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MMQB: The Backstory Behind the Cowboys' Unusual and Unlikely Onside Kick

From L.A. to Dallas, how John Fassel and Greg Zuerlein prepared for the play that swung the Cowboys' win over the Falcons. Plus, a rash of injuries, the Packers and Titans keep rolling, Harrison Butker drills a game-winner from 58 and more from Week 2.

Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy could’ve used the 10 minutes he had with his players at halftime to unload on them—and no one would’ve blamed him. Dallas, already 0–1, lost three fumbles, fouled up a fake punt, went 2-of-6 on third down, and allowed two of the most wide-open touchdown passes you’ll ever see, the first to Falcons tight end Hayden Hurst and the second to wide receiver Calvin Ridley.

Instead, McCarthy calmly told his players they needed to do two things over the last 30 minutes. They needed to take care of the ball better. And they needed to steal a possession.

The players wound up answering the bell on both counts. But explaining how they got the latter request filled requires a backstory that goes back to when McCarthy was still studying tape in his barn in Green Bay, his current staff was scattered across the country and an onside kick attempt was not converted on the same AT&T Stadium field that played host to Sunday’s game.

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In 2019, then Rams special teams coach John Fassel had to adjust an onside kick strategy he had in his bag after the Ravens and Justin Tucker used something similar—it was a funky dropkick that froze the hands team and sent a knuckler their way off a high bounce—and it was subsequently banned by the league. So Fassel, kicker Greg Zuerlein and punter Johnny Hekker devised a new way to force the hands team to think quickly.

The idea was to tee the ball up at a 45-degree angle and boot the front tip, so it would spin back-to-front to cover the 10 yards it needed to go before the kicking team could legally recover it, but cover that 10 yards as slowly as possible. The logic went that the hands team would have to decide whether to charge the ball (and risk touching it but not covering it, making it a live ball) or let it go 10 yards, with the kicking team around it (making it a 50/50 ball).

Since the ball would be moving slowly, the kicking team would have time to surround the ball and have time for players to position themselves to cover it 10 yards downfield—with the hands team, the hope went, still wondering what the hell to do.

Anyway, the Rams put this in last fall and held a weekly competition between Hekker and Zuerlein to see who’d get the call if the situation arose to actually call it.

Hekker won the competition last year in Week 15, and the Rams fell behind in Dallas. After L.A. scored a touchdown to cut the Cowboys’ lead to 37-15, Fassel decided to give it a shot. So Hekker got his swing at it, and the ball trickled out of bounds. A few weeks later, Fassel left the Rams and Zuerlein wound up following him to Dallas, leaving Hekker as the only member of this onside kick thinktank in L.A. And that was that.

Or so they thought.

No one would’ve figured back then what would happen nine months later. On that same field, that call is how McCarthy would steal that possession to turn Dallas’s season around.

***

What a wild, wild Week 2 we had, and we have a ton to get to.

• The injury bug hit the NFL hard on Sunday.

• Cam Newton came to life, and nearly got Seattle.

• Aaron Rodgers appears to have plenty of help.

• Ryan Tannehill may be better than we thought.

But we’re starting in Dallas, where a season that was left for dead after six quarters of the Mike McCarthy era came back to life on the toe of Zuerlein.

***

It took plenty more than an onside kick for the Cowboys to come back from what they did—deficits of 20–0, 26–7, 29–10 and 39–24. In fact, it took 450 yards from Dak Prescott, 100-yard games from CeeDee Lamb and Amari Cooper, and another rugged, all-purpose game from Ezekiel Elliott. But until the fourth quarter, at least, the Atlanta offense didn’t really stop moving the ball, which made McCarthy’s words prophetic.

Dallas needed to steal a possession, and after Prescott engineered a nine-play, 76-yard drive to cut Atlanta’s lead to 39–37, McCarthy called on Fassel to do it. There was 1:49 left, and the Cowboys were out of timeouts. If Dallas couldn’t recover the onside kick, Matt Ryan would’ve knelt down three times and McCarthy’s crew would’ve headed to Seattle next week at 0–2.

