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Dallas Cowboys With Too Many "Dumb Penalties" in 2012?

It sure felt like it, didn't it? Let's take a look at what the numbers have to say about that.


The Penalty Tracker at lists 53 different penalties that were called at one point in the league over the last four years. According to that tracker, the Dallas Cowboys committed 23 different penalties last year, and over the season accumulated 118 penalty calls.

Most of the analyses of penalties you've seen probably only looked at the penalty total and perhaps the penalty yardage, with a ranking of the worst transgressors. Occasionally, you might have seen somebody pull up a stat that ranked a given team by the number of specific penalties, like offensive holding or false start, the two most frequent penalties in the NFL. But you've probably not seen many analyses that went beyond that, and the reason is fairly simple: with the multitude of different penalties, you quickly get bogged down in endless details as you examine each penalty, and that's before you even start to consider sample size issues.

The folks over at remedy that by aggregating the different penalties into seven different penalty categories. And the thing that caught my eye is that they have a category titled "Dumb Penalties." That immediately struck a chord, because isn't that one of the main criticisms leveled at the Cowboys when talk turns to their penalties?

But wait, there's more. They also have penalty categories called "Playbook Execution Penalties" and "Poor Fundamentals Penalties" in addition to other more standard categories. That also rings abell, no?

Best of all, the guys have been tracking these penalties for the entire league since 2000 and have amassed a database of 50,064 penalties called since then. Here's an overview of the seven categories and which penalties count against which categories:

Penalty Category Most common flags
Offensive Holding Penalties Offensive Holding, Offensive Pass Interference & Illegal Use of Hands.
False Start Penalties (Offense) False Start
Defensive Secondary Penalties Defensive Holding, Defensive Pass Interference, Illegal Contact & Use of Hands.
Defensive Line Penalties Defensive Offside, Encroachment, Neutral Zone Infractions.
Dumb Penalties Taunting, Roughing the Passer/Kicker, Face Masks, Unsportsmanlike Conduct.
Playbook Execution Penalties Illegal Formations, Passes, Substitutions, Procedures and Motion; Intentional Grounding, 12 On Field, Delay of Game.
Poor Fundamentals Illegal Blocks, Crackbacks, Tripping, Horsecollars, Clipping.

With the data from the 50,064 penalties called since 2000, we can now easily look at the Cowboys' 118 penalties from 2012 and see how they compare against the league average. Of particular interest are the last three categories: dumb-, poor fundamentals-, and play execution penalties:

Penalty Category % of Flags, NFL 2000-12
% of Flags, 2012 Cowboys
Offensive Holding Penalties 22% 21%
False Start Penalties (Offense) 19% 24%
Defensive Secondary Penalties 15% 11%
Defensive Line Penalties 11% 14%
Dumb Penalties 15% 14%
Playbook Execution Penalties 13% 12%
Poor Fundamentals 5% 5%

So did the Cowboys have too many "dumb penalties" in 2012? In a sense, every penalty is a dumb penalty, and given that the Cowboys had the third most penalties in the league, they certainly had too much.

But if you look at the specific penalties categorized here as "Dumb Penalties", the Cowboys' percentage is slightly below the historic league average. The percentage of playbook execution penalties is also a little lower than the average, while the poor fundamentals penalties are right in line with the average.

If you look at the overall percentages, two other penalty categories stand out: The Cowboys are way above average in offensive false starts and in defensive line penalties, most of which are some form of a false start as well (Defensive offside, encroachment, neutral zone infractions).

As Cowboys fans, we tend to come down hard on the offensive line for their false starts, especially on Doug Free (8 false starts) and to a lesser extent on Tyron Smith (7). But we tend to gloss over the fact that the Cowboys edge rushers DeMarcus Ware (6 defensive false starts/3 declined) and Anthony Spencer (4/1) were also quite jumpy, but they have the advantage of having had some penalties declined. And anyway, as fans we tend to say that DeMarcus Ware is just so fast that the referees are to blame for the penalties, not the player. Strange how that goes.

Overall, there's no denying the Cowboys get too many penalties. But the distribution of those penalties is remarkably similar to the league average. The Cowboys do not commit a disproportionate amount of dumb penalties, but neither do they perform significantly better than the league average.


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