Cowboys Versus the Refs
NFL Week 18 - The Dallas Cowboys weren't happy with the officiating in their 25-22 loss to the Arizona Cardinals. And they were not shy when talking about it.
"We've got to keep battling with everybody, not just the other team, if you catch my drift," linebacker Leighton Vander Esch said after the game.
"We'll play against 11 and the others if we have to. I've become accustomed to it, honestly," added Dak Prescott.
"Playing against the refs again, like usual," added edge rusher Randy Gregory. "It seems like an every-week occurrence."
All of those quotes come from the Cowboys website, which is telling: official team sites tend to tamp down storylines that coaches or senior brass don't want fans to hear, so the players' complaints appear to have the Jerry Jones Seal of Approval (which is the ring left on a mahogany desk by a highball glass).
So much for only focusing upon the things you can control, taking accountability for losses, and all that old-fashioned stuff. But that's not what we are here to talk about today.
The Cowboys are the most penalized team in the NFL with 122 total fouls. They rank second to the Raiders with 1,059 penalty yards. The Cowboys were flagged 10 times for 88 yards in the Cardinals loss, their fourth double-digit-penalty game of the season, including their 16-penalty, 166-yard Thanksgiving Flag Festival against the Raiders.
The Cowboys are tied for second in the NFL with 29 offensive holding penalties; the Vikings lead the league with 30, while the Ravens have also committed 29. They have been flagged for unnecessary roughness 10 times, second only to the Bears with 11. They're tied with several teams for the league lead with seven neutral zone infractions and tied for fourth overall with seven defensive offsides fouls. Oddly enough, their 10 defensive pass interference penalties are a middle-of-the-pack figure: based on the Thanksgiving game, you'd be forgiven for thinking Anthony Brown alone had 10 DPI fouls.
So the Cowboys have a legitimate beef with the refs, right? Not really: they have also benefited from 108 penalties, the highest total in the NFL. The Cowboys' -116-yard net penalty differential is the ninth-worst in the NFL: low, but hardly worth a postgame gripe-a-thon.
Cowboys games, it turns out, are often over-officiated. The crews themselves do not seem to be the culprit. The Cowboys have drawn Scott Novak's crew, who are among the league's most liberal penalizers, twice this season, including on Sunday. But they also drew Bill Vinovich and the NFL's stingiest officiating team twice. They have drawn Shaun Hochuli's hallucinogenic performance artists twice (including Thanksgiving) but John Hussey's more staid crew twice as well. The Cowboys may have had a few more run-ins with the league's more exuberant flag-throwers than average, but not enough of them to drastically skew the numbers. The source for all of this data is NFLPenalties.com, an invaluable research tool.
The Cowboys' complaints about the Cardinals loss have little merit. Donovan Wilson all but tackled Zach Ertz on one DPI, while Nahshon Wright threw his arms in the air and plowed into his receiver on a fake-punt DPI which was declined. Dexter Lawrence charged into the backfield well before the snap to move the Cardinals into field goal range before halftime. Meanwhile, two Cardinals DPIs, one of which negated an interception, abetted the first Cowboys touchdown drive. The Cowboys did lose several third-down conversions to holding penalties, but they all appeared to be garden-variety fouls.
The Cowboys lost to the Cardinals because Prescott fumbled, Greg Zuerlein missed a field goal, the pass rush could not contain Kyler Murray, Trevon Diggs' Harvey Dent coin landed on "long completion" instead of "interception" a few times, some dude made a David Tyree catch, and so forth, not because the refs are in the bag to hurt, you know, one of the most popular sports teams on the continent.
The more interesting takeaway, besides the fact that the Cowboys should probably STFU and worry about preparing for the playoffs, is that high penalty totals may have added an increased randomization factor to Cowboys games. The Raiders loss is the most obvious example: Hochuli's crew turned the result of that game into utter gibberish. Other results are more subtle. The raw penalty counts in the season-opening Buccaneers loss and close wins over the Chargers, Patriots, and Vikings were all high. With so many important plays getting nullified and big chunks of yardage being awarded both ways, we may not have a read on the Cowboys' true level of performance. Given idealized officiating, are they better than the Buccaneers/Rams/Cardinals/Packers, or worse? Or does it matter which crew is officiating? That's a fair question to ask in any close matchup, but it's a more important question for a team whose average game features 125.1 total penalty yards.
The moral of the story: keep an eye on which crew will be officiating Cowboys playoff games. If you see Novak, brace for what could be a flag-filled afternoon which might impact the Cowboys (and the spread) adversely. And if you see Hochuli, take two pain relievers and consider watching a pleasant college basketball game instead.
TankWatch: New York Giants
As the 2021 season draws toward its conclusion, TankWatch examines teams at the bottom of the standings and determines how they can claw back toward respectability over the next few weeks/months/years. This is the final installment in the series, which will transition into something slightly different throughout the postseason.
Giants Season in a Nutshell: Gosh, it feels like we cover the Giants in TankWatch every other week! But that's just because they are such a persistent source of unique and surprising disappointments and melodramas.
The Giants started the season as semi-plausible wild-card hopefuls coming off a busy offseason in which they added Kenny Golladay and others to an impressive young skill-position corps. Then came a training camp full of turmoil, three straight September losses, an injury rash, and further descent into an organization-wide delusion that the Giants are on the right track and the rest of the NFL and/or society are the problem.
