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If the Cowboys want real success, they have to fix their current penalty problem

Penalties absolutely hurt the Cowboys. Here’s some context.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at New York Giants Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

It is strange for an NFL team to finish a twelve-win season having more questions than answers. Yet here we are with the Dallas Cowboys. In the abrupt and hugely disappointing exit from the postseason against the San Francisco 49ers, we saw almost everything that had been an issue at one time or another rear its ugly head. There are a lot of things to examine as we try to figure out how it all went wrong and what the team might do to fix the problems. Let’s start with one that drove us especially crazy and was a definite factor in the loss on Sunday: Penalties.

After the game, there was a very disappointing reaction from Mike McCarthy and Dak Prescott. They appeared to blame the referees for the way the game ended, and Prescott uncharacteristically seemed to endorse the idea of pelting the officials with bottles after things wrapped up. While distasteful, it was hardly the first time that blame for a loss was at least partly deflected to the zebras. There certainly has been a perception that the officials have had it in for Dallas this past season. And it is inarguable that the team has been the most heavily penalized team in the league with a whopping 141 flags thrown against them.

Some have expressed the belief that this is just standard for the Cowboys. They always get flagged more than other teams. That, however, is a case of recency bias. I looked back at the last ten seasons, using the figures from NFL Penalties, a website that has tracked them for over a decade. The numbers show that 2021 was an aberration for Dallas. (Note: the season totals include the postseason appearances as applicable, but that does not significantly affect the ranking.)

Cowboys penalty history

Year Rank Total penalties Year Rank Total penalties
Year Rank Total penalties Year Rank Total penalties
2021 1 141 2016 14 111
2020 13 96 2015 18 112
2019 16 111 2014 13 116
2018 14 114 2013 17 102
2017 26 97 2012 6 118
nflpenalties.com

As you can see, most years the Cowboys are near the league average for flags thrown against them. It was just over the past season that things went badly awry. The 141 times Dallas drew a call against them was just a continuation of a year long display of mistakes.

If you want a silver lining, it is that this indicates things can be fixed. It is cold comfort as we lick our wounds and start what should be an eventful offseason. .

So why were things so bad? Well, there is another data point from the totals that you are probably unaware of. Dallas also saw the most penalties called against their opponents over the course of the season, 130. Yes, that’s right. They averaged under one penalty a game more than their opponent. That should not be enough to create an issue over the long term.

It was, of course, a problem against the 49ers, who were flagged nine times. That is normally a lot, but the five penalty differential was significant, and the 31 yard differential in San Francisco’s favor was even more important. But this is about the overall concern raised this year.

The first suspect here is coaching, starting with Mike McCarthy. It is one buck that stops with him. It was clear almost from the beginning that the yellow laundry was falling at an alarming pace. No effective measures were taken.

The key word there is effective. Based on what we heard from the team, they did try and get things sorted out. It clearly did not work. Part of that may be the mindset we saw over the course of the season that the Cowboys were getting the short end of the stick, and some obvious resentment that developed. That looks like a failure of McCarthy and his coaching staff to properly address things and shut down that counterproductive attitude. The evidence is all anecdotal, but it points to a mindset that the problem wore black and white stripes rather than taking personal responsibility for correcting things.

That takes us to another set of suspects, the players themselves. While some bad calls happen virtually every game, they do balance out in the long run, as the very close number of penalties against and in favor of Dallas indicates. What surfaced, especially against the 49ers, was an obvious failure of the Cowboys players to have self-discipline on the field. Things like the two offsides calls against Randy Gregory fall on him. There has been an argument that he was creating false starts from Trent Williams, but when the first one was not caught by the referees, it was foolish to repeat the mistake and expect them to get it right. That is just one example. San Francisco benefited from four first downs via penalty versus only one for Dallas. In a game that was so close at the end, partly due to mistakes by the Niners, that may have been a fatal margin.

Lack of discipline brings us to the final suspects in this case. Those are Jerry and Stephen Jones. Why them? The unique structure of the Cowboys means that the players are not ultimately accountable to the coaches. Their retention by the team and even to an extent their place on the depth chart are determined by the owners, not the staff. That is a major flaw for Dallas, at least in my view. It is also something that cannot be changed as long as Jerry Jones still clings to the general manager title. When it finally passes to another, it will almost certainly be Stephen that takes up the mantle, and nothing will change.

That is why self-discipline is so crucial. The players have to take it on themselves if they are not held properly accountable under the dysfunctional structure at the Star. Prescott’s comments are doubly disappointing because for the most part he has been a good leader in that aspect. Hopefully he can overcome the lapse and continue to demand the best from himself and his teammates.

While the focus of this article so far has been on the team looking within for solutions, there is one way that the officials themselves do not get off the hook. When you look at the combined penalties for both teams when the Cowboys were half of the matchup, it is clear that there was a significant increase in flags both ways over any other team’s games for the season. It is established fact that Dallas draws the biggest audiences for the NFL. It is a logical inference that the referees are aware of the stage they are on, and it is at least a reasonable suspicion that they are falling prey to the limelight. On the other hand, this is another thing that has just surfaced this season. It may be transitory or even illusory. In any case, there is zero indication that the NFL will hold the officials in any way accountable, so the Cowboys must still be prepared to deal with it through that self-discipline.

It was a clear problem for Dallas in 2021. It just as clearly needs to be fixed. Sadly, it is just one of a long list of things we will be discussing from a year that had so much promise but ended in failure.