Right now, the Dallas Cowboys sit at 3-4 and we're aware of some of the reasons why the Cowboys are losing games. We're near the bottom of the league in turnover differential (our -11 differential puts us dead last among NFC teams; only Kansas City has a worse turnover differential than we do). We're also the #4 most penalized team in terms of penalties, although we're #20 in penalty yards*. After seeing these numbers, I wondered where exactly these penalties were coming from and which players/units were responsible for these penalties and what I found was about what I was expecting.
After some cursory Googling, I found that the Cowboys have been penalized 55 times. Of those 55 penalties, 34 of them were credited to offensive players for 231 yards, or 6.79 yards a penalty. The other 21 are credited to defensive players for 137 yards or 6.52. The most penalized group of players on the offensive are the offensive line, specifically our two tackles, Doug Free and Tyron Smith with 9 penalties for 60 yards and 8 penalties for 46 yards, respectively. Nearly half the offensive penalties come from our 2 tackles. The only other offensive linemen penalized this year are Mackenzy Bernadeau (once for 10 yards) and Jeremy Parnell (a false start). Both Doug Free and Tyron Smith have been called for false starts more than 5 times (Doug Free=6, Tyron Smith=5; Jason Witten follows them with 3 false starts). Because of this, nearly half of our offensive penalties are false starts. The offense was penalized for holding 8 times (Free=3, Smith=2, Witten=2, Vickers=1). Romo was penalized 3 times for "other" penalties.
To contrast, the defense has been penalized for offsides 3 times (all 3 by Demarcus Ware), holding 3 times (one by Carr, Frampton, and Lemon), illegal contact once (Carr), pass interference twice (Claiborne, Silva), once for roughing (Hatcher), one personal foul (Ratliff), twice for unnecessary roughness (Brent and the phantom call on Carter during the Seahawks game; the other one was committed by Dez)**. One positive is that we haven't been penalized for unsportsmanlike conduct, but that's probably since we haven't had much to celebrate about.
So what are the takeaways from this? To me, it's somewhat clear that these penalties are of the correctable type, ie mental mistakes. I couldn't find the data on penalties by down, but penalties such as false starts and holding tend to derail drives and force people into pressing too hard to try to make a play. Yes, we're not very high in penalty yardage, but that could probably be taken as a testament to our defense not making as many crippling mental mistakes as our offense (specifically, our offensive line). One thing that we can say for certain is that if we can't correct our penalty problem, we're not going anywhere this year, next year, or any year.
*Data taken from ESPN
**Data taken from footballdb.com