Coaching Situation: Joe Judge is belligerently incompetent at every facet of coaching except the one that matters most to his continued employment: the ability to convince ownership that everything that goes wrong is someone else's fault.
Judge's job appeared to be safe a few weeks ago, but he has since started launching into semi-incoherent, self-serving press conference tirades that make him sound like a drunk ranting about a failing marriage in the back of an Uber. So who knows?
Quarterback Situation: Daniel Jones played through a neck injury he suffered in a Week 12 injury over the Eagles, then was day-to-day in practice for a while, then consulted with multiple specialists before being shelved for the remainder of the 2021 season without any clear prognosis.
There's a chance that Jones could be dealing with an elusive Peyton Manning-type ailment. It's also feasible that Judge deactivated Jones so the coach wouldn't be held accountable for late-season losses, and Judge can then either take credit for Jones' 2022 success or blame the team's failure on the outgoing Dave Gettleman administration.
Yes, it's squicky to speculate about that sort of thing. But the Giants don't sound too concerned about Jones' long-term health prognosis, and Judge's dictatorial-yet-shady management style invites some conspiratorial theorizing.
Building Blocks: Left tackle Andrew Thomas overcame a shaky rookie season to become the Hog Molly of Gettleman's fantasies. Kadarius Toney has been impressive when not injured or in Judge's palatial doghouse; he could become a Deebo Samuel type in the right system. There's a sprinkle of young talent across the defense: Xavier McKinney, Leonard Williams, Dexter Lawrence, Azeez Ojulari.
Jones, Saquon Barkley, and Darius Slayton technically qualify as "building blocks." But we just covered Jones (who has thrown just 21 touchdown passes in his last two seasons), Barkley is already on his way to the Cadillac Ranch, and Slayton has been regressing since his rookie season.
Many of the Giants' most recognizable starters—James Bradberry, Blake Martinez, Evan Engram, Sterling Shepard ,and so on—are still in or around their primes but have proven rather conclusively that they are just good enough to form the nucleus of a four- to six-win team.
Future Assets: Finally, some good news! The Giants possess two first-round picks because they traded down so the Bears could draft Justin Fields in 2021. They also have an extra third-round pick thanks to a trade with the Dolphins. And with Gettleman expected to retire, they won't spend all of those picks on offensive linemen and running backs. Though they should probably spend one or two of them on offensive linemen.
And now back to the bad news: the Giants only have $2 million in cap space next year and only 42 players under contract. Per Over The Cap, that leaves them with negative $16 million in effective cap space once they fill out a complete roster, even if they are as thrifty as possible.
Engram and guard Will Hernandez are the biggest names on the Giants in-house free agency list. Re-signing them is not necessarily a priority (Engram is all but gone), but a team that cannot afford to field a 53-man roster as of now cannot really afford to let starters walk away either.
It's worth noting that Barkley will be playing on his fifth-year option and Jones will be entering his fourth season, which is typically "decision time" for quarterbacks. Long story short, the Giants will be in no position to be active in free agency this year.
Rebuilding Plan: Let's go with a best-case scenario:
- Phase 1: Fire Judge. Like, immediately. Deactivate his key fob the moment he leaves team headquarters and mail the contents of his desk home. He's Bill O'Brien without the offensive creativity or relative cool-headedness and charm, and all he's going to do if given another year is drag the Giants further into despair.
- Phase 2: Accept Gettleman's retirement with warmest regards and throw him a nice party. He's a deeply committed NFL lifer. The game has just passed him by.
- Phase 3: Look outside the greater Giants family for a general manager who doesn't wax poetic about Bill Parcells every third sentence. Looking outside the greater Patriots family wouldn't hurt either. It's time to enter the 21st century, fellas.
- Phase 4: Let that general manager hire a coach with fresh ideas. No, pretending to go for it on fourth-and-short, then rushing the punt team on the field to "surprise" the opponent is not a fresh idea. It's a plea for help.
- Phase 5: Shine Jones up and look for potential takers in a Sam Darnold-like trade. If that fails, he might be worth a fifth-year option pickup: the Giants have lots of 2023 cap space, and Jones could be no worse than Jimmy Garoppolo in a functional system.
- Phase 6: Don't bother with any quarterback pipe dreams. Aaron Rodgers and Russell Wilson won't want to deal with the Giants in their current state or the New York media in any state.
- Phase 7: Instead, go the 49ers defense-and-YAC route. Draft a stud edge rusher with the early first-round pick, a viable quarterback prospect with the second, offensive linemen with most of the rest, and try to build around the Slayton-Golladay-Toney receiver corps.
If they do all of these things, the 2022 Giants could look like the 2021 Eagles: feisty and interesting, if hardly flawless.
Final Prognosis: It's unlikely the Giants will ever get to Phase 1 of the rebuilding plan above. They have talked themselves into a "right way" of doing things and appear poised to allow Judge to select a factotum general manager and continue his Belichick cosplay.
The Giants have been gaslighting themselves since late in the Tom Coughlin/Eli Manning era. Based on Judge's recent diatribes, they're getting worse on that front, not better. Maybe they will surprise us with a moment of Black Monday clarity. If not, this will indeed remain a clown show.
Tomorrow in Walkthrough: Mike Tomlin's non-losing streak, and a look back at one of Tomlin's most memorable losses in TebowMania: Ten Years After.