So Fassel pulled out his old trick, with faith in Zuerlein to execute a strategy the two had worked on for almost a year.

A year ago, Hekker kicked the ball to his right. Zuerlein, on the other hand, was more comfortable going to his left with it. And in this case, he hit it perfectly. The ball spun toward the 45, and Dallas’s cover guys hovered over it, with three Falcons nearby unsure of what to do it. Once it hit the line, C.J. Goodwin—who, interestingly enough, was the open target on a short-armed fake-punt throw earlier in the game—dove on it.

Six plays later, Zuerlein, rightfully, got the shot to end things with a 46-yard field goal, and drilled that one too to send a socially distanced Cowboy crowd home with the first win of the new coach’s time in the Metroplex. And so McCarthy, Prescott & Co. have life after being pronounced dead hours earlier, looking listless early against Atlanta after getting handled by the Rams on opening night.

Winning this one, of course, doesn’t guarantee the Cowboys anything. But they should get healthier on defense, and the offense flashed its potential Sunday. And if the team does wind up going places in January, there’s a good chance you’ll remember the story those guys wrote in mid-September as a turning point. And that weird Cowboys win was just the most interesting piece of what was a fascinating Sunday in the NFL. Let’s dive in.

***

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INJURIES ROCK THE LEAGUE

It took fewer than 45 minutes for a huge rash of injuries to sweep across the NFL on Sunday, and the fallout will be felt for quite some time. Among the guys who went down in that stretch, with the initial prognosis for their injuries attached:

• Giants RB Saquon Barkley, torn ACL.
• 49ers DE Nick Bosa, torn ACL.
• Colts WR Parris Campbell, sprained left knee.
• Colts S Malik Hooker, torn Achilles.
• Broncos QB Drew Lock, sprained right shoulder.
• 49ers DL Solomon Thomas, torn ACL.

These guys will all have further tests on Monday to confirm the injuries, but with each, it seemed pretty obvious early that they weren’t minor in nature, even by football standards. And not long after that, Kyle Shanahan pulled Jimmy Garoppolo (high ankle sprain) from the Niners’ rout of the Jets, Tyrod Taylor suffered a chest injury in pregame warmups (!) and you get the picture. It was a rough Sunday.

And now, the obvious question will be this: Are these injuries a result of the lack of preseason games and truncated practice schedule leading into the season? It’s an easy correlation to make, and a valid thought to have, so I figured I’d go to an expert and ask.

“For injuries like Bosa, no,” texted Dr. Thomas Gill, the old team doctor for the Patriots (1998-2014) and Red Sox. “That was the type that will happen regardless. If someone gets injured because someone missed a block or ran the wrong route from lack of practice, or pulled a muscle from deconditioning, then yes. But for straight traumatic injuries, no.”

I, for one, hope Gill’s right—that would mean Sunday’s explosion of injuries was more of a freak coincidence than a trend to watch.

Also, for what it’s worth, NFL people were more worried about soft-tissue injuries, given this year’s circumstances. And there were a lot of those in 2011, coming out of the lockout, with a big uptick in Achilles and hamstring injuries in particular.

***

A DIFFERENT CAM IN WEEK 2

Sunday night will go down as a loss in the record book for the Patriots, but I don’t think it’s out of the question that, down the line, you might not quite remember it that way for Cam Newton.

Tom Brady’s successor was really good against Miami in Week 1, to be sure. But that was running an option-based power running game, carrying the ball himself 15 times and never having to play from behind. It was with the Patriots's calling twice as many runs (42) as passes (21), and without Newton's attempting a pass in the last 10 minutes.

In Seattle, the Patriots not only faced a more formidable opponent, they also had to withstand plenty of body blows, falling behind 28–17, then 35–23. After throwing the ball 19 times in the opener, Newton threw it 33 times in the second half alone in Seattle. He did lead the team in rushing for a second straight week, but it was on fewer carries for fewer yards, and clearly was less a part of what the team was trying to do.

And taking all that into account, Newton and Patriots were on the one-yard line with three seconds left, down 35-30, and a couple of broken tackles and made blocks away from winning the game.

