Jerry Jones did not pull any punches in response to the Cowboys‘ special teams meltdown on Thursday night.
Addressing Dallas’ 31-29 loss to Tampa Bay — during which kicker Greg Zuerlein blew a chip-shot field goal and extra point, the difference in a should-be upset — the Cowboys owner claimed he still supports the former Pro Bowl specialist.
“I felt like we really paid the price of not having our kicker in training camp,” Jones said Friday on 105.3 The Fan, per USA Today. “I look back and when you don’t have a kicker that’s real active in training camp, you may be kidding yourself in early ball games is he really ready to go.
“The loss isn’t to be blamed on the kicker. But still, if we had had some execution on (some) of those kicks, it might have made a big difference here.”
Zeurlein spent the entirety of training camp and majority of the preseason on the Physically Unable to Perform list after undergoing offseason back surgery. He appeared much worse for wear early on against the Buccaneers, inexplicably shanking a 31-yard FG attempt and smacking an XP off the upright.
The 33-year-old, who also missed an egregious 60-yard FG try, finished having converted three-of-five kicks (35, 21, 48 yards) and two-of-three extra points. Zuerlein settled into form as the game wore on, though the early damage was done — and it was fatal.
Which begs a very important question that Jones posed aloud.
“I believe in him long term and believe he’ll play better as we get into this season,” he said. “(But) do you go into a season with a kicker that’s been on kind of on IR and been easing along maybe when it’s that vital to really be in the swing of things? Do you go with a kicker that didn’t do much in the preseason relative to competition that spent a lot of time on the practice field and working really the art that way?”
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It would have been easy for Zuerlein to scapegoat his performance as a repercussion of surgery. But with the Cowboys offense lighting up the scoreboard and the defense turning over Tom Brady, the ex-Rams All-Pro took a hard, long look in the mirror. He saw the reason Dallas is 0-1.
“I know we played well enough to win. If I do my job, we win that game,” Zuerlein said after the game, via Cowboys Wire. “I feel bad for the guys in there that played their ass off, and I didn’t hold up my end of the deal. A team that’s that good, returning every player from the Super Bowl victory, and we’re right there. I just have to do my job.”
He added: “No excuses. If I’m out there, I should make the kicks.”
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McCarthy Remains ‘Confident’
With Zuerlein on the shelf this summer, the Cowboys tried now-former punter Hunter Niswander at kicker and brought aboard Lirim Hajrullahu as a temporary replacement. Neither made an impression on special teams coordinator John Fassel nor head coach Mike McCarthy, whose “great faith and confidence” in Zuerlein indirectly led to a heartbreaking defeat.
“Obviously, you’d like to see him make those kicks,” McCarthy said in his postgame press conference, via Cowboys Wire. “Frankly, it’s part of the reason I went for the 60-yarder. I have great faith and confidence in him. We need him; he made a clutch, clutch kick there at the end to give us the lead before the two-minute drive of Tampa. You get in a game like that, you need all the points you can get.”
Follow Zack Kelberman on Twitter: @KelbermanNFL