TAMPA – Greg Zuerlein did not lose the game for the Cowboys.
Untimely drops, excessive allowance of big plays, always-opportunistic Tom Brady and a stifled run game contributed to the 31-29 deficit the Cowboys flew home with in the wee hours of Friday morning.
But Zuerlein, the Cowboys’ kicker, came up short in key moments. In the second quarter, Zuerlein missed field goal attempts from 31 and 60 yards as well as an extra-point attempt.
“I felt like we really paid the price of not having our kicker in training camp,” Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said Friday morning on Dallas radio station 105.3 The Fan. “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.”
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In his 10th NFL season, Zuerlein has demonstrated a high ceiling. He has received unwavering—and arguably, at times, overly optimistic—faith from Cowboys special teams coordinator John Fassel, who also coached Zuerlein for years with the Rams. The two competed for a Super Bowl together to cap the 2018 season. In 2017, Zuerlein earned All-Pro honors making 38 of 40 field-goal attempts and 44 of 46 extra points.
But Zuerlein spent nearly all of training camp rehabilitating from offseason back surgery. He was cleared from the physically unable to perform list on Aug. 25 but still ramped up slowly. Should the Cowboys have explored other options to open the season in Tampa?
“I believe in him long term and believe he’ll play better as we get into this season,” Jones 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?”
Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy said after the game he had full confidence in Zuerlein, noting the 60-yard attempt after Zuerlein had missed from 31 was an effort to reinstall Zuerlein’s confidence in himself.
In total, on the night, Zuerlein connected on three of five field-goal attempts and two of three extra-point attempts. Zuerlein successfully kicked a 48-yard, go-ahead field goal with 1:29 to play.
Even so, he was kicking himself.
“I feel bad for the guys in there that played their ass off, and I didn’t hold up my end of the deal,” Zuerlein said afterward. “If the team that that’s good, returning every player after a Super Bowl victory, and we’re right there, I just have to do my job.”
Zuerlein declined to attribute the extra-point doink or wide left 31-yarder to his rehabilitation.
“No excuses,” Zuerlein said. “If I’m out there, I should make the kicks. No excuses.”
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein.