In yesterday’s post on penalties, I mentioned that the Cowboys finished 30th in the NFL in penalties in 2012 and haven’t checked in better than 27th in the last six seasons. Yes, the Cowboys have finished in the bottom six in the league in penalty rate six straight years. It’s no wonder that the team hasn’t had much success; on average, the Cowboys have had to overcome an extra penalty per game as compared to their opponents over the past half-decade. With an average loss of around nine yards per penalty, it starts to add up.
While penalties seem a bit random when they happen, the truth is that they’re pretty stable from season to season. That makes sense when you think about how consistently poor Dallas has been with penalties. Brian Burke at Advanced NFL Stats has discovered that penalty rate contributes to team wins and losses more than yards-per-carry. Actually, it’s about twice as important as rushing efficiency and nearly as vital to game outcomes as offensive interceptions.
Looking back at the Cowboys’ penalties over the past six seasons, we can calculate the win probability they’ve forfeited by analyzing when and where the penalties have come. A false start when you’re going for it on 4th and 1 in a tie game is a lot more debilitating than a false start prior to a punt in a blowout, for example. After adding it all up, the ‘Boys have cost themselves 2.85 “wins” over the past six seasons simply by accruing penalties well above the league average. Another way to think about that is, in any given season, the Cowboys’ penalties have led to around a 50 percent probability of losing an extra game simply because of the penalties.
Now, the problem is that there’s not necessarily much hope that Dallas will improve in 2013. Even if we sort penalties into two categories—mental mistakes and lack-of-talent penalties—the ‘Boys could struggle. They’ve consistently been among the league-leaders in both pre- and post-snap penalties, suggesting the mental mistakes won’t improve and, just perhaps, the Cowboys don’t have quite as much talent as we’ve all assumed.
Plus, while you’d think pre-snap penalties could potentially be avoided, playing to elude in-play penalties is a slippery slope; the minute a defender’s focus is on minimizing the risk of a penalty and not playing aggressive football, he’s probably already lost the battle. The easiest way for the Cowboys to avoid penalties in the future (at least those after the snap), as I proclaimed yesterday, is to acquire better players.
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.