick in the preseason finale), but released Hajrullahu when Zuerlein acquitted himself well in the Week 2 victory against the Los Angeles Chargers -- making both of his FG attempts and both of his PATs in a game the Cowboys won by three points. Zuerlein has been uneven ever since, and he joins other Cowboys who were at fault in the loss to the Arizona Cardinals in Week 17, one that saw him miss a 43-yard field goal attempt in the first quarter that would've tied the game early. They'd go on to lose by three points.
It now bears taking a look at Zuerlein's numbers through his 15 starts in 2021 ahead of the all-important postseason.
|XPA/XPM||FGA/FGM||20-29 yards||30-39 yards||40-49 yards||50+|
*denotes career low
As you can see in the table above, Zuerlein's percentage of extra points made is at a career-low just one year after setting a new career-low in 2020 (91.7%) -- marking a very clear downward trend in that category. Additionally, his 82.4% field goal accuracy is down over last season's output (82.9%), and more troubling than anything would be his glaring lack of proficiency on attempts that approach 50 yards and longer. Once having earned the moniker "The Leg" in his time under John "Bones" Fassel as members of the Los Angeles Rams, it's clear that, as of late, that is no longer the strength of his game.
This could come into play in the tournament, as it has at times during the regular season, and it would put the Cowboys in more of a crunch when considering their offense is also shaky at the moment. For if Dallas isn't consistently extending drives and punctuating them with touchdowns, it'll need Zuerlein to be that much better at what he does, only there are times when he is also performing as questionably as the offense he's supposed to act as a productive extension of.
When asked about Zuerlein's struggles in 2021, owner Jerry Jones didn't undercut the team's longtime public confidence in the kicker, but he also didn't beat the drum as we've seen the Cowboys do in the past.
"I think the most important part of a kicker is consistency, consistency, and it's not consistently missing. That's it," said Jones.
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Take that however you will, but if the Cowboys are peeking into possible options outside of Zuerlein, that ship might have already sailed. They re-signed Hajrullahu a third time this season when Zuerlein missed a game due to COVID-19, but the former has since spent time with the Washington Football Team before being poached from their practice squad by the Carolina Panthers. There's always Forbath, who was literally perfect in his short time with the Cowboys and, as mentioned, earned a contract extension that was trumped by Fassel's want of Zuerlein in Dallas -- after Zuerlein parted ways with the Rams in 2020.
However, there appears to be no interest in circling back for Forbath, sources tell CBS Sports.
Zuerlein refining his boot in a still-meaningful regular season finale against the Philadelphia Eagles will be paramount for the wild card weekend that follows, but his rollercoaster season proves there is no guarantee that a great outing in any given week will generate another great one a few days later. This is all more reason for Dak Prescott and the offense to find their mojo for good, because shortened drives will put playoff games on the foot of Zuerlein more often than not and, as noted, he'll either boom ... or bust.
Obviously, scoring more touchdowns is the best remedy, but another would've been to truly address the issue before January arrived. The latter is spilled milk, though, so let's focus on what needs to be done here: sign a quality kicker to have them at the ready on the practice squad -- one they could elevate to the expanded game day roster, potentially taking the bold stance of having two active kickers in the event there's any concern whatsoever about Zuerlein heading into or during a win-or-go-home game. It's not as if it hasn't been done before (in Dallas as well), and it's the best way to protect against the ghosts of Christmas past.
After all, even Ebenezer Scrooge eventually learned his lesson.