IRVING, Texas (AP) — No NFL team missed more field goals last season than the Dallas Cowboys. So hiring former kicker Chris Boniol as a consultant seems like a good investment.
Yet the Cowboys are taking a big gamble by asking Boniol to turn thumping kickoff specialist David Buehler into a precision guy.
Buehler led the NFL with 29 touchbacks last season, but they didn't ask him to try a single field goal. He had a chance to take the job from Nick Folk during a practice-field "kick off," but was so erratic the team let Folk keep the job a little longer, then ended up bringing in Shaun Suisham.
But early this offseason, coaches told Buehler to start working on his aim. They want him to win the job so badly that the only veteran they brought in was Boniol, and that was strictly for guidance.
"He's such a great talent physically," Boniol said. "I can't teach that; nobody can. Now he's doing his part to develop his skills and his ability."
The early results are encouraging. Buehler has been lining up in front of all his teammates during organized team activities and consistently booting the ball through the uprights.
Of course, impressing peers on the practice field in May is one thing; doing it in games is something else. The Cowboys know that is when they will really find out whether this experiment will work.
"Buehler's done a great job," tight end Jason Witten said. "He's embraced the opportunity he's had and matured as a kicker. He's not your ideal kicker in the way he acts — but that's good. He's a football player."
Buehler is a solid 225 pounds, built more like a linebacker. At training camp last summer, he had a foot race against a defensive back — and won.
He pours his energy and intensity into his kickoffs, sending them high and deep. When they are returned, he's eagerly looking for someone to hit. He's such a good athlete that he played on other special team units, like punt coverage and kickoff returns.
Kicking off is all the Cowboys asked him to do last year after drafting him in the fifth round. That's part of the reason he was unable to beat out Folk. He was rusty.
Going into this season, he's more of a well-oiled machine, and much more focused since he knows everyone is counting on him.
"As a rookie, I wasn't really prepared to step in and fill the void," he said. "Now I have an offseason to get my head right and know what my job is."
Part of knocking the rust off was making some changes in his technique.
Boniol has taught Buehler to eliminate a jab step at the start of his approach. He's also standing more upright and no longer watching the flight of the ball from the snapper to the holder. Now he watches the spot where the holder is going to be placing it.
With one less step and minimal movement of his eyes and head, fewer things can go wrong.
"Once the changes became second nature, I was golden," said Buehler, who was 9 of 13 as a senior at Southern Cal. "It's like night and day."
Field goals are all about control and kickoffs are all about power. They're kicked differently, and with different mindsets. While Buehler is focused on the field goals, he's still refining his kickoffs, too. He plans to lead the league in touchbacks again, with at least 30, and has a new trick he's picked up from Boniol.
"Chris is helping me directionally left," Buehler said. "That was something I struggled with last year. He's changed my steps. Now the ball is sailing left and I'm able to position it."
Coach Wade Phillips recalled this week another guy he was around who started out as a kickoff specialist as a rookie, then took over field goals his sophomore season.
It was Morton Andersen with the Saints in the early 1980s. All he did was become the NFL's career leader for field goals made and attempted, and points scored.
Phillips certainly isn't predicting another career like that. But he is counting on Dallas making more than 64 percent of its field goals next season (20 of 31).
"We know he has the leg strength," Phillips said. "We are worried about him overkicking, trying to overpower it. But it looks like he's got his stroke down."
Those kicks with the whole team watching are as stiff of a test as a guy can get this time of year.
"If he holds up under that," Phillips said, "I think he'll be fine in the games."
So far, so good.