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Science Lab: Penalty Pains Threaten 'Boys Season


Patrik [No C] Walker joined the Dallas Cowboys digital media group as a staff writer and media personality in July 2022, having professionally covered the NFL and, more specifically, the Cowboys since 2007.

He most recently did so for CBS Sports by way of 247Sports, where he also spent time delving into collegiate recruiting as well – ultimately becoming well-known for his level of unapologetic objectivity labeled by many as his own unique brand of football "science".

Welcome to "The Science Lab", a place where football facts and in-depth analysis always triumph over feelings.

FRISCO, Texas — There were more flags in the rematch between the Dallas Cowboys and New York Giants on Thanksgiving than you'll find outside of the United Nations, with the large majority being attributable to Mike McCarthy's bunch — unable to finally get a handle on one of their biggest and most glaring opportunities for improvement in 2022.

In all, the Cowboys were penalized a total of 13 times, with the offense accounting for more than half of them (7). In the end, they were able to overcome their self-inflicted wounds and a 13-7 deficit to sweep the Giants and move to 8-3 with the top seed in the NFC still within reach, but the fact remains that's it is past time to clean up the penalties.

And the entire team knows it.

As they enter the all-important month of December and, presumably, the playoffs to follow, it's highly unlikely they'll be in position to make a postseason run if they're consistently drawing flags. On Thanksgiving, they were penalized nearly twice as often as the Giants for a total of 86 yards lost and, more troubling, is in how more than half of the penalties were levied against the offense (7) — three holding infractions and four false starts.

Yes, four false startsat home.

"We can't have any pre-snap penalties," said starting right tackle Terence Steele as the team begins preparation to host the Indianapolis Colts. "They bite us in the butt."

There are some cadence issues that feed into this as well, with Steele explaining the Cowboys current plan of having the coaching staff mimic the cadence of Dak Prescott ahead of team drills in practice(s) to help recalibrate things from time spent with Cooper Rush under center from Week 2 through Week 6.

When asked about potentially going to a silent count ... at home ... to help curb the pre-snap penalties, running back Ezekiel Elliott said no but only due to traditionalism, eventually admitting it could potentially be a conversation if someone's willing to be the trailblazer for that cause.

At this point, it might be worth someone going full Clyde Drexler.

Hell, even future first-ballot Hall of Famer and seven-time All-Pro guard Zack Martin drew a penalty on Thursday — one of the team's three offensive holding calls on the day — only Martin's sixth holding penalty of his nine-year career (though it was clearly questionable).

"I don't personally think he held," said Steele. "I don't know what kind of view the ref had, but it's very, very, very, very rare for him to have a holding call. Whenever I heard it on the field, I immediately knew that it probably wasn't a hold. The ref probably had a bad angle, but it is what it is now and you can't do anything to change it."

'Tis true, as those phantom calls will happen, which is why I personally am on record as saying I am not asking the Cowboys to magically turn their penalty-count per game to absolute zero, because you can't account for what the officials will or will not do on any given week.

You can, however, control the actual and undeniable infractions (e.g., false start).

So do it, and before it's too late.

As a team, the Cowboys have shown in 2022 that they can avoid the penalty bug, so to speak, but they've been tagged with fewer than four penalties only once through through 11 games (four penalties vs. the Commanders), and have a total of 83 penalties already this season — averaging 7.5 flags per game. And while penalties weren't the only reason for their three losses, it's impossible to ignore their impact on the outcome.

Case in point: the Cowboys are averaging 9.67 penalties in their losses and 6.75 penalties in their victories. Reduce the penalty count by three per game and they're probably a one-loss team heading into Week 13, with the Week 1 loss to the Buccaneers being the outlier.

The penalty-pandemic (penaltydemic, if you will) in Dallas is worsened when their defense isn't able to take the ball away and/or the offense is giving the ball away — the Cowboys having lost every game this season in which they suffered nine or more penalties while failing to register a positive takeaway margin.

Their takeaway margin was neutral or negative in each of their three losses.

To illustrate my point further, have a look see below at the number of penalties per contest in tandem with the takeaway margin for each:

  • Week 1 vs. TB: 10 penalties [neutral takeaway]
  • Week 2 vs. CIN: 5 penalties [-1 takeaway]
  • Week 3 @ NYG: 8 penalties [+1 takeaway]
  • Week 4 vs. WAS: 4 penalties [+2 takeaway]
  • Week 5 @ LAR: 5 penalties [+3 takeaway]
  • Week 6 @ PHI: 10 penalties [-3 takeaway]
  • Week 7 vs. DET: 7 penalties [+4 takeaway]
  • Week 8 vs. CHI: 6 penalties [neutral takeaway]
  • Bye week
  • Week 10 @ GB: 9 penalties [neutral takeaway]
  • Week 11 @ MIN: 6 penalties [+1 takeaway]
  • Week 12 vs. NYG: 13 penalties [-2 takeaway]

Now cross reference those with the outcome of each matchup:

  • Week 1: Loss
  • Week 2: Win
  • Week 3: Win
  • Week 4: Win
  • Week 5: Win
  • Week 6: Loss
  • Week 7: Win
  • Week 8: Win
  • Bye week
  • Week 10: Loss
  • Week 11: Win
  • Week 12: Win

So it goes that the Cowboys need to either drastically eliminate penalties (a reduction to 3-5 per game would help make this team a force of nature) or demand their defense win the takeaway margin every single week, but while the latter is definitely the standard and the expectation from defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, it's also not necessarily realistic to assume it'll happen.

You try for it, relentlessly, but there will indubitably arrive a time when the opposing offense simply doesn't turn the ball over in that respective contest, often in the postseason.

And when that happens, penalties (especially those that extend drives, such as the defensive holding call on Carlos Watkins on a failed third-down attempt that led to an early Giants touchdown on Thanksgiving, or the two neutral zone infractions by Dante Fowler) can be brutally backbreaking — as the timing of them also comes into factor as well.

Toss in the aforementioned false starts and offensive holding penalties that move Dak Prescott and Co. back five or 10 yards at a time, often killing promising drives that could lead to a fast start (hint: this has been some of the gasoline fueling their slow starts) and it becomes very easy to see how a team that is 8-3 could potentially be 10-1 to this point.

And that's despite the adversity of not having their QB1 for five games.

The moral of the story is that the Cowboys should stop applying undue pressure to themselves by requiring a handful of takeaways every week to delete penalties (of any variety) as a means of simply keeping them alive in contests they should/could be dominating outright in all three phases of the game.

This is a Super Bowl-caliber team that is a couple tweaks away from being the best in the NFC, but they'll have to earn their trip to Glendale, AZ by being more disciplined on the field every snap of every quarter of every game from here on out.

The pursuit of perfection is a tough road, but it's also the … penalty … of leadership.

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