DENVER – The Cowboys led the NFL with 141 penalties last season and tied a team-high with 14 in their January playoff loss to the San Francisco 49ers.
In Saturday's 17-7 preseason loss to the Denver Broncos, they were flagged 17 times -- a league-high total in the first week of the exhibition schedule.
Head coach Mike McCarthy isn't ready to draw a link between their penalties in 2021 and the early start to 2022 -- the Cowboys did rest the majority of their projected starters and heavy rotation players Saturday, after all -- but he acknowledged that the 17 flags for 129 yards Saturday "clearly are way too much."
"I think we all recognize that this isn't the regular season," McCarthy said. "I understand your question, (but) last year was last year. I think last year as far as trying to establish a play style and an identity, it took us a while to get that and once we did, we won a number of games. This is really the starting point that you go through every year.
"This is preseason. I don't think this has anything to do with last year. But I didn't like the number of penalties. I made it clear. I talked about it at halftime and I talked about it briefly in there (the locker room). We'll take a long look at it."
Despite the loss at Empower Field at Mile High, McCarthy was pleased with the number of quality snaps the young players got Saturday. He liked the team's run production (28 carries for 141 yards) and run defense (1.8 yards allowed per carry).
But the high penalty count disrupted the flow of the game, and three flags in particular helped the Broncos finish all three of their scoring drives (two touchdowns and a 52-yard field goal by Brandon McManus at the end of the first half). Veteran defensive end Dante Fowler Jr. was called for a personal foul that set up Denver's opening touchdown early in the second quarter.
"That's a discipline penalty," McCarthy said. "Frankly, that's why Dante was done for the night after that. We can't have that."
There were also the "combative" penalties, as McCarthy calls them, that were problematic -- particularly holding calls on run plays.
Overall, though, McCarthy felt the penalty count was largely a product of young players adjusting to NFL competition.
"I think this is kind of how it goes," he said. "We played a lot of young players on Thursday (in the joint practice) and today. And I have great confidence that they'll improve from this opportunity."
"Obviously that's something that we've got to be better, and we will," defensive tackle Neville Gallimore said. "Shout-out to the young guys. I know what it's like with their first game, especially playing out here with such a crowd. I know emotions were running high. … That first game, everybody wants to go out and make a play, and sometimes you've got to bring it back."