Afterward, Bill Belichick said the run call the coaches sent in for the final play—Newton was stacked up for a one-yard loss to end the game—was “our best play.” And Newton wasn’t pumped about the result either. “We put ourselves in position to win,” he said. “When you do that, you've just got to finish, and we didn't do that.”

But there was plenty of good to take from this for New England. After playing the style of offense they did in Week 1, the obvious question going forward for the Patriots was how they’d play from behind. They answered that one emphatically on Sunday, even if they fell one yard short.

As for the Seahawks, well, Russell Wilson was otherworldly again. But you knew that.

***

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PACKERS STICK TO THE SCRIPT

Here’s how Packers coach Matt LaFleur looked at the 14-3 deficit his team faced almost right away against the Lions on Sunday, and how it might have affected his play-calling: Turns out, it didn’t.

“Honestly, it didn’t even cross my mind,” he told me from his office, a couple hours after the final whistle. “They got the ball first. They went down and scored. It’s 7-0. And we had a 12-play drive and we stalled out in the red zone. I was kind of mad at myself for a couple of the calls. And then they went down and scored again. There’s no reason to panic. You’ve had one possession and you’re down 14-3. … There was zero panic going on.”

Good thing, too. Because had there been, the Packers probably wouldn’t have wound up rushing for 259 yards as a team and winning 42-21.

This is, in a lot of ways, what LaFleur’s been building to for two years—and opening the season with consecutive 40-point efforts was just a byproduct of it. And he wasn’t lying either about sticking the script in the face of a sideways start to Green Bay’s home opener.

The Packers ran the ball 35 times on Sunday, with Aaron Jones (18 carries, 168 yards, 2 TDs) averaging 9.3 yards per carry and Jamaal Williams (8 carries, 63 yards) working at a 7.9-yards-per-carry clip. Now, it’s not like Aaron Rodgers (18-for-30, 240 yards, 2 TDs) was riding shotgun to those guys, but he certainly didn’t have to carry the load he used to, and that’s a good thing.

And part of Rodgers’s understanding of that comes from the work everyone did in the spring during what became Zoom season across the NFL. Rodgers and his teammates, LaFleur said, really took ownership through that period, and they’re able to do a lot more now as a result. It’s why Rodgers is throwing the ball efficiently. It’s also why the Packers are running it efficiently—the QB and his teammates are working more complex calls with alternate calls built in, mainly because LaFleur knows they can handle it.

“We’ve got a lot of plays in our offense that have cans—we call them cans— where you basically run this play and you have a built-in audible,” LaFleur said. “And I think the quarterback does a great job of handling that. I think our players do a great job of handling all that stuff so that we’re able to run better plays versus an advantageous look.”

And after the 42-point effort, if there was any regret that LaFleur had, it was actually not running the ball more. He was kicking himself over getting aggressive on the Packers’ first possession, which ended in a field goal after the drive stalled when a second-and-3 turned to fourth-and-3.

“We ran a four-vertical play and we threw it out to basically a wide route and we missed [Aaron Jones]. And then on third down, we ran a double move,” LaFluer said. “So we went to [Jones] back to back. It was a really aggressive play call, I guess. Going back on it, I almost wish I’d called real aggressive on second down and then just moved the sticks on third down.”

In the end, it didn’t make a difference.

But my guess is all this detail will.

***

THE TITANS ARE STILL CONFIDENT

The Titans are 2-0. Neither win was how they’d drawn it up.

But there is something there to hang their hats on—in both games, Tennessee left the door open for its opponent. And it both games, the Titans wound up slamming the door shut.

“That’s what it comes down to, man,” Ryan Tannehill said, over the cell late Sunday afternoon. “In the NFL, there’s going to be a lot of tight games and the team that can consistently find ways to win is going to start stacking wins and be in a good position at the end of the year. These tight games are huge. … In the fourth quarter, we definitely had some opportunities to put a drive together to end the game and we didn’t.

“So we’ll take a look at those things and how we can clean them up. But I’m proud of the way the guys kept the confidence, kept the belief.”

