Dallas Cowboys TD Drive Killers (Pt. 2) - Penalties

In the previous post on TD drive killers we saw that the Dallas Cowboys offense is not a ball control offense, at least when it comes to scoring touchdowns. Outside of third down conversions, another key reason preventing the Cowboys from stringing together more drives of 10+ plays are penalties.

In 2009 the Cowboys recorded the 5th highest amount of penalty yards in the league. And this wasn't just a momentary lapse of reason. The Cowboys are the only team to finish in the top ten in penalty yards for four consecutive seasons (2006-2009), and are also the only team with a four year active streak of 800 or more penalty yards.

And this is not just a recent phenomenon. In 2006, Bill Parcells' final season, the Cowboys ranked fifth in penalty yards. In 2002, Dave Campo's last season as head coach, the Cowboys also ranked fifth. In 1999, Chan Gailey’s second and final year, the Cowboys led the league in penalty yards and in 1997, Barry Switzer’s last year, they ranked third. For whatever reason, penalties are a part of the Dallas Cowboys. And they are a TD drive killer.

The Cowboys scored 40 offensive touchdowns in the 2009 regular season. The table below shows how the TD drives last season split in terms of 3rd downs and Penalties.

TD Drives by number of Drive Killers, 2009
Zero One Two Three +
3rd Downs 15 16 9 - -
Penalties 28 8 4  - -

28 of the Cowboys' touchdown drives (70%) in 2009 were penalty-free drives. 70% sounds like a lot. But is it really?

The Cowboys had 173 drives last year and recorded a total of 63 offensive penalties (excl. kickoffs and punts). I don't know how many of these 63 penalties happened on the same drives, but even if we assume they all happened on separate drives, the percentage of penalty-free drives last year would still be 64%, which isn't that far removed from the 70% on TD drives.

For this breakdown I've limited the analysis to penalties on TD drives only. This may not necessarily be representative of a team's total offense, but it is indicative of what led to success for each team (for more details, please refer to my last post).

Of the 1,139 drives that resulted in a touchdown in the NFL last year, 940 or 83% were penalty-free, at least for the offense. So the Cowboys are below average. In fact, the Cowboys' 70% is tied for the second lowest percentage of penalty-free drives with the Bengals and just behind the Lions (64%). At the other end of the scale, the Seahawks recorded 26 of their 27 TDs on penalty-free drives for a rate of 96%.

As always, you can look at this data from two perspectives. On the one hand, Dallas is obviously taking too many penalties and as a result is not getting enough penalty-free drives that would ultimately have a higher probability of resulting in more TDs.

On the other hand you can argue that unlike many other teams, the Cowboys have the offensive firepower to overcome a penalty on a drive, sometimes even multiple penalties. The Cowboys had 12 touchdown drives with one or more penalties. Only the Colts had more with 13, and only three other teams also recorded double digit figures: the Patriots (12), Saints (10) and Vikings (10). That is a respectable peer group.

In part the Cowboys are able to do this because a penalty may cost you yards, but it still maintains the down. At 1st-and-15 or 1st-and-20, you still have three tries to move the chains. That situation changes when we look at sacks (which we'll do in the next and last post in this series), because you may end up with the same distance to go but will have one less down to make that distance.

TD Drive Breakdown by Penalties and NFL team, 2009 (click column header to sort)

Team Offensive TDs Penalties per TD drive
Zero in% One Two Three
Saints 55 45 82% 8 2 0
Vikings 53 43 81% 9 1 0
Packers 50 44 88% 5 1 0
Colts 50 37 74% 11 2 0
Patriots 47 35 74% 9 3 0
Chargers 46 41 89% 3 2 0
Cardinals 43 36 84% 7 0 0
Ravens 43 35 81% 6 2 0
Texans 42 36 86% 6 0 0
Giants 42 34 81% 7 1 0
Falcons 41 32 78% 6 3 0
Eagles 41 37 90% 4 0 0
Cowboys 40 28 70% 8 4 0
Steelers 38 32 84% 5 1 0
Dolphins 37 28 76% 8 1 0
49ers 35 28 80% 6 1 0
Titans 35 31 89% 4 0 0
Panthers 34 30 88% 3 0 1
Jaguars 34 30 88% 3 0 1
Bears 33 28 85% 3 2 0
Jets 33 29 88% 4 0 0
Bengals 30 21 70% 5 2 2
Broncos 30 28 93% 2 0 0
Redskins 29 25 86% 4 0 0
Seahawks 27 26 96% 1 0 0
Chiefs 26 22 85% 4 0 0
Lions 25 16 64% 9 0 0
Bills 23 20 87% 3 0 0
Buccaneers 23 21 91% 2 0 0
Browns 21 17 81% 4 0 0
Raiders 17 12 71% 3 0 2
Rams 16 13 81% 3 0 0
NFL Avg 35.6 29.4 83% 14% 2% 1%
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