After a confidence boosting win over the Eagles last week, the Cowboys venture out for their first road game in nearly a month. They’ll be traveling all the way up to Buffalo to face a Bills team that just found itself at the center of a massive officiating controversy. Before we get into the referee for this game, though, let’s take a look at the Cowboys’ weekly penalty breakdown for the season.
Cowboys Penalties Week by Week
For the third time in the Cowboys’ last four games, they’ve been the less penalized team. In fact, the Cowboys have just two games since their bye week where they’ve been penalized more than their opponent. They still lead the league in total penalties called, but things are starting to improve a bit. Even better is the fact that their officiating crew this week should bring good things for Dallas.
Craig Wrolstad is in his ninth season as a head referee and 21st total season as an NFL official. Over the years, Wrolstad has very clearly established himself as a referee that believes in balancing out the homefield advantage that teams are often perceived to have. Not only does Wrolstad tend to call more penalties on the home team, but the home teams usually have a hard time winning when Wrolstad is on the call.
So far this season, Wrolstad has called 54.1% of all penalties on the home team, the second-highest rate of any referee crew. His crew is also in the bottom five of penalties called this year, though Wrolstad’s crew generally fluctuates each year in terms of frequency of flags thrown. That usually suggests no real tendency in terms of how strict Wrolstad’s crew is, but there is a common trend of being more strict on the home team in any given game.
Over the course of Wrolstad’s career as a head referee, the home team is 76-80 in games called by Wrolstad. That’s not an overwhelmingly bad record for the home team, but it’s also well below the usual record for home teams. Since 2016, when Wrolstad really started to establish this trend, home teams are 47-73-1 against the spread in his games. With the Bills favored by just 2.5 points against the Cowboys, that doesn’t necessarily bode well for them.
There are quite a few penalty trends that stick out for Wrolstad’s crew. Wrolstad is pretty much in the middle of the pack in total offensive holding penalties assessed, but he’s calling 68% of them on the home team, the largest split of any crew. With the Bills raking sixth in total offensive holds, and this Cowboys defense having one of the more formidable pass rushes in the league, that’s one area to watch.
Illegal contact is another big penalty category to watch closely in this game. Only one crew has called more illegal contact penalties than Wrolstad’s crew this year. That’s notable, since no offense has benefited from more illegal contact penalties than the Cowboys. Meanwhile, only two other defenses have been called for more illegal contact penalties than Buffalo this year.
Finally, Wrolstad’s crew pays close attention to activity at the line of scrimmage. They’re in the top five in both defensive offsides and neutral zone infraction calls on the season. That would seem like bad news for a Dallas defense that leads the league in offsides calls, nearly double the second place team. That said, Buffalo is in the bottom three of beneficiaries of both types of penalties, which are often more of a measure of an offense’s ability to bait the defense than anything else. It will be interesting to see how these trends play out for both teams.
Since becoming a head referee, Wrolstad has called 11 Cowboys games. Dallas is 9-2 in those games and, crucially, 3-0 in road games with Wrolstad on the call. It’s worth pointing out that the Cowboys’ only two losses under Wrolstad were their first two games with him on the call, and both featured backup quarterbacks getting the start: in 2014, Brandon Weeden started his first game for Dallas, and in 2015 the Cowboys saw Kellen Moore take over for Matt Cassel and throw three picks in a loss to the Jets. Since then, though, the Cowboys are undefeated with Wrolstad.
The same can’t be said for the Bills, who are 3-7 when Wrolstad calls one of their games. When playing in Buffalo, they’re 1-3 under Wrolstad, having picked up that lone win earlier this season in a game against the Raiders that saw Buffalo favored by eight points.
The Cowboys couldn’t have asked for a better officiating assignment this week. Playing in Buffalo in the middle of December was always a tough proposition, but Wrolstad definitely evens things out a bit. He almost always calls things more strictly against the home team, and the penalties his crew emphasizes would seem to heavily favor Dallas in this matchup.
Contrary to what Patrick Mahomes might say, an officiating crew can never be the sole dictator of a game’s outcome, but they undeniably play a role in shaping how a game is played. Given Wrolstad’s significant history as a head referee, his assignment for this game bodes very well for the Cowboys.