After his Cowboys led the league in infractions in 2021, head coach Mike McCarthy promised that the main emphasis of the offseason, the thing that would get worked on most, would be penalties.
But following Saturday night’s preseason opener in Denver, Cowboys fans could be excused for collectively wondering if the coach knows that the goal was actually fewer penalties from now on.
The Cowboys were flagged 17 times against the Broncos, most in the NFL over the weekend’s worth of games.
While it was admittedly a meaningless exhibition contest (and a couple calls were notably questionable), the 129 yards conceded on those flags are emblematic of a bigger problem that just won’t seem to go away in Dallas.
“Penalties, clearly, are way too much,” McCarthy said after Saturday’s 17-7 loss, in which Cowboys gaffes led directly to 10 of Denver’s points. “We’ll look at those and keep going through it as far as combative [penalties] versus discipline [penalties]. That’s clearly the biggest negative.”
It’s been the biggest negative, actually, for McCarthy’s entire tenure in Dallas.
ESPN’s Get Up pointed out that the Cowboys have been flagged 266 times since McCarthy took over. That’s also the most in the league.
“Something is not being addressed,” host and former Cowboys defensive end Marcus Spears said on Monday’s show. “This has now become a Mike McCarthy issue. This ain’t about the preseason game.”
The coach, though, was quick to shoot down reporters’ comparisons between Saturday night’s flag-filled performance and anything that happened in 2021.
“This is preseason, and I don’t think this has anything to do with last year. Obviously you guys get to write what you want, but it’s a starting point,” McCarthy explained. “Yeah, I didn’t like the number of penalties, to make it clear. I talked about it at halftime and talked about it briefly in there [in the locker room]. We’ll take a long look at it.”
Defensive tackle Neville Gallimore was a fresh-faced newbie not that long ago; he remembers that first-game jitters are real, even in just a preseason matchup.
“It’s football season, so the levels are high and everybody is trying to compete and get after it. Obviously, that is something we’ve got to be better [at], and we will,” the third-year man said. “Shout out to the young guys; I know what it’s like: your first game, especially playing out here with such a crowd. I know their emotions are running high, but it’s one of those things that once the game got going, they were able to slow it down. I feel it is like that every year.”
Cowboys fans could say the same about that deja vu feeling when it comes to the officials getting as much face time as the players.
Referee Alex Kemp, who led Saturday’s crew in Denver, also officiated Dallas’s most recent game, the wild card loss to the 49ers in which he dinged the Cowboys 14 times.
The Cowboys worked with refs more than usual in the preseason in hopes of better understanding officials’ tendencies. Holding themselves to more of a gamelike standard in practice, the thinking was, would cut down on penalties called during games.
Saturday’s outing did not seem to validate that point, and the Cowboys coach was left looking, once again, for explanations as to why his team continues to shoot itself in the foot by being undisciplined.
“I was a little surprised they called that many penalties in Preseason [Game] One, but you need to go through that,” McCarthy said. “This will help us get ready. We’re draft-and-develop; this is what it looks like, unfortunately, sometimes. But we will be better from it. I have great confidence in that. I’ve done this my whole coaching career: I’ve always played a lot of young guys. Unfortunately, it starts like this.”
But even more unfortunately for the Cowboys over the past two seasons, it has also seemed to keep going like this, too.
It’s easy to blame youngsters’ inexperience. Or preseason rust. Or nitpicky officiating. Or one or two undisciplined players.
At some point, though, the constantly-pointed finger is going to swing back around to the one constant through it all.
“Ultimately, when you get to Week 3 and 4,” Spears said, “and you continue to see the same things, something is not being addressed. Either you need to replace this dude [who’s committing repeated penalties], or you’re not coaching it the way it’s supposed to be coached.”