Last weekend, a slew of missed Stephen Gostkowski kicks kept the Broncos in it, before Gostkowski himself won it at the wire. This week, Jaguars phenom Gardner Minshew—we can call him a phenom, right?—was the problem, battling back from 14-0, 21-7, 24-10 and 30-17 deficits to tie the game at 30 midway through the fourth quarter, with the winner set to assume sole possession of first place in the AFC South.

The teams traded punts after that, which set the Titans up with a first-and-10 at their own 40 and 3:29 to go. Tannehill knew they’d need the offense, they might Gostkowski (who’d missed an extra point earlier in the afternoon) and they’d probably need the defense too, to pull it out. And they did wind up needing everyone.

“I had a lot of confidence. It’s what we do,” Tannehill said. “We’ve just got to make one play at a time, take it one play at a time and execute and we’ll go win this game. That’s what we did. We’ve proven it several times now that we have the ability to go win a game. I’m proud of the guys and how we battled. Derrick [Henry] had a huge run there to start things off and it kind of got bottled up and then he was able to break free. So, really a bunch of guys stepped up to make plays.”

And Tannehill would need them to, after carrying a near perfect passer rating through much of the day. After a Henry run, tight end Anthony Firkser drawing a flag on Myles Jack on a third-and-5, and another throw to Firkser for five yards on third-and-10, Tennessee was at the Jags’ 31. Gostkowski stared down a 49-yarder, making the beleaguered kicker the first guy that Tannehill would need to lean on.

Gostkowski, of course, delivered despite his struggles, which didn’t surprised the quarterback—"I’ve seen Stephen make a bunch of kicks over the years playing him twice a year in Miami up in New England”—and then it came down to the defense finding a way to slam the brakes on Minshew Mania. That happened three snaps later, with Jeffrey Simmons deflecting a Minshew throw at the line and Harold Landry making a circus catch off the tip for a game-sealing pick.

So the Titans are 2-0, alone atop the South and starting to ride the same sort of wave of clutch play they did at the end of last year.

“Really, I think our guys rallied and found a way to win at the end,” Tannehill said, “and that’s what it comes down to in this league.”

***

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THREE POINTS WITH HARRISON BUTKER

Three questions for Harrison Butler, after the Chiefs kicker nailed a 58-yarder to beat the Chargers on Sunday.

MMQB: So what’s going through your head when you hit the 53-yarder, and a penalty negates it, and then hit a 58-yarder, where a timeout gets called just as you’re swinging?

HB: “I think it kind of puts more of a chip on my shoulder. It’s more adversity I’ve got to get over. But it’s also a good thing. I hit the 53-yarder. We made an adjustment, aimed a little bit more right. The 58-yarder I thought pulled a little bit left and it still went in. So for that last one, I thought that was my best ball of the three. So I’m thankful for the timeouts. I think it added some fire in me. And also just getting to see those two balls before helped me make the adjustments I needed to.”

MMQB: How do you keep your head in that spot?

“I try to focus on the process. Coach [Andy] Reid always says, ‘Fear nothing. Attack everything.’ We went offsides and then they called a timeout. I didn’t care. I’m focused on the process. I’m doing my best. And, like I said, I’ve got that chip on my shoulder and wanted to show everybody that No. 1, I can make it from 58 yards, and. No. 2, that it doesn’t matter if timeouts are called, I’m still going to make it.”

MMQB: So process, as in the technical stuff?

HB: “Yup. And I thought [long-snapper] James Winchester and [holder] Tommy Townsend did an amazing job with the whole operation, and for them that’s just more practice, as well. I think it just worked out. The line did a great job working. I know we had the blocked extra point earlier. Everyone had faith in each other that we were going to make that kick.”

***

HOW THE BROWNS BOUNCED BACK

I called Browns coach Kevin Stefanski on Friday, wanting to talk about Baker Mayfield and the team’s quick turnaround. Cleveland took a pretty good shiner on Opening Day in Baltimore and bounced back to outlast the Bengals four days later. But it didn’t take too long for me to figure out there was something else that happened on Thursday night that, truth be told, he was even more encouraged by.

