It’s Time to Address the Penalties, Dallas Cowboys


Bill Parcells famously once said, “I don’t coach penalties”. He was of course referring to the growing penalty issues the Cowboys were having that season. When asked by the local media how he would be addressing those pesky yellow flags, that was his brilliant reply. A statement like that is nothing new for NFL head coaches. At the NFL level most coaches won’t spend much time addressing penalties. Coaches typically feel they have bigger things to worry about and with the limited practice time they would be better used coaching actual football than penalties.

October 2, 2011; Cleveland, OH , USA; The pink whistle of NFL umpire Ruben Fowler (71) before the game between the Cleveland Browns and the Tennessee Titans at Cleveland Browns Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Eric P. Mull-US PRESSWIRE

The conventional thinking is that the players know the rules and are aware when they commit a penalty so it’s up to them to make the change. “What can a coach possibly do?” they say. For a profession occupied by anal-retentive task-masters, this is a mind-boggling stance to have on something so critical to the game. NFL coaches want to limit penalties but are usually unwilling to take the necessary steps to do so. The Cowboys are currently the most penalized team in the NFL averaging over 10 penalties a game. Majority of those penalties are known as pre-snap penalties.

Pre-snap offensive penalties are penalties like false starts and illegal shifts. They can kill a drive before it even starts. Unlike other penalties in the game which are reactionary and sometimes unavoidable, these are mental errors alone and are 100% preventable. Fans and coaches seem to tolerate them because they kill a play before it begins so no one can see what “could have” happened.

Sep 23, 2012; Arlington, TX, USA; Dallas Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant (88) returns a punt in the fourth quarter against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Cowboys Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-US PRESSWIRE

Hypothetical “Could Have”

Think of a punt return. Your team receives the punt and runs it back for a touchdown, but a flag was thrown and the play is eliminated. In fact, it was a Roughing the Kicker penalty and now possession returns to the kicking team. A penalty like this is usually much harder to digest than a pre-snap penalty because we see “what could have been”. But should it be harder to digest?  A pre-snap penalty never lets us know what could have been so we accept it. Unlike a pre-snap penalty, a gameplay penalty  is typically a result of aggression  The pre-snap penalties should really bother us the most because they are mental errors and can easily be stopped. The question is – How?

With today’s Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA), the coach is limited to what he can do to punish players.  Meaningful fines are limited to team rules and attendance. Running laps after practice is also not an option at the professional level (it worked in high school but not here). The only real course of action for a head coach is to threaten playing time. Typically speaking this is not a wise move. The talent delta between the starting unit and second string is usually so wide the cost of replacement becomes too high. Players are well aware of this so they don’t fear replacement as a possible repercussion. They know they will only get benched if they fail during actual gameplay so they their primary focus is on that. Thinking so far ahead, they tend to forget the snap count resulting in pre-snap penalties like false starts. Pre-snap penalties just don’t have priority in their minds because repercussions do not exist.

Nov 6, 2011; Arlington, TX, USA; Dallas Cowboys tackle Doug Free (68) in action in the third quarter against the Seattle Seahawks at Cowboys Stadium. The Cowboys beat the Seahawks 23-13. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-US PRESSWIRE

Each player is wired differently so what motivates one player to take notice may not motivate another. If Doug Free commits a false start, would a verbal sideline lashing from Coach Garrett be enough to make him pay extra attention? We don’t know. We haven’t seen it happen. Maybe that wouldn’t be enough. Free may be so consumed with the edge rusher getting a step on him, a verbal lashing wouldn’t scare him enough.  He may need to be benched for a couple plays for him to take notice. For players to start paying extra attention to false start penalties, they need to first fear the repercussions. In Free’s case, the repercussions for the penalty must be more severe than the repercussions of getting beat off the snap. At this point in time it’s quite clear Doug Free is far more concerned about getting beat on the edge than getting a pre-snap penalty. His false starts are so frequent he seems to play paranoid which is not a good state of mind to have in any profession, let alone offensive tackle. The solution to penalties is simple: For it to change, the personal consequences need to be more severe or the players will never give it their focus. This doesn’t mean the next false start will result in a complete job loss, but getting benched for the next 3-4 plays of the drive would certainly send a message, wouldn’t it?

Reality Check

The Dallas Cowboys have one of the worst offensive lines in the NFL.They don’t open holes for DeMarco Murray as evident by his pathetic per carry average of 2.7 yards the past two games. It’s amazing it’s that high since most of his runs involve first contact BEHIND the line of scrimmage. Romo is around the middle of the league in sacks and hits but that is more of a testament to his excellent scrambling than anything. If Bledsoe was back there he’d be the most sacked QB in the NFL. Hands down.  They can’t pass block. They can’t run block. They commit the most penalties.

This offensive line has done nothing to prove their worth and are perfectly replaceable. Specifically, Doug Free had two false starts and two holding penalties on Sunday. Not to mention he is responsible for giving up the most sacks on the line and this guy is definitely replaceable. The talent fall-off between Free and back-up Jeremy Parnell isn’t too far apart to be an unrealistic option. Jason Witten should be in this group as well. Jason is responsible for giving up a sack and committing two false start penalties also. He’s not even carrying his weight as a receiver leading the team in dropped balls so he’s also replaceable. A healthy John Philips may in fact be a better player than an injured Jason Witten. Heck, for a few more plays a game, he couldn’t be much worse.

“The communication at the line of scrimmage, we just have to clean up,” Garrett said. “I think some of the other penalties that have happened were almost effort penalties, guys trying to do too much and getting hands up in a face mask or some things that occur in a ballgame. You have to address those as well. We constantly address ‘do your job,’ and sometimes a guy wants to do their job well and get themselves in trouble. The pre-snap penalties we’ve just got to eliminate. We’ll keep working as a coaching staff on it.”

Jan 1, 2012; East Rutherford, NJ, USA; Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo (9) loses control of the ball as he is sacked by New York Giants defensive end Justin Tuck (91) during the second half at MetLife Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Alan Maglaque-US PRESSWIRE

Garrett has finally admitted it needs to be worked on but until he starts taking away playing time the players will have no reason to respond. The answer isn’t to permanently replace Free, Witten, or any other player. It’s rather to punish the pre-snap offenders in some way so they can truly realize the importance they need to place on these penalties. It makes the decision that much easier in this case since they’re playing so poorly anyway. We may even get to see some good things out of Parnell and Phillips along the way. The point is pre-snap penalties can no longer be tolerated. Jason Garrett needs to apply consequences or players have no reason to change. This goes for all offenders, not just Free and Witten.

The argument against this plan is obvious. “Sure, it’s all fine and well but when John Phillips and Jeremy Parnell whiff on a block and Tony Romo is knocked out of a game, you’ll regret your decision”. It’s true that is a possible effect of a 3 or 4 play “benching punishment”, but Romo is getting the snot knocked out of him anyway we might as well clean it up. The culture needs to be changed and intolerance towards preventable mental errors is an easy starting point.