Cowboys reach .500, still not on solid ground

Forget everything you’ve read or heard about this being the easy part of the schedule for the Cowboys.

After the Cowboys needed overtime to beat a bad Browns team, 23-20, it’s clear that nothing will be easy for this team. They’ve improved their record to .500, but show few signs of improvement anywhere else.

Every game will be a challenge because the Cowboys simply lack the foundation for a quality team.

Foundation can be defined in a couple of ways. Like the foundation of a house, the offensive line is the primary building block of any offense. The Cowboys’ offensive line was absolutely terrible against the Browns.

Tony Romo was sacked seven times and ran for his life many others. The running game averaged three yards a carry. The average would have been worse but they only ran the ball 21 times. Why run the ball when it’s futile?

The offensive line’s problems against the Browns could be blamed on injuries. The Cowboys started their No. 3 center, Mackenzy Bernadeau, who isn’t really a center. He’s a right guard. