Coach transforms underachieving unit

IRVING, Texas -- Deon Anderson knew things would be different from the moment he met Joe DeCamillis.

DeCamillis, the Dallas Cowboys' new special-teams coordinator, skipped the pleasantries after introducing himself to Anderson. He immediately began barking orders at the team's best returning core special-teams player, painting a precise (and profane) picture of how Anderson needed to prepare himself for the season.

Message received. Tone set. Special teams are serious business at Valley Ranch again.

"Joe D. is up front, in your face," Anderson said. "Last year, it was more passive. Joe D., if he sees a mistake, he's going to let you know. He's going to get up in your face and let you know that you messed up. People don't want to get put on blast."

The Cowboys' special teams were such a catastrophe last season that coordinator Bruce Read was fired the week after the season ended. DeCamillis, a gruff, no-nonsense coach with 16 seasons of NFL experience, was hired to fix the situation.

"I just wanted to make sure that we understood how important it was," DeCamillis said. "I wanted to give those guys a sense of urgency, which I think they've done. I also just want to make sure they understand how hard you have to play every single play in the league to be good on teams."

DeCamillis has done a remarkable job despite suffering a neck injury in the collapse of the team's indoor facility that could have crippled him. He fractured four vertebrae and had to undergo surgery, during which two titanium rods were implanted in his spine. It's a miracle that he wasn't paralyzed.

Yet DeCamillis didn't miss a single practice. Fifteen days after the surgery, he was on the field for organized team activities, wearing a bulky neck brace and using former Cowboys coach Tom Landry's old bullhorn.

The commitment of DeCamillis, who still deals with constant pain and must sleep in a chair, was inspirational. His style is intense. His results are impressive.

The Cowboys have made some game-changing plays on special teams. They've blocked two field goals. Patrick Crayton returned a punt 73 yards for a touchdown last week. But the biggest signs of improvement have come on kickoff coverage. The Cowboys were among the league's worst last season, allowing opponents an average starting position of the 33.1-yard line after kickoffs. That's been trimmed more than a first down (21.8, which ranks third in the league).

The Cowboys' renewed emphasis on special teams certainly has helped. They committed to carrying four special-teams-only players when they used a fifth-round pick to select kickoff specialist David Buehler, who has boomed a league-high-tying 13 kickoffs for touchbacks, which is 13 more than the Cowboys had all last season. They signed return man Allen Rossum during the bye week -- making them the only team with five full-time specialists -- but his status is uncertain after he pulled his hamstring on his first return as a member of the Cowboys.

The returns of three players who missed most of last season with injuries (punter Mat McBriar, receiver Sam Hurd and safety Pat Watkins) also have been key to the special-teams turnaround. McBriar ranks fourth in the NFL with a net punting average of 41.3. Fifteen of his 26 punts have pinned opponents inside the 20, the league's best percentage. Hurd and Watkins are tied for the team lead with 10 special-teams tackles.

But players are quick to credit DeCamillis for transforming the Cowboys' special-teams units from a weakness into a strength.

"He's definite about things," Watkins said. "He makes things clear and to the point, very precise, and he wants everything down to detail. That's good, because you don't want to go into the game questioning where you're supposed to be and how you're supposed to do your job."

Added Hurd, "He makes you feel like he's going to play with you on Sunday. He's hype, ready to go. You've got to be as ready as he is."

Tim MacMahon covers the Cowboys for ESPNDallas.com. E-mail tim.macmahon@espn3.com.