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The Dallas Cowboys, Penalty Edition: "Stupid" Or Physically Limited?

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One of the primary frustrations for Cowboys fans is the feeling that their gridiron heroes don't play up to a perceived level of ability. The media-driven theme of the week is that this is a richly endowed but "stupid" bunch. Exhibits A and B supporting this thesis are the 14 penalties (12 accepted) and 3 turnovers Dallas amassed Sunday against Tennessee. I'm not here to dispute this notion utterly; its clear that "smart" teams don't compile these numbers. This week, however, I'd like to look a bit more closely at the terms of the argument. In this post, I'd like to focus on penalties.

For years, coaches have sought to distinguish between different categories of penalties. The conventional wisdom here is that "mental" penalties can, and should, be distinguished from those that are "physical." For example, all pre-snap penalties would be considered mental; with greater concentration and focus, the thinking goes, they could--and should--be avoided. On the other hand, there are certain infractions that come with physical play: roughing, unsportsmanlike conduct. Many organizations are willing to suffer these sorts of penalties, as they are the byproduct of hard-nosed and intimidating play. Certainly, the 70s Raiders were this sort of team; they would gladly trade 15 yards for the opportunity to rough up the opposing team's quarterback.

But there is another category of physical penalty, the kind that happens when a player is getting beat and thus does something to limit the possible negative outcome from his getting beat. Obvious examples of this kind of penalty are offensive holding (better that than giving up a sack) and pass interference (better than a touchdown pass). The fundamental situation underlying such infractions is that the player has been outperformed physically. Certainly, this can be because of a mental breakdown (poor technique, being out of position); that said, mistakes in technique can be made up for by speed, strength or quick feet. To extend this a bit: more talented teams commit fewer of this category of penalty.

Lets divvy up all fourteen Cowboys' penalties from the Titans game into these three categories (you'll see I've had to add a fourth category) and see what we end up with:

I. Mental penalties: Gurode, false start (-5); D. Free, false start (-5); Free, false start (-5)

II. Physical play penalties: Columbo, unnecessary roughness (-15); Bowen, hands to the face (-5);

III. Getting beat penalties: Jenkins, PI (-35); Jenkins, PI (-13); Scandrick, PI (declined); Free, holding (offsetting); Church, block in back (-9); Gurode, holding (-10); Ladoceur, holding (-10); Beuhler, face mask (-6); Austin, offensive PI (-10).

IV. Mental penalties that probably weren't a penalty: Columbo, celebration (-15)

If I'm Wade Phillips, I can live with the mental penalties. Three for fifteen? I'll take that. The Cowboys overcame Gurode's false start on their first touchdown drive; Free's first false start certainly contributed to turning a TD into a field goal, but there were other factors; his second made an extra point a bit more difficult. These are the sorts of penalties a "stupid" team makes, and there weren't many of them. I can also live with the penalties that come from matching Tennessee's physical play. Columbo is the team's enforcer, and it was a upon him to let the Titans know he and his mates wouldn't be pushed around. Bowen's penalty was flukish and damned unfortunate: it turned a forced punt into a scoring drive. But these kinds of slip-ups happen when big guys are playing hard--and I want my guys playing hard.

As we can see from the above, the great preponderance of yesterday's penalties happened because individual Cowboys were beaten by the man they were assigned to cover, block or tackle. This begs the question: is this the result of "stupidity," or were they physically overmatched on multiple occasions? Looking at the long list of Dallas' infractions, it appears that the chief offenders were the Cowboys defensive backs and offensive line. Indeed, the rest of the game--the plays that didn't end up as penalties--bear this out. The Dallas DBs appeared confused for the better part of the game; on the offensive side, the Cowboys allowed (think about this!) five sacks on their first fourteen passing plays and were inconsistent even when playing their best. In short, the position groups that were getting beat most regularly were those that committed the most penalties. Notice a trend here?

Could it be that the Cowboys aren't so much "stupid" as they are physically limited?

Next: what is "football talent?"