The Cowboys spent their first-round draft pick this year on Tyler Smith with the intent of playing him, at least for the short term, at left guard. That position had a vacancy because Connor Williams, a starter at left guard for all four years of his pro career, left in free agency.
Not only did Williams leave in free agency, but the Cowboys hardly made any effort to keep him. They may have exerted more energy holding the door for him as he walked out than anything. Williams signed with the Dolphins, where he’s been converted to the starting center for a Miami offense that’s now third in offense DVOA.
One major reason for the Cowboys being so willing to let Williams go was his penchant for drawing penalties. Mike McCarthy made no effort to hide his displeasure with Dallas being the most penalized team in the league last year, and Williams had the most penalties of any player on the team.
In fact, Williams was the most penalized player in the entire NFL last year with 14 flags thrown on him. It played a part in the Cowboys benching him for Connor McGovern during the season despite Williams having established himself as one of the Cowboys’ most consistent pass protectors. As it turned out, Williams finished the year with the fewest pressures allowed of any Cowboys offensive lineman to start a game last year; he had one fewer pressure than McGovern despite playing over double the snaps.
So how is Williams doing now that he’s had a change of scenery, as well as position? As it turns out, he’s doing great: Williams has just four penalties all year and hasn’t had a flag thrown on him since Week 6. Williams is also giving up the third fewest pressures of all starting centers, tying him with the Eagles’ Jason Kelce.
It was always a curious development last year that Williams drew so many penalties. He had never been a penalty machine throughout his career; he had 17 penalties combined in his first three years in the NFL. Then, in 2021, it suddenly jumped up to 14 in one season. Statistically speaking, it was an anomaly of epic proportions. That it led to his temporary benching, and later being jettisoned from the team, despite otherwise solid play was even more confounding.
In that sense, it shouldn’t be a big surprise to see Williams return to his record of clean play. And it’s not due to his position change either; while centers do tend to get penalized less than guards, Williams’ four penalties are still in the middle of the pack among starting centers. More than anything, this is just a massive regression to the mean for Williams, who has consistently avoided penalties throughout his career.
It does raise the question, though, as to why Williams had such a surge in penalties last year. The Cowboys are no longer the most penalized team, but they are tied for fifth most penalties throughout the year. Rookie Tyler Smith is tied for the seventh most penalties in the NFL. The next most penalized Cowboys player is actually a tie between Terence Steele - who’s now out for the year with a torn ACL, and who recorded four of his six penalties in Week 1 - and Kelvin Joseph, who may have just lost his starting job after a terrible performance last week.
In other words, it’s not like any Cowboys player has experienced a similar, inexplicable spike in penalties since Williams left. Smith drew a lot of penalties in college and he’s dealt with moving back to left tackle after spending several months playing guard, so it was expected that he’d have trouble staying clean.
Was Williams’ record number of penalties last year a reflection of how undisciplined the team has become under McCarthy, or was he being picked on by officials? Perhaps Williams really did just get sloppy last year, and a change of scenery helped him regain his form. The world may never know, but the drastic changes from year to year for Williams is nothing short of compelling.