How Badly Did the Cowboys Miss Mat McBriar? Quite a Bit.
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
40-49 yds.= 8
Paulescu, Punt Distance
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
40-49 yds= 13
Paulescu, Net Punting Yards
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.