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The Cowboys Aim to Drain the Stupid Swamp

The stupid.  It burns, and it grates, and it chafes, and it frustrates.  It makes you snarl at your dog, messes with your sleep and takes the taste out of your coffee.

The 2008 Cowboys were a dumb and undisciplined football team, one which led the league in penalties.  Of course, this was not a new problem.  Look at the later Parcells years and you'll see a team that ranked among the leaders in penalty yardage. 

Early this year I wrote a series of "autopsies" examining the offensive line, the defensive front seven and the special teams, and concluded that serious personnel changes were probably necessary if the team was going to improve, changes which would take a while to incorporate.

Four months into 2009, it is clear the Cowboys have prioritized intelligence.  Many disciplinary risks have left.  Several penalty kings have also left and others are on thin ice. 

We've heard of brain drains, but let's examine the Cowboys' progress at draining the swamp of stupid which has surrounded this team:

Tank Johnson -- He tied for most penalties among defensive linemen, with five.  Given that he was a backup, who seemed to show up every other game or three, his departure was a small but real example of addition by subtraction.

Adam Jones -- He made some plays, but he also blew a ton of assignments.  He got himself on the suspended list at a time when Terence Newman and Anthony Henry were injured. leaving the team with no veteran cornerback options in the Bucs game.  You can't rebuild your secondary with guys this unreliable.

Roy Williams -- The horsecollar penalty was created for him, yet Roy could never stop grabbing collars.  His late 4th quarter breakdowns were legendary;  one of the enduring images from the past four years is Williams surrending a long pass and then immediately pointing a finger at a teammate. 

Pat Watkins -- He's still around, but Dallas drafted two safety prospects and a handful of special team prospects, putting Penalty Pat on notice.  Watkins committed a third of the team's special teams penalties last year.  Most of them were personal fouls.  He took three such flags in the first Eagles game.  He made just as many mental errors in the secondary.  He took an unbelievable twelve-men-on-the-field flag when he subbed himself in after a time out in the Redskins loss.  Watkins assumed Dallas was playing nickel.  The Cowboys were in their base.  Like Williams, Watkins can't stop bad behavior.  For Roy it was horsecollars; for Pat it's grabbing facemasks on punts. 

Terrell Owens --  He wasn't a dumb player, or penalty-prone.  The team still felt he was disruptive and sent him away.

Some guys are solid starters or rotation guys, and will simply have to clean up their acts.  Among them:

Greg Ellis -- He took a high number of off-sides penalties.  He's not a starter anymore, so the reduction in downs will hopefully reduce his flags.

Nick Folk -- He's not in any current danger, but he knocked five kickoffs out of bounds last year.  Drafting  David Buehler should cut this number significantly.

Tony Romo -- His interception percentage was actually lower last year than it was in '07, but Romo's fumbles-lost almost tripled.  He needs to take much better care of the football when he leaves the pocket. 

Marion Barber -- He never lost a fumble his first three years in the league.  Last year, he fumbled more often (seven times) than he did in his '05 through '07 seasons combined.  Barber lost three of them. 

The offensive line -- Their 33 total penalties was a drop from their '05-'07 penalty rate.  That's still a lot of flags.   Flozell Adams (13) and Marc Colombo (7) were the most frequent offenders.  We're not likely to see a serious dip here until new linemen enter the lineup.

You can't turn over the roster in one spring.  The Cowboys have, however, cut several of their most penalty-prone players.  That should bring a drop in overall penalties and a more competitive team.

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