The lasting image of the 2021 Dallas Cowboys will be a crushing 23-17 playoff loss to the 49ers. Mike McCarthy’s team was penalized 14 times, which matched a season-high when Dallas also had 14 penalties at home against the Raiders on Thanksgiving.
McCarthy took the podium at the NFL Combine on Tuesday, and followed up Stephen Jones’ comments on Monday with more of the same messaging Cowboys fans have heard for much too long. Of course, this wasn’t the first time McCarthy spoke publicly this offseason, as he’s already had to deal with Sean Payton rumors.
Entering his third season, McCarthy addressed cleaning up penalties and handling adversity as his points of emphasis for improvement. The comments fall in line with the Cowboys front office talking about prioritizing their own free agents, drafting well, and running it back year after year without better results.
There’s no doubt the Cowboys do need to limit penalties, with the offensive line drawing the bulk of the yellow flags this season. Connor Williams was called for 14 of the 53 penalties this unit totaled, and it’s felt like a foregone conclusion that the left guard, who was benched at one point in the season, will sign elsewhere in free agency.
The Cowboys addressing the offensive line with the 24th overall pick is trending in mock drafts, as the need here goes beyond penalties. The team needs to better protect Dak Prescott - who McCarthy announced had offseason shoulder surgery - and can do so by drafting up front while finding a way to keep their own talent at wide receiver.
La’el Collins was the Cowboys second-most penalized player, followed by Trevon Diggs and Tyler Biadasz. Collins could be in line for a position change, as moving back to left guard would give the Cowboys an in-house option to replace Williams. Diggs’ role as a starter is secure, and part of his incredible turnover production is explained by teams not shying away from throwing at him to also draw penalties. Like Williams, Biadasz’ job as the starting center could be up for grabs this draft cycle.
With the bulk of the Cowboys penalties coming from players they’re still expecting major contributions from, McCarthy’s overall comments point to a bigger issue. A closer look at the top ten teams in penalties per games for 2021 shows a randomness that makes this metric hard to justify as the focal point for an entire offseason of work.
Six of the top ten teams still made the playoffs, and only three finished without winning records. The two Super Bowl participants rank in the top five for least penalties per game, but so too did the Colts and Washington Football Team.
There’s a level of nuance here the Cowboys insist they’re already looking at, in terms of when these penalties occur, how preventable they were, and what needs to be done to coach them out. Coming from a head coach that fudged the truth about watching every snap of Dak Prescott’s season at his opening press conference, it’s hard to fully buy into this approach, especially with this fourth-quarter game of musical chairs still fresh in fans’ minds from the playoff loss.
The Cowboys fielding a similar roster to 2021, magically cleaning up penalties, and garnering much better results against a tougher schedule? Seems unlikely. The Cowboys achieving this by adding better players, and still finding a way to be penalized less? However unlikely, this is what the team should be looking at.