Clarence E. Hill Jr.: It's time for Cowboys to rein in special teams coach John Fassel

Clarence E. Hill Jr., Fort Worth Star-Telegram on

Published in Football

Dallas Cowboys special teams John Fassel is going to get head coach Mike McCarthy fired one day.

It had to be said.

McCarthy needs to rein him in now or take his chances with what appears to be the inevitable.


Because while special teams can often be about production, it’s also a lot about protection.

Don’t give up a big return. Don’t miss an easy kick. Don’t fumble. Don’t commit a penalty that sets your team back.

What it can’t be is a detriment.

And it for damn sure, it can’t be cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs.

There is no other legitimate way to describe it when you listen to Fassel’s explanation for his bad decision to try to block a punt late in the first of half of Sunday’s 20-17 victory against the Los Angeles Chargers.

The Cowboys were called for roughing the punter, which gave the Chargers an automatic first down and 15 yards. The Cowboys were bailed out eight plays later when Los Angeles missed a 44-yard field goal. But it could have resulted a game-tying field goal, which very well might have changed the complexion of the game.

What it also did was take a possession away from the Cowboys’ offense that could have added to their 14-11 lead in the final minute of the half.

Yet, Fassel has no regrets and blamed Cowboys fans for his unnecessary aggression.

“The thought process was I think Cowboys fans aren’t the play-it-safe type,” Fassel said. “So I was going to give them what they wanted, come after [them] on the punt rush. So I hope they’re happy with it. We came after him. Kind of the mindset going into the game, we’re going to come after this football team.”

Well, no, Cowboys fans were not happy with his decision, including the biggest superfan of them all, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones.

Jones, who made his money taking risks in the oil and gas business, prefers his special teams to be a little more prudent.

“I’m a little more conservative,” Jones said on his radio show on 105.3 The Fan. “I do believe the bad plays in the kicking game are the equivalent to turnovers. I really like to choose my spots on taking those kind of risks.”

That was not the spot to take the risk.

No wants you to take a punt return opportunity away from dynamic receiver CeeDee Lamb. No one wants you to prevent quarterback Dak Prescott from having an opportunity to work his magic in the team’s two-minute drill.

What’s worse is that Fassel said it was his decision alone, with no input from McCarthy.

“I think the only way to block the punt is to rush the punt,” he said. “I think he was OK with us following the game plan and coming after him. He was probably upset that we roughed them, or that they called roughing.”

Ya think?

It would be different if this decision was a one-off. But this is becoming a pattern — and not a pretty one.

Fassel was brought in before last season after after eight years with the Los Angeles Rams. The idea was that he would help improve the Cowboys’ special teams.


But the truth is that the Rams ranked 26th in special teams in 2019 on’s unit rankings, just slightly above the Cowboys, who ranked 30th.

Remember the Rams’ 2019 season finale? Fassel called a failed fake-punt play that set up an Arizona Cardinals touchdown. A TV camera caught Rams head coach Sean McVay shouting, “What are you doing?!” at Fassel.

Exactly the thoughts of many Cowboys fans on Sunday. Exactly the thoughts of Cowboys fans last season a following a number of failed fake punts in awful situations.

The worst was on Thanksgiving against the Washington Football Team. Trailing 20-16 in the fourth quarter, the Cowboys called a fake punt from their own 24-yard line.

Dallas gave the ball to wide receiver Cedrick Wilson Jr. on a reverse and he was tackled after a 1-yard gain. Washington went on to score 21 straight points in what became a 41-16 blowout.

McCarthy was in on that reckless decision, but it’s Fassel who comes up with these gadget plays.

Now, to his credit, sometimes they work, like the watermelon onside kick that helped lift the team to victory against the Atlanta Falcons last year. But that was a desperate situation and it called for desperate measures.

What happened on Sunday was an unnecessary risk and it nearly cost the Cowboys the game.

Fassel refuses to apologize for being aggressive and competitive.

That was his explanation for the Cowboys giving up a 41-yard kickoff return in the 31-29 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the season opener.

After a 35-yard field goal gave the Cowboys a 16-14 lead late in the second quarter, instead of instructing kicker Greg Zuerlein to kick the ball out of the end zone for a touchback, Fassel admitted he told him to kick it in play inside the 5-yard line.

Apparently Fassel wanted to give his inexperienced coverage team that had no time together in the preseason a little quality time. Oops.

Two plays after the 41-yard return, Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady connected with Antonio Brown on a 47-yard touchdown pass for a 21-16 halftime lead.

“I think we just ran out of steam, to be honest with you,” Fassel said of the kickoff coverage. “We had a lot of guys on kickoff who were playing quite a few snaps on defense, and the competitiveness probably got the better of me where they got out to about the 40. Probably should have kicked a touchback, just knowing that the guys were starting to get pretty tired at that point. But the competitiveness got the better of my judgment.

“I put a guy in a bad position that kind of cost us. I told the team and said, ‘I screwed that one up. But I’m not going to apologize for competing’.”

Now, by all accounts Fassel is a good special teams coach. The Cowboys improved on special last year, going from 30th to seventh.

But what’s also true is that it’s not about you, Coach.

You are not out there competing.

The players are.

And it’s not OK for you to put the team in bad situations based on your competitiveness, rather than sound football decisions.

The Cowboys can smile about it now, as McCarthy did with a sign of relief while running off the field at halftime and after the game against the Chargers, one that was won by the special teams, thanks to a 56-yard field goal from Zuerlein.

But if he doesn’t get Fassel under control and rein him in, those recklessly-competitive decisions could cost him and the team big.

©2021 Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Visit at Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.