And that’s taking nothing away from Mayfield, who had a passer rating 55.6 points higher against Cincinnati than he did against Baltimore. Nor is it taking anything away from the resilience of his group, which had to hear Same Old Browns rhetoric coming out of the opener.

Rewind to the fourth quarter on Thursday. With 5:55 left, rookie Joe Burrow had taken the Bengals 83 yards in 14 plays to cut Cleveland’s lead to 28-23. The Browns got the ball back, after a touchback, on their own 25. As Mayfield broke the huddle, everyone knew what was coming. Cincinnati did. You and I did. And Cleveland didn’t deviate.

• Nick Chubb 4 yards off left tackle.
• Chubb 26 yards off left guard.
• Kareem Hunt 33 yards off right guard.
• Hunt 1 yard up the middle.
• Hunt 10 yards off right guard.
• Hunt 1 yard off right guard for a touchdown touchdown.

Game over—and point proven.

“I always tell the guys here—it starts up front,” Stefanski told me. “So I challenged the offensive line. I told them, We’re running right behind you guys. Specifically, I told Joel Bitonio, I’m putting this drive on you. I think it was six straight runs. And I’m sure [the Bengals] knew they were coming. Those guys played with a physicality, an effort. They just willed their way into the end zone on that drive.

“That’s the mentality we’re trying to build here.”

The drive was significant for a few reasons, too, outside of this just being something any team would want to have the ability to do. That starts with what a mess the team’s offensive line was last year and the resulting effort that was put into fixing it. The team spent significant resources through the draft (Jedrick Wills) and free agency (Jack Conklin) to fix the issue. On top of that, Stefanski’s most impactful staff hire might’ve been Bill Callahan, who’s widely regarded as one of the game’s best line coaches.

So to rush for 215 yards, allow no sacks and put the game away like that—even if the Bengals were without Geno Atkins and Mike Daniels—was nice, as was the play of guys like Chris Hubbard (subbing for a hobbled Conklin) and Wyatt Teller (13 knockdown blocks).

The other thing that counts in a big way here is that Cleveland was able to control the pace and tempo of the game on the backs of those big men. The best proof is in the down-and-distances the team faced over the course of the game. The Browns racked up 23 first downs and were in third down on eight of those occasion, only three of which were longer than third-and-7 and only one of which was longer than third-and-9.

That’s game control. And it’s pretty much the opposite of what happened in Baltimore in Week 1, when a bad end to the first half wound up changing the entire context of the game.

“We didn’t play a complete game Week 1, and we also let the game get away from us to where we couldn’t stay into our offense and couldn’t stay with the run game and all the run actions off the run game,” Stefanski said. “That’s something that was different. If you stay on schedule in the NFL, you give yourself an opportunity to have the whole playbook open to you. … We played a 28-minute game against Baltimore. And that’s a really good football team. And that game got away from us there at the end of that half.

“[Thursday] night, I thought we played a 60-minute game. I told our guys it was gonna take 60 minutes. That’s a good football team that we played. We played for 60 minutes.”

That allowed Mayfield to settle in and spread the ball around, and Stefanski liked the third-year QB’s play inside and out of the pocket, his accuracy and even the job he did with his run checks. “He played like I know he’s capable of playing,” the coach said. “It was fun to see him out there balling, and being the leader that we expect him to be.” It also allowed the defense to play a different game, even if they weren’t perfect.

Overall, it was a big step forward after a bad opener. And based on where Cleveland’s been over the last year, that last drive qualifies as a very real eye-opener.

“Every team wants to be able to do that,” Stefanski said. “Not everybody can. And just because we were able to do it last night doesn’t mean we’ll be able to do it next time.”


But it’s better than not being able to do it at all.

***

TEN TAKEAWAYS

What Kyle Shanahan said about the MetLife Stadium turf on Sunday should get the attention of everyone. “I know our players talked about it the entire game, just how sticky the turf was, and I think that was the first time people played on it, I think,” Shanahan said. “But yeah, it was something our guys were concerned about right away. And the results definitely made that a lot stronger. Unfortunately this is a place we’ve got to go back to next week.” This, of course, was all in reference to the Bosa, Thomas and Garoppolo injuries and, yes, after spending this week at the Greenbriar in West Virginia, the 49ers will come back to Jersey next weekend to play the Giants. And that seems like a pretty serious player-safety issue to me that the NFL and NFLPA need to look into. These sorts of things are a much bigger deal for players and coaches, and come up way more often with them, than people realize. And it’d have to be somewhere near the top of the league office’s agenda early this week.

