ARLINGTON, Texas — Dallas Cowboys rookie linebacker Micah Parsons’ tone hovered somewhere between exasperated and dejected.
How to explain the penalty?
Parsons had closed in from the left on Las Vegas Raiders quarterback Derek Carr midway through the third quarter, defensive tackle Osa Odighizuwa completing the trap on the right side. The Cowboys players collided with each other, Carr toppling down between them. Carr was slow to get up, grabbing his neck. He flashed a smile to his teammates as he returned to the huddle.
“That did not seem like a penalty,” CBS analyst and 13-year NFL quarterback Tony Romo said on the broadcast.
Officials disagreed and threw one of 28 penalty flags on the day. Parsons was flagged for roughing the passer. The Raiders advanced 15 yards and into the red zone.
“We should be playing football, not tag,” Parsons said after the Cowboys’ 36-33 overtime loss. “I’m not here to support anybody and play tag like it’s my best friend. I got a job to do, and I see how he’s outside of the pocket, so I’m going to the quarterback.
“I mean, we’re playing football at the end of the day.”
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Most Cowboys steered clear of attributing the loss to officiating after a contest in which Dallas lacked offensive rhythm for three-and-a-half quarters and repeatedly attempted tackles with insufficient angles. After all, the Raiders drew the same number of penalties (14) as the Cowboys, with the Cowboys’ costing 166 yards vs. the Raiders’ 110.
Regardless, the volume of officiating activity was undeniable. The 28 penalties that stood (five were offset or declined) marked the most ever in the Cowboys’ 61-year history. The 166 penalty yards exceeded the Cowboys’ previous high of 161 at Washington on Nov. 2, 1970.
Cowboys owner Jerry Jones decried the implications for the league.
“This probably will be arguably the most-watched game other than the Super Bowl, and I hated that it got down to just throwing the ball up and getting your penalties to get your big plays,” Jones said. “We had some plays go with us too. It wasn’t like it didn’t go against (the Raiders). So again, this is not a criticism of the rules. It is a criticism of the discretion of how you use them.
“If you knew it was going to be like this every time, then you’d step out there every time and throw 40-yarders down the field and hope that you get your calls.”
The penalties called spanned the NFL rulebook. Offensive linemen were called for holding, false starts and illegal formation. Defensive linemen were disciplined for illegal use of hands, roughing the passer, neutral zone infractions and leverage. In the secondary came fabric for defensive holding, defensive pass interference, illegal holding above the waist and game disqualifications after a third-quarter tussle. On special teams, an overtime rap was distributed for an illegal block above the waist.
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Were players responsible for some, if not most, of the violations? Cases exist. But Jones said in a physical, aggressive game, strict interpretations of rules could warrant penalties on every play. That’s not in the spirit of how the league wants games to be played.
Cowboys cornerback Anthony Brown entered Thanksgiving with one flag in 10 games this season (Oct. 31 in Minnesota for illegal contact). Against the Raiders, Brown drew four pass interference calls totaling 91 yards. The final knock game in overtime, when officials deemed Brown’s defense of Carr’s pass to receiver Zay Jones as too aggressive. The Raiders advanced 33 yards to Dallas’ 24-yard line, positioning them for the game-winning field goal.
Cowboys safety Jayron Kearse implored fans to remember Brown’s otherwise clean season slate.
“In the world we live in today, you can do nine good things for somebody and you do one bad thing, they are going to remember that one bad thing,” Kearse said. “Can we talk about the other games we had when he was solid?
“He’s a solid player. He’s going to continue to be a solid player. We have his back, regardless of anything.”
The Cowboys fell to 7-4 and have lost three games in four weeks, each loss against an AFC West opponent. Dallas now enters a three-game road stretch with visits to the New Orleans Saints, Washington Football Team and New York Giants. Jones, players and coach Mike McCarthy insisted they must learn from this loss, improving both technical shortcomings, like their inability to establish the run, and structurally adapting in ways, like better capitalizing on officiating tendencies.
“We’ve got to self-reflect and keep the officials out of the game,” quarterback Dak Prescott said. “Maybe I should throw more honestly down the field, with the way this game was called. That’s a sense of reflection and maybe we’ll learn from that and see. If another game is called like that, maybe that’s what I’ll do.”
That’s what Jones said he’d recommend, with owner and players acknowledging they did discuss in team meetings how this officiating crew was more likely to throw flags. Jones felt Las Vegas played into the officiating tendencies en route to its triumph. But perhaps the bigger question comes on defense, where Cowboys coordinator Dan Quinn’s unit prides itself on aggressiveness and physicality. Can that tight-coverage, aggressive mentality jive if Dallas encounters a similar officiating crew in the coming months?
Quinn has said he doesn’t knock players for competitive penalties as much as for pre- and post-snap errors. But discussions will continue about self-scouting tendencies, like Brown’s tight coverage, that opponents could aim to emphasize.
Parsons said he doesn’t believe he and his teammates should adapt their play style in fear of “50/50” penalties that “some would say really bad calls.”
“At the end of the day, football is an aggressive game and you’re going to attack the ball and you’re going to play through the ball and you’re going to play the defender,” Parsons said. “When are you going to let us truly play? I come out here because I love the game. I love to play. I’m pretty sure every guy who plays out there on the field (does).
“You don’t play the game soft, and you can’t play the game conservative. You’ve got to be aggressive.”
Follow Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein.