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Cowboys struggling on too many levels

by | Senior NFL Columnist
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Romo and the Cowboys have a bye week to try and cure their woes before embarking on a tough schedule. (AP)  
Romo and the Cowboys have a bye week to try and cure their woes before embarking on a tough schedule. (AP)  

ARLINGTON, Texas -- Tight end Jason Witten called the Cowboys' latest loss "a wake-up call," and I'd say that's just about right. Only it's more than that. It's a reality check, and this is the reality: Maybe, just maybe, the Cowboys don't have the playmakers to make a run at the top of the NFC East.

OK, so that was the case a year ago. Only I'm not talking about the defense that cratered in 2011. I'm talking about an offense that can't get untracked.

For those keeping score, the Cowboys have exactly four touchdowns in their last three games, which isn't very good. But here's the kicker: They have three from their first-team offense -- one in each of their last three starts, including Monday night's 34-18 beatdown by Chicago.

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That is not the Dallas Cowboys you know, and that is not the Dallas Cowboys anybody expected. But face the facts, people: This Dallas offense is out of synch, and Monday's humiliating defeat was only the latest example.

There were dropped passes. There were overthrown passes. There was no running game. And there were five Tony Romo interceptions -- tying a career-worst performance five years earlier in Buffalo. Afterward, coach Jason Garrett talked about the yards his team produced, but this isn't Fantasy football. The Cowboys didn't make the plays when they had to -- unless, of course, it was for Chicago.

"The biggest thing," said Garrett, "is to maximize the opportunities we have. We've moved the ball relatively well ... but we just have to maximize the opportunities to score touchdowns."

Yeah, well, that's what this game is all about. One team isn't doing it, and you're looking at it.

Granted, Romo's latest performance was an aberration, but think about this: It marked his fifth straight game with at least one interception. Worse, two of his interceptions were returned for touchdowns, or one short of the Dallas starters' total the past three weeks.

"I'm going to have to reassess a couple of things that are happening and make sure that they don't happen again," Romo said. "We just have to make a conscious effort to make sure and control that aspect and say that I can't try and do too much. I think that I tried to do that too much [Monday]. Going forward, I just have to do my job. And I will."

With the Cowboys going into their bye this weekend, he'll have the time to figure out how that happens. And while he's at it, he can think about this: Four of the Cowboys' next five games are on the road -- starting Oct. 14 in Baltimore, where the Ravens almost never lose.

OK, so the Cowboys proved they can beat the best on the road when they upset the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants in the season opener at MetLife Stadium. But look what's happened since: nothing. The Cowboys' first-team offense has as many TDs the past three weeks as it had on opening night, and, even though we're only four games into the season, I'd call that alarming.

"I am confident in the group," said Witten, "[but] it's got to be a wake-up call for us. I don't say that nonchalantly. You can't bounce back and forth like this and then try to compete in December time. You can't do it. We've been in that situation before, and you cannot do it. "

But here's my question: What can they do? Their club is built around a precision passing game that a year ago had Romo throw for 31 touchdowns, 10 interceptions and a career-best passer rating of 102.5. Now, he has five touchdowns, eight interceptions and a rating of 78.5. Worse, the offense that five times last season produced 30 or more points can't get out of its own way.

"It's disappointing," Witten said. "There's only one thing to do, and that's stay together and work harder and harder and harder and execute. And we're not doing very good job of that right now."

But that's my point. I understand that good teams have bad games. But this team has been through three straight stinkers, losing two and surviving Tampa Bay. Its offense is in a funk, and that wasn't supposed to happen. Worse, its playmakers have done next to nothing -- except, that is, when Romo is doing it for opponents -- and that's not just a problem; it's a hurdle it may not be able to overcome.

"All I know," said owner Jerry Jones, "is that we have a long way to go. This isn't the way I wanted to get started. Nobody does. I'm glad we have the time off that we have. That will give us the chance to reassess and look in the mirror."

The Cowboys may not like what they see. Dez Bryant runs the wrong route, and Romo throws a pass that not only is intercepted but returned for a touchdown. Then, when Bryant does go where he is supposed to go, the ball is either overthrown -- which happened on a bomb Monday -- or he drops it, which happened twice, including once on a possible touchdown.

Then there are his touchdowns. He doesn't have any.

Bryant is just one example. The running game is another. The Cowboys had 41 yards Monday, averaging 2.9 a carry, with nobody gaining more than 24 yards. And don't get me started on the offensive line. It was OK vs. the Bears, but it's struggled for most of this season, and that has to be rectified if the quarterback is going to get straightened out.

But that's another question: Will he? Can he? And how far can the Cowboys go with Romo?

"Tony's the most competitive guy I know," Witten said. "He's a heck of a player and quarterback. I've said it seven million times: He's an elite quarterback. He'll get back to playing the way he knows he can play. It's a tough situation there. We've got to do a better job of getting him easier runs and easier completions, too, so he doesn't have to create so much."

I'll second that. What I won't is that "elite quarterback" talk. We've been down this road a zillion times, and, sorry, but quarterback who are 12-18 from Dec. 1 on and 1-3 in the playoffs, never going farther than the wild-card round, do not qualify as elite quarterbacks. If this is "a wake-up call," as Witten suggested, you can start by shaking Romo. If he doesn't play better, the Cowboys are sunk.

Period.

"I've been buried nine feet under before," said Jones, "with no hope and got to see some sunshine and came out. It's what we have to do. It's very disappointing. Nobody is more disappointed than our fans and our players. Nobody is more disappointed than Tony. There is no question about it. We'll get in there and see how we can get better."

Well, here's a suggestion. Run the ball. Catch the ball. And avoid throwing touchdown passes to the other team. Basically, do something on offense. Then maybe the Cowboys have a chance.

Otherwise, they're doomed.

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