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The 2021 penalty problem was more of a result of how Dallas played than a lack of discipline

Penalties weren’t that important to the Cowboys season.

NFL: Houston Texans at Dallas Cowboys Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

The 2021 Thanksgiving game against the Las Vegas Raiders is memorable. But that game was not memorable due to the outcome. You likely remember that matchup as the week where both teams combined for 28 penalties for 276 yards. One of the 28 was an Anthony Brown pass interference that allowed Daniel Carlson to knock through the game-winner.

But this game was symptomatic of the 2021 Dallas Cowboys season. With a league-leading 141 penalties committed, they surrendered 1,192 yards on whistles and yellow flags. It seemed as though Dallas had to overcome their opponent and their own mistakes simultaneously. With another 14 penalties in the Wild Card round, they were not disciplined enough in the final week.

Or were they?

The 2021 penalty problem was a result of how Dallas played, not a lack of discipline

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Miami Dolphins Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

One thing should be quickly established, penalties are bad. Allowing the opponent to advance the ball or inhibiting your offense from doing the same is not ideal. If Mike McCarthy and Dan Quinn had the option, they would have eliminated all 141 penalties Dallas committed in 2021.

But, there are two misconceptions about the laundry thrown on the field last season:

  1. Dallas’ “discipline” was the main reason they were penalized
  2. Penalties played a large factor in the outcome of the season

Let’s start with the offense. The the same offense that led the NFL in penalties with 69 committed for 560 yards. What an undisciplined unit right?

Well, not entirely.

Because another category where you could find Dallas within the top two last season was offensive plays run per game. With 67.9 per game, they fell only behind the Baltimore Ravens in this metric. It is not a stretch to say that teams who run more plays will be penalized more on offense. Because, all else being equal, there are more opportunities to penalize the offense if they run more plays. Even the Ravens, led by John Harbaugh who is thought to coach discipline, finished seventh in offensive penalties.

The main reason that offensive penalties weren't a real issue is because of the referees. This is not going to turn into a tirade against the zebras, but the referee does make plenty of judgement calls in a given game. And some referees are more likely to throw a flag than others. Dallas was actually more disciplined than their opponents on offense, they were just blessed with penalty-happy referees. While Dallas accumulated 69 penalties on offense, the Cowboys’ opponents were flagged 70 times on offense. And consider the fact that Dallas’ opponents ran nearly seven plays less than them per game on average.

So, Dallas was penalized on offense. But their opponents were penalized more, despite running fewer plays. This suggests that the Cowboys’ referee crews were quick to throw the flag, but they called it evenly. And while it might not seem like it, Dallas actually came out on top with respect to their offensive penalties versus the opposition’s offensive penalties. This is not symptomatic of an “undisciplined” offense.

But there is a discrepancy on defense. The Cowboys’ turnover-generating group led by Dan Quinn was penalized 52 times on the year for 487 yards. Dallas’ opponent’s defense was collectively flagged 43 times for 355 yards.

This one cannot be explained by opportunities. As previously highlighted, the Dallas defense was off the field more frequently than they were on it. And with the Cowboys’ opponents receiving substantially less punishment, this isn’t a result of flag-happy referees either.

Instead, defensive penalties were a result of the game situation and game plan.

In tracking the top twelve most common penalties, the game situation that Dallas often found themselves in was conducive for a high-penalty defense. If you are a coach that wants to avoid penalties, hope that your opponent is willing to run the ball. Because when a team is on offense, there is a roughly equal chance they are penalized on a run versus a pass, 55% vs 45% by yardage respectively. But 85% of the 2021 penalty yardage for the most common defensive penalties occurred on pass plays (pre-snap penalties were factored out).

8,670 yards of the 12 most common penalties were called against the defense on passing plays, only 1,509 were called against the defense on rushing plays. Meaning that secondaries who have to frequently defend against the pass will be penalized more.

And the Cowboys were tied for seventh by the percentage of opponents plays that ended in a pass attempt. On 61% of Dallas’ defensive snaps, they had to play the pass. The Buccaneers finished first in this metric, and not coincidentally, they also finished first in defensive penalties. For the most part, teams who have to defend against the pass more also accumulate a solid chunk of defensive penalties.

But that isn’t the entire reason. Baltimore was second in opponents passing play percentage and they finished with nearly 20 less defensive penalties than Dallas. The second reason is game plan. Opportunistic defenses, such as the 2021 Cowboys will be more likely to draw penalties. Back to our example, while Baltimore finished 24th by defensive penalties, they also finished 27th by interceptions per game.

Defenses such as the 2021 Cowboys will be willing to give opposing receivers separation, in an attempt to make a jump on the ball. But this doesn't always work, and naturally they will get beat. At that point, preventing a deep ball touchdown by holding or interfering with the receiver sometimes becomes the preferable option. This is not a hard and fast rule. But Trevon Diggs, the most opportunistic defender in the NFL, led all defenders in penalties. This isn’t a coincidence.

The penalties were not completely justified. Randy Greogry’s seven penalties on less than 500 snaps, Connor Williams’ 17 penalties, and Trevon Diggs leading the NFL in penalties cannot all be excused. Penalties are bad. Losing yards is bad. But these flags are not entirely due to a “lack of discipline” or “dumb mistakes.”

Maybe you don't buy into this notion. It was a bad season in terms of penalties, and no one would argue differently. But did it really matter?

When the 2021 season concluded the penalty yardage looked like:

  • Dallas Cowboys penalty yards: 1,192
  • Dallas Cowboys’ opponents penalty yards: 1,031

The Cowboys opponents committed 11 fewer penalties, and surrendered 161 fewer “free yards” over the course of the year. While that might seem like a lot, it equates to about .7 penalties for 9.5 yards per game. Less than 10 yards per game is equivalent to:

  • 1.7 Tony Pollard rushing attempts
  • 1.3 Dak Prescott passing attempts OR
  • .7 CeeDee Lamb receptions

There were some bad breaks that kept drives alive for the opponent or ended Dallas drives prematurely. But if Dallas wasn't able to overcome a 9.5 yards per game difference, they probably weren’t winning the game in the first place.

Some penalties were more detrimental than others, but some went there way as well. Everyone remembers the Anthony Brown pass interference call against Las Vegas. But do you remember when the Cowboys were down 13-16 with two minutes left against the Vikings and Noah Brown fumbled to lose the game?

Of course you don't, because it didn’t happen. Instead, Harrison Smith was called for illegal use of hands to the face and the fumble was negated. This allowed Cooper Rush to continue the drive that ended in an Amari Cooper touchdown and a Dallas win.

The 2021 penalties were bad. No one will advocate that they actually want the penalty total to increase next year. But while they might of hurt in the moment, the pain tends to stick with us longer than the joy. Meaning that you likely forgot how often the flags came out against Dallas’ opponents.

And for all of the harm the penalties caused, they were somewhat expected. Between the Cowboys style of play, an opportunistic defense, and their opponents needing to pass in order to stay in the game, it wasn't abnormal to be a highly penalized team. And while it is an easy excuse, blaming a “lack of discipline” might be misguided. With that said, can we please cut back on the laundry in 2022?

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