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Mike McCarthy’s solution to the Cowboys’ penalty problem is all wrong

Saturday’s game was proof that McCarthy is heading in the wrong direction.

Dallas Cowboys Training Camp Photo by Josh Lefkowitz/Getty Images

Mike McCarthy isn’t used to this many penalties. From 2010 to 2018, during which time McCarthy compiled a record of 87-51-2 and won a Super Bowl, the Packers were the sixth-least penalized team in the NFL. In two seasons with the Cowboys, McCarthy’s team is the second-most penalized, behind only the Chiefs.

Are the players in Dallas really just that sloppy, or is there something about the high profile of America’s Team that plays into it? Tin foil hats or not, the end result is that the penalty flags are being thrown a lot and McCarthy is understandably sick of it. He railed on the team’s discipline issues most of last year and has emphasized that point time and time again throughout this offseason and training camp.

Then came the first preseason game. Flags were being thrown left and right, up and down, side to side, and whatever other directions you can think of. It was a sloppy performance all through the night, even before the rain began. By the end of it all, McCarthy’s team had set the worst kind of record.

Like many Cowboys fans out there, I sat on my couch watching all of this and repeatedly asking myself “How does this keep happening? And how does McCarthy fix it?” The coach seems to already have his answer, but Saturday’s exhibition proved it was the wrong solution.

Those who have followed this offseason closely know that McCarthy has been especially strict on penalties at every stage. McCarthy already has a reputation for being implacable, embodying a stereotypical “if you can’t do the job, someone else will” Football Guy™ mentality. That’s been ratcheted up here, as McCarthy has routinely benched an entire position group when one of them committed a penalty in practice.

The message is obvious: penalties may only be called on one player, but it affects everyone. This rigid approach is not uncommon, though its effectiveness is certainly questionable. So far for the Cowboys, it’s appeared to be wholly ineffective. But why?

Pondering this conundrum brought up an anecdote from my alma mater’s football team, the Arizona State Sun Devils. After the 2017 season, ASU moved on from head coach Todd Graham and hired Herm Edwards away from ESPN. While media outlets could only talk about the bizarre hiring decision, the actual players were quickly speaking out about the vast difference in cultures.

Graham had been known as a rigid and, at times, abrasive disciplinarian. It was not rare for him to scream and yell at players when they made a mistake, whether in practice or the game. It was that kind of behavior that got him ousted from his next job with Hawaii.

Edwards ended up being the total opposite of Graham, rarely raising his voice and taking on more of a teacher persona than a drill instructor. He also allowed players to do things not previously allowed under Graham, like grow their hair out or dress how they wanted to in the pregame.

The result was players expressing their immediate gratitude for, and trust in, their new coaching staff. One player likened the locker room vibe to escaping from a dictatorship, while another explained that players had been so afraid to be reprimanded by Graham that they weren’t playing football naturally anymore. In other words, they spent so much time being preoccupied with not doing the wrong thing that it became that much more difficult for them to do the right thing.

Without being in the locker room and speaking to the players, we’ll never know if that’s the case with the Cowboys and their persistent penalty problems. However, it certainly seems plausible given what we’ve seen from McCarthy’s handling of the issue thus far. It’s entirely possible, maybe even probable, that McCarthy’s intense focus on penalties this offseason is actually leading to even more mental mistakes from his team.

Of course, the inverse is even more likely: that Saturday’s game, in which hardly any starters played in a stadium known for its unusually high elevation while rain was pouring down, was just an aberration and not a sign of what’s to come. Far be it from me to overreact to a preseason game.

However, if it’s not an aberration and the penalty issues do continue into the regular season, we may look back at this summer and the way McCarthy chose to address the issue as heightening the problem rather than solving it. Given that McCarthy’s solution thus far has more or less been an embodiment of his overall coaching philosophy, that could be a pretty strong indictment of his coaching ability entering a critical third season in Dallas.

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