The gap between the 49ers and the Jets seemed more like a canyon on Sunday. Without all those guys on Sunday after halftime, San Francisco absolutely boat-raced the Jets. Which says something about where both franchises stand. That said, I do think the Niners’ injury situation clouds what should be a very competitive NFC West race.

I think what we saw on Sunday showed it’s a matter of time before Justin Herbert gets in the lineup full-time for the Chargers. And it wasn’t just the physical ability—there’s a reason he went sixth overall in April—it was the attitude he brought to the show. The 22-year-old was informed that he’d be starting right before kickoff, after Tyrod Taylor suffered a chest injury in warmups, and wasn’t timid from there. Twenty-three minutes in the game, on a third-and-2, Herbert ducked his shoulder and collided with Chiefs linebacker Damien Wilson, and it was Wilson who got up from it looking like he got knocked into Wednesday. Two quarters later, with 10:17 left, on a crucial third-and-1 with the game tied at 17, and Tyrann Mathieu between the quarterback and the first down, Herbert employed the same approach. He drove Mathieu past the line to gain in scrambling to move the sticks. And on top of that, he wound up with 311 yards on 22-of-33 passing, with a touchdown and a pick. I don’t know when coach Anthony Lynn and OC Shane Steichen will decide the right time is to turn to Herbert. All you need is an HBO subscription to see what they think of the rookie. What I do know—and this is even though Lynn said postgame, “if [Taylor] is 100% ready to go, he’s our starter”—is that Taylor’s margin for error just got cut way down, because now the coaches know what Herbert can do in a game setting. And they also found out, emphatically, that Herbert won’t shrink from the NFL stage. So Herbert’s time is coming, I believe, sooner than we thought it would.

The Cardinals are a factor in the NFC West. And this starts with the decision by GM Steve Keim and coach Kliff Kingsbury to pull the plug on Josh Rosen a year-and-a-half ago and take Kyler Murray with the first overall pick. I was skeptical, I’ll admit. It seemed, at the time, like a flying-by-the-seat-of-your-pants decision by a franchise going through a bumpy stretch—there were plenty of teams that didn’t think Murray should go in the first round at all. They were wrong, and I was wrong to be skeptical. Keim and Kingsbury saw something special, and didn’t get overly concerned with how throwing a first-round QB overboard after a year would look, and it’s paying dividends. Murray was 26-of-38 for 286 yards and a touchdown, while rushing for another 67 yards and two scores against Washington. More importantly, the Cardinals are 2-0 and Murray’s just scratching the surface. “He’s just made big-time throws and runs when we needed them the most,” Kingsbury texted post-game, when I asked what he’s been most impressed with. “We haven’t played with a great rhythm yet offensively, but he’s making key plays in big moments to help us find a way to win.” So … imagine what’ll happen when actually do get in a rhythm.

It’s not time to sound the alarms in Philly quite yet—though I’m sure they will on WIP this morning. But there’s at least reason for concern that what’s gone wrong could get worse. Carson Wentz hasn’t played particularly well over two weeks, and the offensive line, already without Andre Dillard and Brandon Brooks, lost starting guard Isaac Seumalo on Sunday. That group, by the way, has been the heart and soul of what Philly has built under Howie Roseman and Doug Pederson. In Week 1, it was the problem, with the makeshift line getting pushed around by a formidable Washington front. This week, it was Wentz’s turn to wear the blame. He forced a throw down the field that was picked in the end zone by L.A.’s Darious Williams with the Eagles in first-and-10 at the Rams 21, and down just 21-16. The Eagles never got that close to taking the lead again. So here it is, in simple terms: If Wentz and the line don’t play better, the Eagles are cooked. Even in a mediocre division. But I’m not ready to give up on either at this point.