Truths about kick returns, 'power struggles'

BY foxsports • September 21, 2012

IRVING, Texas – A national media outlet claims there is a "power struggle'' between Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and his coach Jason Garrett, a make-believe concept that keeps the "National Enquirer''-style news mill churning but mindlessly and recklessly skims over the real issues involving the source of this non-existent tug-of-war: the team's kick-return work featuring Felix Jones.

"When you make a play like that, you look hard again at that and what the alternatives are," Garrett said Monday in review of Jones' work in the 27-7 loss at Seattle in which Jones fumbled the opening kick and bumbled in his decision-making on the job.

Jones followed up that comment on Dallas radio station 105.3 The Fan by giving Felix a vote of confidence. And by Wednesday morning, Garrett was saying Felix remained atop the depth chart at the position.

Where is the conflict? Where is the "power struggle''? Do Cowboys followers truly believe Jerry Jones is storming into special-teams meetings at Valley Ranch and barking orders about who plays where?

"One of the things that I think we do a really good job of in this organization is we discuss things,'' Garrett said. "The Joneses (Jerry and son Stephen) and I discuss a lot of things. Our staff and I discuss a lot of things. We discuss a lot of things with our pro personnel and our college scouting department, so the lines of communication are open.''

There's the truth about the "organizational chart'' at Valley Ranch, which is indisputably different than the organizational charts of other franchises in sports. Of course, there are 32 different ways to skin the NFL cat. And the only "right way'' is the one that ultimately wins you a Super Bowl. So – the silliness and dangers of media deception and fans perception aside – the core issue is about the "hows'' and "whys'' of Dallas' handing of Felix and its kickoffs.

If you want screaming headlines about "power struggles,'' you have pulled up a barstool in the wrong saloon. If you are interested in Seven Cowboys Truths on this issue, you've come to the right place:

1. I'm told that as the team's practices this week, third-string running back Phillip Tanner has been splitting the reps with Jones as the third-down running back. That kills the notion that Jerry Jones – like Felix a University of Arkansas product – is letting Hog Love drive playing-time decisions.

2. Furthermore, I'm told that Mo Claiborne, the cornerback from LSU who was a spectacular return weapon in college, has taken some turns this week as a kick returner. However, it's also whispered to me that Claiborne has a very minor knee ailment that causes the club to want to be very careful with over-using him.

Meanwhile, Tanner, Dwayne Harris, Lance Dunbar and LeQuan Lewis stand as other backup candidates for the job. And it's certainly difficult to argue in favor of the idea of Felix beating any of the aforementioned five teammates in a footrace to an opening on a return. That's not all the job requires, of course. But as the once-explosive Jones appears to still be overweight, it's a damning fact.

3. An educated guess at what is among Felix' issues: Desire and love for the game. This is a contract year and yet he's returned to the team after shoulder surgery in poor enough shape to have failed his day-one conditioning test at training camp. The Cowboys coaching staff is trying to milk what it can from Felix … but it's difficult to coach desire. That doesn't make Felix a bad guy. It does make him an underachiever.

4. Jerry Jones' influence was absolutely a factor when Felix was drafted in the first round out of Arkansas. I'm told the scouting department had Jones ranked just behind Rashard Mendenhall as a first-round talent. (The scouting department, by the way, had Chris Johnson ranked at the top of its third-round board.) So Jerry and the Cowboys may or may not have goofed here. Either way, one of the reasons Felix is being given multiple opportunities is because of the first-round investment in him.

5. Privately, the Cowboys have a rule of thumb for when to return a kick from the end zone, and it is this: A returner shouldn't field the ball and exit the end zone unless he's no deeper than six yards in and unless his momentum while catching the ball is moving forward. Felix has too often failed following these rules (twice in Seattle he returned from eight yards deep), crimes almost as heinous as fumbling the opening kickoff, a crushing error in the Seattle game.

6. There hasn't been time in Garrett and Jones media visits to concentrate on the other 10 players on kick returns who've graded out poorly … because over the course of two games in which Dallas is 1-1, it's probably been all 10 guys who've done so. Felix doesn't seem capable of hitting holes and his 10 mates haven't yet created holes. A rather deadly special-teams combination.

7. This all may be less of an issue this week against visiting Tampa Bay than Cowboys outsiders will know … until Sunday. Staffers believe Bucs kickoff specialist Michael Koenen is likely to boom his kicks deep into the Cowboys Stadium end zone. And at this point for the Cowboys – far too accustomed to starting post-kickoff drives at the 20 or worse – maybe that's the best kick-return solution of all.