The offseason is a time to work on correcting behavior in an attempt to avoid repeating past mistakes. As the most penalized team in the NFL last season, the Cowboys promised to make reducing their penalties a major point of emphasis as they head into 2022.
So during the brief OTAs and minicamp, there was one extra unit of personnel on the practice field. In addition to Kellen Moore’s offense, Dan Quinn’s defense, and John Fassel’s special teams group, there was also a larger-than-usual contingent of officials, wearing stripes and throwing flags.
“It was offered,” explained head coach Mike McCarthy of the officials’ presence last week. “I think they were here about three weeks ago. We had our annual officiating meeting with the coaches, so that’s something that came up in the meetings. We’ve requested it. “
McCarthy and the Cowboys had a rather prickly relationship with officiating crews last season. Coaches and alike players were unusually verbal in questioning penalties in deciding key games against Las Vegas, Arizona, and San Francisco.
While a big part of fixing penalties is coaching players to follow proper techniques, players and coaches alike also need to fully understand what will and won’t get called in a live game situation.
That’s what McCarthy is hoping will come as a result of officials’ increased presence in these early offseason sessions.
“I thought it was great to have the officials,” he said. “And really the biggest benefit that I’ve always felt when you have the officials at your practices is not as much having them on the field, but having them in your meetings: the ability to talk about the technique that we’re teaching, what they’re looking for. Because all of those guys- Bill Vinovich all the way through his whole crew- I thought they did a great job of communicating and interacting with our players and just telling them what they see. I think, like anything, group dynamics are about building relationships. Not that you’re going to build a relationship that’s going to benefit you with the referees as far as how they call it, but it does help you talk to them about… getting as close to the line as you can without getting a flag called . ”
It’s probably worth noting that it was a Vinovich-led crew working with the Cowboys. Last season, his officiating crew threw the fewest flags in the league for the fourth time in five years. The Cowboys might have gotten more out of having the notoriously flag-happy Carl Cheffers, Shawn Hochuli, or Alex Kemp monitor the proceedings.
Still, the team has made an effort to better understand its penalty problem, including working with NFL supervisor of officials Gary Slaughter, who lives in nearby Allen.
“I think we’ve got a much better plan than we’ve had,” McCarthy said. “The fact that we can have him more involved, without the protocols, I think that clearly will be an excellent addition for us. His involvement as far as the communication and training of the local referees that we do use at practice, I think we’ll definitely be better served there. ”
Players can expect to see an added presence from refs once they get to Oxnard, too.
“We’ll probably have the NFL officials at our training camp two different times, when we normally have them once,” the coach continued. “We’re going to be involved with practicing against the Broncos, so we’ll have two sets of officials there on both fields, no different than down there in Irvine against the Chargers. So I think our exposure to NFL officials and interaction with NFL officials throughout training camp is clearly the highest that I have ever experienced it in my career. I think there’ll be some benefits from that. “
But the benefits won’t be just for the men suiting up in helmets and pads on gameday. The coaches will also be able to improve their dealings with officials- on everything from calling timeouts to replay-review situations to the sometimes not-so-simple mechanics of what happens in between plays.
All were things that burned the Cowboys at some point in 2021.
“I get more out of the conversation with the officials off to the side or in meetings than anything else,” McCarthy offered. “You get to talk about situations. You get to talk about how we’re teaching game management situations and how they view them and so forth. We obviously talked about our last play against the 49ers. You get a chance to go back and review the mechanics, and they’ve obviously had a chance to review their mechanics. I just think it makes us all better. ”
McCarthy remains reluctant to delve too far back into that fateful final play of the wild-card loss to San Francisco. The coach maintains that Dak Prescott’s designed run down the middle of the field with 14 seconds to go and no timeouts was a justifiably good play call, but also allowed that several things, obviously, went wrong as time ticked away without another snap.
“We’ve just got to be better at the execution, and I think the awareness on both sides of exactly what the umpire is trying to do or when the officials are coming to spot the ball or bless the ball,” the coach admitted.
In the end, though, that was last year. And all McCarthy and the Cowboys can do now is try to learn from the past so they don’t repeat it.
“‘We will be better’ is our focus. That needs to be the headline. We will be better, and that’s our focus. “
And if that means working more closely with one of last year’s biggest enemies- the officials- then so be it.