The Cowboys finally lost a game with Cooper Rush under center, as the Eagles scored first on Sunday night and never looked back. Despite the loss, Dallas’ defense still looks dominant, limiting Jalen Hurts to 187 yards of total offense and sacking him four times. But an old problem resurfaced throughout this one—one that arguably played as big a role in the defeat as the Eagles did. It’s one that the fans were told would be fixed this year. And the issue can be described with one simple number: 10.
That’s the number of penalties the Cowboys were flagged for (that were accepted by Philadelphia) in Week 6.
This marked the second time this season that Dallas has been dinged for double-digit penalties in a game (the last time it happened was in the Week 1 loss against Tampa Bay). The Cowboys are one of five teams with two double-digit penalty games in this young season, joining the Raiders, Dolphins, Broncos, and Seahawks (who have done it three times).
As one might expect, games farther to the left-hand side of the graph above tend to be losses, while games on the right are more likely to be a win. Indeed, the Cowboys’ most comfortable wins this season are on the right—in Weeks 4 and 5, they had only four and five penalties, respectively, en route to winning by double digits over the Commanders and Rams. The penalties were disappearing, and the ghost of 2021 seemed to be in the rearview mirror. Then came the game against the Eagles.
The trouble began on the last play of the first quarter. To that point, Dallas had been penalized only once—a CeeDee Lamb illegal block that was wiped out due to an offsides call against Philadelphia. But when the Eagles lined up to go for it on fourth and 4 from inside the Cowboys’ 10, Dante Fowler took one of the most impactful penalties you’ll see. The Eagles most likely had no intention of snapping the ball, as the quarter was about to end. Lining up on fourth down to try to make the defense jump offside is a fairly common tactic in today’s NFL. What’s less common is seeing it work in such an obvious situation.
With a fresh set of downs, Miles Sanders ran in for the game’s first touchdown on the very next play, and Dallas never recovered. It’s rare for a five-yard penalty in the first quarter to have such an impact on a game, but that was the case here. By expected points added, per nflfastR, the Eagles only had one offensive play with a bigger effect on the outcome of a drive than this penalty—their fourth-and-3 conversion that came several plays earlier in the same drive. The EPA on the penalty was a minus-3 for Dallas, matching the difference between allowing a chip-shot field goal and allowing a probable touchdown to an opponent with a first and goal from the 5-yard line.
Another way to measure the impact of the penalty is through the change in win probabilities before and after the play. The Eagles’ win probability (again per nflfastR) jumped five percentage points, from 77 to 82 percent. That was the third-largest play in terms of win probability in the game.
But enough about Fowler. He was far from the only one at fault in this one: seven other players were flagged for at least one penalty. The Cowboys lost 72 yards due to these penalties, a shade lower than the 73 they lost in Week 1, but there’s an argument to be made that the penalties this week were more important. Dallas lost 10.8 EPA on its 10 penalties, its worst mark of the season and the most since the disastrous outing in the Wild Card loss last year.
Speaking of last year, it seems as though Mike McCarthy’s stated focus on improving the penalties over the offseason has not led to much progress. Dallas was the most penalized team in the NFL last year, and that doesn’t count the 14-penalty flagfest in its early playoff exit. Through six games this year, the Cowboys are merely the fifth-most penalized team in the NFL. They’ve now taken 42 penalties, just five fewer than at the same point last season.
They’re on pace to take 119 penalties in 2022—more than any team took in 2021 aside from themselves and the Raiders. The more concerning aspect of this is that the penalties Dallas has taken in 2022 have a higher total EPA value than those through the first six weeks of 2021, indicating that even though the number of penalties has dropped slightly, the impact they’re having on the games has risen. The Cowboys have lost the fourth-most EPA to penalties this season and are on pace to lose more EPA this year than in 2021.
The biggest penalties are happening on defense, and they’re coming in a variety of ways. A pair of unnecessary roughness penalties against Joe Burrow kept Cincinnati drives alive in Week 2. A neutral-zone infraction twice led to points—in Philadelphia and against the Bengals. An unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on Micah Parsons gave Philadelphia a first down, but Fowler quashed the drive with a sack three plays later.
The flags were in full effect in Philadelphia, and it burned the Cowboys badly. The lack of discipline came to a head with a shoving match as the final seconds ticked off the clock. In an NFC that is still fairly wide open, Dallas cannot afford to continue shooting itself in the foot, especially now that its starting quarterback is about to return. Clean the penalties up (a big if, based on the lack of improvement from last year), and they have the pieces to hang with anyone. If they can’t, the season might end with another Wild Card heartbreak.