Atlanta Falcons special-teams coach Ben Kotwica took blame for the failed onside kick recovery that proved costly in last Sunday's 40-39 loss to the Dallas Cowboys but said he reminded his special-teams players during a timeout to aggressively go after the ball.
Kicker Greg Zuerlein and the Cowboys perfectly executed the onside kick, which was recovered by Dallas defensive back and former Falcon C.J. Goodwin. Several Falcons -- Kotwica singled out tight end Jaeden Graham and wide receiver Olamide Zaccheaus -- froze up and failed to aggressively recover the ball before it rolled 10 yards, which allowed the Cowboys to jump on it with 1 minute, 48 seconds left. Then Zuerlein nailed the 46-yard field goal to win it.
Falcons owner Arthur Blank, during an interview with SiriusXM NFL radio, said it was clear on tape that the players didn't understand the rules. Head coach Dan Quinn, speaking a little more than an hour before Blank's interview, said his players did understand the rules. Quinn said that although he and Blank might have disagreed on how to talk about it, they both agreed "100 percent'' that it shouldn't have happened.
"We should have aggressively gotten on the football,'' Kotwica said. "Those are smart guys. They're intelligent. They're hardworking. Shoot, one went to Yale [Graham] and the other one went to UVA [Olamide Zaccheaus]. And so we should have aggressively got on the ball as it got close to the restraining line.
"You know, I'm responsible for it. I'm responsible for everything the unit does and fails to do. It's something that was looked at. We've made the corrections, talked to the players. And we'll do a better job and look forward to Sunday's opportunity.''
Kotwica insisted he reminded his players how to approach the situation during the timeout that preceded the onside kick.
"You asked about the timeout. I remember one of my last words were, 'Hey, go get the ball,''' Kotwica said. "That's one of the foundations of our program here: the ball, the battle, the brotherhood. Yes, as that ball gets closer to the restraining area, we would like to get on that football.''
The special-teams units go over such scenarios on Saturday on the field along with a special hands-team meeting the same morning. The Falcons have had good practice with onside kicks, with kicker Younghoe Koo arguably the best at executing them.
Kotwica did mention that injuries affected who was on the field for the hands team. One of the players injured was linebacker Foye Oluokun, who has recovered a couple of Koo's onside kicks in games. Oluokun suffered a hamstring injury against the Cowboys and missed the second half.
Kotwica didn't mention Oluokun by name, but he did say he would evaluate the scheme and the personnel on the unit moving forward.
Kotwica didn't think there was miscommunication among the frontline players and the ones behind. For the frontline guys, if a ball is coming "hot'' or above the head, you go block. If it's a slow roller or something that can be fielded cleanly, they're taught to be aggressive and go get it.
Kotwica started his news conference by giving the Cowboys credit.
"I think first thing, you've got to get Dallas and Greg credit on a great kick,'' Kotwica said Thursday. "In the onside kick world, we recovered a couple last year. Matter fact, I think last week we talked about the one that we recovered against Seattle. But in this case, the tables were turned.
"I would tell you this: On that play, when Greg put the ball down and we called timeout and we were aware that he had a kick that was going to spin and roll, and I would tell you when that ball came off the foot, it's tough to project that that thing is going to go 10 yards. I was standing there when it came off of Greg's foot. It went along the 38-, the 39-yard line. It was going parallel. Initially, I didn't think it was going 10 yards.''
Kotwica went on to say how his players knew what to do in that scenario.
"As the ball begins to cross the 39-, 40-yard line, now you get into options and decision-making,'' he said. "Our players knew that they could go into the restraining area and recover the ball. But they also knew that as they went into the restraining area to recover the spinning football, there's a risk that if they don't recover it cleanly, that gives the kicking team the opportunity to recover the ball because then it becomes a live ball.
"... There's option there. I would tell you that obviously hindsight is 20/20. We want to aggressively get the ball."
The special-teams blunder has the Falcons 0-2 going into this week's matchup with the 2-0 Chicago Bears.