While players often get away with penalties and, on the flip side, commit infractions that aren’t flagged all the time, the fluctuations tend to even out such that the teams committing the most fouls really do get penalized the most over the long run. That’s apparent in the fact that the same teams—*cough* the Cowboys *cough*—are continually among the league leaders in penalties.
Dallas was at it again in 2012, racking up 7.4 penalties per game—third-worst in the NFL. Think penalty rate isn’t a consistent stat? Well, in the past six seasons, the Cowboys have now ranked 30th, 28th, 27th, 29th, 32nd, and 28th in penalty rate. That’s remarkable.
One theory on penalties is that they’re committed by undisciplined football teams, and there’s some truth to that. Right around one-third of all penalties were committed prior to the snap in 2012. For the Cowboys, it was even worse; of their 118 penalties, 58 (49.2 percent) were before the snap. That’s the second-most in the NFL and it suggests something isn’t carrying over from the coaches to the players. The Cowboys really are an undisciplined football team.
Still, on a league-wide basis, around just 38 percent of penalties were before the snap. Most penalties occur during the play, the majority of which are committed because a player is out of position. There’s not really much of a reason to hold on offense, for example, unless you aren’t in proper position to make a clean block.
In that way, penalties are very much the result of simply being a poor team. We hear all the time about how penalties lead to losses. They do, but probably not as much as we’re led to believe. The primary reason that the most penalized teams usually have poor records is because they lack elite talent and must consequently commit penalties when they aren’t in proper position. In the same way that rushing attempts don’t cause wins but are instead the result of already winning, penalties are primarily the result of already being a below-average team.
That’s not to say that penalties don’t hurt teams, because that’s obviously not the case. However, to limit the post-snap penalties that the Cowboys commit even more frequently than the pre-snap variety, the best method of action probably isn’t to preach “smarter” or less aggressive play, but rather to simply get better players.
There’s a reason Sean Lee hasn’t gotten flagged a single time in his NFL career; he’s good.
Jonathan Bales is the founder of The DC Times. He writes for DallasCowboys.com and the New York Times. He's also the author of Fantasy Football for Smart People: How to Dominate Your Draft.