Inside The Cowboys 'Watermelon' Kick
FRISCO - The NFL invented a new kickoff rule. So John Fassel invented a new kickoff - a "Watermelon.''
"We didn't really have, like, a specific name for it,'' said Dallas special-teams coordinator John "Bones'' Fassel, who created the idea as an assistant with the Rams in 2018 but utilized it Sunday to help the Cowboys steal a 40-39 win over Atlanta. "it is really the 'Watermelon Kick.' (The ball) is laying on the turf like a watermelon and you spin it like a watermelon would spin."
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The concept was born with the 2018 NFL rule change that eliminated kickoff-coverage guys getting a running start. That meant fewer violent collisions ... but required more creativity when it came to onside kicks.
And so Fassel and his two Rams legs - punter Johnny Hekker and kicker Greg Zuerlein - fiddled around with ideas, including: What if we kicked a ball that slowly crept (or spun) the needed 10 yards ... slowly so our onside-recovery guys could position themselves for non-violent ways to the ball ... slowly so the other team might even get confused as to when to pounce on it?
As one Cowboys staffer told me, "It makes sense that they'd come up with something crazy at practice? What else do (kickers) have to do all day?''
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The Rams actually performed this exercise before ... against the Cowboys! It came in Week 16, a Dallas 44-21 win - but Hekker's kick dribbled out of bounds, so it wasn't ever worth noting.
“I’ve never used it before in a game,” Zuerlein said. “But we practiced it early in the year just in case ...
"With the new rules, you have to have something slow where your guys can get to the ball. In years past, you could run so you do different things. But now you’ve got to have something slow. It gives our guys a chance to block and hop on it.”
Thanks to the new rule, the odds of a team recovering its onside kick have been cut in half, down to 10 percent. Meanwhile, given Atlanta's massive leads throughout this game - including a statistically near-insurmountable 15-point lead with five minutes left - the execution of the "Watermelon Kick'' must be perfect ... and perfectly lucky.
"We practiced it twice on Saturday the past three weeks with the whole team,'' Fassel said. "So really, we've gotten six full reps at it with the full group.''
That's not much. But Zuerlein - with all that time on his hands - had probably in the last month-plus practiced it 50 or so times.
He likes to punch it to his left; that's fortunate here, because the kicking team would prefer the ball to come near its sideline, as opposed to nearer the receiving team - as to avoid their coaches being able to bark out live-time instruction as the Watermelon spins.
"You're onto me,'' Fassel said to the media when that was pointed out.
And so Dallas loads up players to the left - players with precise jobs. Dorance Armstrong and Luke Gifford aren't necessarily there to actually recover the ball; their jobs are to get in the way of potential Falcons recoverers. Receiver Cedrick Wilson has hands and he's among the guys assigned to wait, wait, wait, as the kicking team must, so the ball goes 10 yards before he pounces.
And C.J. Goodwin is there as well. C.J. Goodwin does not necessarily have great hands, and while he's listed as a "cornerback,'' C.J. Goodwin does not necessarily have a position.
Stuff like this. Stuff like this is what C.J. Goodwin does.
"What C.J. did was better than I could've drawn up on a piece of paper," Fassel said. "He was the behind-the-ball player, and he was just tracking it – he must have been inches from it. And he knows as soon as it crosses the front part of the white 45-yard line, that it's live and it's ours. And he pounced right when it crossed the line."
Pandemonium broke out on that recover-side sideline - the Cowboys bench - because Dak Prescott and all the rest of them recognized exactly what their risk-taking special-teams unit had done: Provided the Cowboys with one more crazy chance, which Prescott handled magnificently, fueling a drive to set up Zuerlein (again) with his buzzer-beating 46-yard game-winning field goal.
The Falcons, however, did not seem to understand. Did they think, wrongly, that they too had to wait for the 10-yard movement? Did they hesitate, knowing that if the ball didn't travel that required yardage, that Atlanta would have possession without having to ever touch it? Did they not realize that their early and aggressive recovery of the ball - by a "hands team'' that featured none other than Julio Jones - would've gone uncontested, and sealed a win?
From Prescott: "I asked our punter, Chris Jones, why they wouldn't just dive on it. And he said the way it spins makes it really hard to do that. They were probably afraid that if they jumped on it, it might get loose and we'd recover."
From Atlanta coach Dan Quinn: "We've got to go capture it when the moment comes. ... From where I saw, it was a slow roller and one that we should make the aggressive move to go get it. ... (Falcons players) definitely know the rule."
Maybe. But Bones' bunch knew it better.
Not all of new head coach Mike McCarthy's special-teams risks worked here. In coordination with Fassel, Dallas tried to run defensive back Darian Thompson on a fourth-and-5 trick play ... and he went nowhere. Before that, they tried a to convert a fake punt when punter Jones failed to connect with - that man again, Goodwin - downfield.
"I know he threw it a little bit low, but Chris can throw it,'' Fassel said. "I've got 100-percent confidence in him that. When we do it again, he'll execute it.
"That's ... part of our identity."
Added McCarthy: "It's important for the players to feel the confidence from the head coach. That is definitely part of it.''
The Cowboys are just 1-1, but the McCarthy/Fassel confidence shown in them is surely an inspiration to their players. That can become a slice of this team's "identity,'' too - made up of full servings of talent and confidence and inspiration ... and "Watermelon.''