DALLAS — The offense did its job averaging a league-high, 31.2 points per game. The defense did its job procuring a league-high 34 takeaways. However, the biggest problem that could spoil the Dallas Cowboys' playoff run is a kicker.
Greg Zuerlein finished 2021 with an 82.9% field goal percentage, same as 2020, and tied for the fifth-highest of his 10-season career. However, the former 2017 All-Pro went 87.5% (42-48) on extra points in 2021, the lowest of his career. It also continued the questioning of Zuerlein's reliability when he missed an extra point wide right in the Cowboys' 51-26 win over the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 18.
Cowboys special teams coordinator John Fassel, who was also Zuerlein's special teams coach with the Rams from 2012-19, has tremendous faith in the 34-year-old to start finding his consistency.
"I think every kicker has kind of lost it before and they find it again," Fassel told reporters Jan. 10. "I think Tiger Woods a lot of times has lost it. It’s like when you’re a golfer, once you get it down, wish you could stay with that forever. But they either kind of lose it or they kind of tweak it.”
Woods went 12 years between majors. The Cowboys' playoff run may not last beyond four quarters if Zuerlein struggles.
Cowboys owner, president, and general manager Jerry Jones told "Shan & RJ" on 105.3 "The Fan" [KRLD-FM] on Tuesday that Zuerlein's inconsistencies alter the game plan a little in terms of the offense's willingness to go for it.
"Absolutely it does, and we’re well aware and should be aware," Jones said. "That’s part of running the show. It really does, but Zuerlein brings a lot to the table. His leg strength, his touchbacks, his ability to be a threat at length, distance, all of that is there. He has had an exceptionally tough year for him with extra points, but he’s a sound kicker, an experienced kicker and our guys are all sensitive about how to approach the game.”
Fassel has been providing context for Zuerlein's struggles all season, pointing out that the kicker had back surgery in May, which altered his timeline for getting ready for the season. Just as kickers are finding their groove in training camp, Zuerlein was kicking in Week 1 at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, where he went 3-5 on field goals and 2-3 on extra points in the 31-29 loss, which ultimately affected Dallas' contention for the No. 1 seed.
Jones says that there are no better options available than to stick it out with Zuerlein, even at this late juncture.
Said Jones: "You can rest assured the first thing that you look at. If a better alternative would be out there, we would be using it. Everything’s at stake.”
Zuerlein's worst season was in 2015 when he went 20-30 on field goals (66.7%), although he was 26-28 (92.9%) on extra points, the first year they were moved back to approximately the length of a 33-yard field goal. Fassel was his coach during that contract year, and he kept his belief.
"The whole season he got cold," Fassel said. "He warmed up near the end of the season. And then the very next year I think it might have been his Pro Bowl year or the year after that. So, I’m not sitting up here having false hope or just making claims out of the blue like, ‘Hey, he’s going to pull himself out of it.’ I’ve seen it. There might come a time where, yeah, he doesn’t get it back. But this time isn’t now."
Fassel acknowledged the NFL is a "production business," but underscored his faith in Zuerlein.
"I just have full faith in Greg," said Fassel. "I do, and if I’m wrong, then I’ll be wrong. But I just really think that I’m going to be right. I guess we’ll see.”
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