Cowboys’ Greg Zuerlein explains bounceback from poor opener to game-winning performance vs. Chargers

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You either die a hero, or live long enough to see yourself become the villain. But in the case of Greg Zuerlein, he lived long enough to become the hero again. For a kicker, there’s but one job: be good at kicking. Zuerlein was brought to the Dallas Cowboys by special teams coordinator John “Bones” Fassel to be the long-term resolution in the post-Dan Bailey era, but his 2021 got off to an abhorrent start — when he left a minimum of four points on the field in the two-point loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the regular season opener. 

All he did next was prove he’s still got the juice, contributing eight points in a three-point win capitalized by his game-winning 56-yard rocket of a kick, finishing with a tantalizing 100 percent accuracy rate on both field goals and PATs (he missed one of both the week prior). So while it was more than fair to criticize Zuerlein for helping to contribute to the loss in Week 1 — as even Fassel did — it’s equally fair to throw him some roses for being a key reason the Cowboys defeated the Chargers in a game wherein points were at a premium.

And, for his part, the kicker who admitted there are “no excuses” for missing easy kicks explained he didn’t climb into a hole for the nine days leading into the battle in Los Angeles. Instead, it was simply about sticking to his form and making a tweak here or there, along with the added motivation of seeing the Cowboys re-sign kicker Lirim Hajrullahu to the practice squad as insurance.

“That’s football,” Zuerlein told media after the narrow win in Los Angeles. “I don’t think you’re ever really out of it. When they have the ball, you’re just trying to stay warm into the net because you never know what’s going to happen. We got the ball back, and I’ve been in situations in the past where you might get a chance here. Just stay warm into the net and wait.”

For him, being ready means believing the offense can always score a touchdown, but assuming they won’t ever — to prevent himself from inadvertently relaxing only to see his number called and having to then get ready for the attempt. 

In other words, he never turns off during a game.

“The mindset is always, as a kicker, that it’s going to be a field goal,” Zuerlein explained. “You never plan on scoring a touchdown. If it happens, that’s great, but mentally, you’re always thinking it’s on you.”

The former First-Team All-Pro was put to the test on Sunday, including with distance, and that’s an area he’s struggled in as of late; having made just three of his nine attempts in 2020 that were longer than 50 yards, and missing a 60-yarder (albeit questionable decision-making by the Cowboys to attempt it) against the Buccaneers in Week 1. But when they needed him to save the day from 56 yards out, he did, and it was a no-doubter.

“It’s always the same,” Zuerlein said of his form. “You have the same swing on a PAT as you do on a long one. That’s the mentality. You go out there and you really try not to think about what distance is it from. You pick your spot and go from there.

“It’s more about trusting the process. You don’t throw out your swing because you missed a kick. You go and practice and figure out what you did wrong and you try and correct that. That’s all it really is. 

“Just be confident and trust the swing.”

He owned his errors in Week 1, remained confident and fixed them in Week 2, and now the Cowboys are 1-1 on the season — having seen the two faces of Zuerlein in as many games. With his back injury and rust now shaken off, they believe the one they saw at SoFi Stadium is the one that’ll stick around for the remainder of the season, and that banking on a field goal will no longer be a flip of the coin.

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