Follow The Flags: Tracking Dallas Cowboys Penalties For The 2012 Season


The Cowboys are once again the most penalized team in the league, which is not a huge surprise for Cowboys fans. What might be more surprising are the names of the players who are drawing the most flags, and that raises some uncomfortable questions.

So far this season, the Cowboys have been flagged for 52 penalties. On a per-game basis, that’s an average of 8.7 though six games, the highest value in the league. No team has been penalized more often than the Cowboys have been so far this year. It's not much of an upside, but at least the Cowboys don't also lead the league in penalty yardage: The Cowboys "only" rank ninth in the league with 62.2 penalty yards per game.

None of this is acceptable of course. So under the motto of "Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice ... ugh ... you can't get fooled again!" we're going to publish the BTB Accountability Index in which we list all the repeat penalty offenders on the roster. So here’s a breakdown of the calls that have gone against the Cowboys this year, not including penalties that were declined or offset:

Most penalized players, repeat offenders only

Player Penalties Yards Stalled Drives Type
Doug Free 9 60 3 6x false start, 3x holding
Tyron Smith 8 46 3 5x false start, 2x holding, 1x horse collar
Jason Witten 5 35 3 3x false start, 2x holding
Dez Bryant 3 20 1 Illegal shift, illegal motion, unnec. roughness
Tony Romo 3 15 2 3x delay of game
Brandon Carr 3 11 0 DPI, illegal contact, holding
Jason Hatcher 2 20 0 Roughing the passer, neutral zone infraction

The key thing to understand here is that of the 50 penalties called against individual players (i.e. excluding things like 12-men-on the field or illegal shift penalties), 33 or two thirds can be traced to seven players. And these players are not just anybody, they are effectively the face of the franchise: two recent number one picks, the quarterback, the HOF-bound TE and the 50 million dollar free agent. And if DeMarcus Ware didn't have three of the four penalties called against him declined, he'd be on this list as well.

That has got to make you think. You usually hear about how the Cowboys as a team are undisciplined or penalty prone, but that may not be entirely accurate. It's a handful of core franchise players that are drawing the most flags. Not some JAG or some late-round draft pick confused by the speed of the NFL.

Almost every time the discussion turns to the Cowboys' penalty situation some intellectual high-flyer will inevitably propose a simple solution to those problems: "Bench the suckerz," which is inevitably followed by "!!!". Yet like in most avenues of life, while simple answers are attractive precisely because they are less intellectually demanding, they also almost never work.

Should Garrett bench Romo for a couple of snaps after every delay-of-game penalty? Tell DeMarcus Ware to sit in a corner for a drive and reflect on what a bad boy he's been for jumping offsides? Take away Witten's helmet after every false start and tell him to "Think about what you've done." How about cutting Tyron Smith to set an example; after all, Jimmy Johnson would have done that, no?

There are no easy answers here. And to further confound the issue, 12 of the 33 penalties incurred by these players have resulted in stalled drives (Stalled drive: no points scored on drive and no first down earned after penalty incurred). How's that for team dynamics: The guys that are paid to be the difference makers are the ones holding the team back.

The one avenue that could provide some remedy to the Cowboys' penalty situation is to look at the type of penalties the Cowboys have incurred, and then adjust the coaching, play-calling, scheme or whatever it is that is causing the penalties.

Most frequently called penalties, two flags or more only

Penalty Count NFL rank Declined
False Start 16 32nd 0
Offensive Holding 10 14th 1
Defensive Pass Interference 5 18th 2
Defensive Offside 5 22nd 3
Illegal Shift 4 8th 1
Unnecessary Roughness 3 13th 0
Delay of Game 3 15th 0
Face Mask 2 11th 0
Illegal Use of Hands 2 5th 0

Note, the NFL rank is calculated based on the absolute number of penalties for the season. Because of their early bye, the Cowboys have played less games than the 16 teams who have not had their byes yet. On a per-game basis, the Cowboys would probably be ranked around five spots or so lower for each penalty - except for the false starts; you simply can't drop below 32nd in the league.

False starts, holding and offsides together account for 31 flags thrown (four of which were declined) against the Cowboys, more than half of the total Cowboys penalties. When the Cowboys say they need to address and correct their penalty situation, they are not talking about face mask penalties, chop block flags or horse collar tackles, they are talking false starts, holding and offsides.

And the real question then becomes not who but what is causing these penalties?

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