How Badly Did the Cowboys Miss Mat McBriar? Quite a Bit.

Mat McBriar, Dallas Cowboys

The Cowboys’ loss to the NFC Champion Arizona Cardinals on October 12 was costly for a number of reasons. First, Tony Romo broke his pinky at the end of the game, causing him to miss a month of the season and causing throwing problems that appeared to affect him all season. Second, the team lost rookie Felix Jones, who had been a big spark to the offense when the Cowboys started the season at 4-1. Third, had the Cowboys won the game, they would have qualified for the playoffs, assuming the same results in the subsequent games.

The other big loss was punter Mat McBriar, who broke his foot when the Cardinals blocked a punt in overtime. Arizona recovered the fumble in the end zone, giving the Cardinals the win.

Before the injury, McBriar averaged 49.0 yards per punt, which would have ranked second in the league had he played the entire season. McBriar’s net average of 38.8 was ranked lower in the league, but it was better than any of his previous seasons.

McBriar’s replacement, Sam Paulescu, only managed a 41.8 average, which ranked in the bottom six among full-time punters. Paulescu’s 35.2 net average was also ranked very low, though his average was better towards the end of the season than it was when he replaced McBriar in October.

The averages only tell part of the story. On McBriar’s 25 punt attempts (including the block against Arizona), the Cowboys had an average starting field position at their own 32. Their opponents’ average field position after a Dallas punt was their own 26. After McBriar’s injury, the Cowboys’ average starting position on punts moved up to their own 34, and the average starting field position of their opponents moved up to the 31. In other words, when Paulescu was punting, opponents had better field position by seven yards compared with opponents when McBriar was the punter. Given that Paulescu punted a total of 53 times, that is not an insignificant number of yards given up.

Another practical effect of the punting change: no opponent started a possession in Dallas territory following a McBriar punt in games 1 through 6. The closest was Washington in week 4, when the Redskins started one possession at their own 49. By comparison, Cowboys’ opponents began eight possessions in Dallas territory following punts by Paulescu in the final ten games of the season.

A big part of the problem was the simple matter that McBriar has one of the strongest legs in the NFL, and Paulescu could not come close to matching McBriar. Consider the distances of the punts by both punters:

McBriar, Punt Distance

60+ yds.= 3

50-59 yds.=10

40-49 yds.= 8

30-39 yds.=1

20-29 yds.=2

Blocked=1

Paulescu, Punt Distance

60+ yds.=2

50-59 yds.=5

40-49 yds.=24

30-39 yds.=19

20-29 yds.=3

Thus, 84% of McBriar’s punts travelled at least 40 yards, while only 58% of Paulescu’s punts travelled that distance. Granted, some of Paulescu’s shorter punts were downed inside the 20, but that certainly was not the case with all of them.

Net punting yards were also much better with McBriar than with Paulescu:

McBriar, Net Punting Yards

50+ yds.=1

40-49 yds= 13

30-39 yds.=8

20-29 yds.=2

Paulescu, Net Punting Yards

60+ yds.=1

50-59 yds.=2

40-49 yds.=16

30-39 yds.=19

20-29 yds.=10

10-19 yds.=4

1-10 yds.=1

Paulescu, to be sure, improved as the season wore on, and he downed several punts inside the 20. On the other hand, he had especially poor games against the Rams and Ravens. Against Baltimore, four of his six punts traveled less than 40 yards, and the Ravens started three of their possessions at, respectively, their own 49, the Dallas 46, and the Dallas 37. Baltimore scored on two of those drives.

  • JeffHart24

    I am with you 100%….

    As a matter of fact, if you watch the Steeler game, which was nothing more than a classic battle of field position and making less mistakes, the shank punt by the Cowboys punter set up sick field position for the Steelers and then another punt that could not stay in the sky long enough for the coverage to get down there enabled Holmes to return another punt to the Cowboys 20-something yard line.

    A healthy McBriar more than likely avoids that bs and keeps the momentum out of the Steelers hands.

    Give the Boys 1 extra win and they are in the playoffs and the Eagles and Cards are living proof that ANYTHING can happen in the playoffs…especially the Cards after going 9-7 and now are 1 win away from the title.

  • Good point about the Pittsburgh game, Jeff.

    Except for the final kick against Arizona, McBriar had five punts when Dallas still had the ball inside the opponent’s 20. The five kicks traveled 45, 55, 65, 40, and 61, for an average of 53.2 yards.

    In similar situations, Paulescu had punts of 36, 53, 60, 45, 38, 50, 48, 44, 42, and 46 yards, for an average of 46.2 yards per kick.

    On each of McBriar’s five punts, opponents started in their own territory on the next possession. On five of the ten Paulescu punts from inside the 20, the opponents started in Dallas territory.

    It is not as if the difference in possession is that overwhelming, but it was certainly noticable. And with so many games coming down to the wire, who knows what might have happened if the punting game had been better with McBriar.

  • Tim

    Great point on the punting situation. As I contantly say, in the NFL, little things mean alot and field position can be so vital. I wish some of the gooberheads that blog on what the Cowboys “need” would read this site more and get a more nuanced view of how the season progressed (or did not progress).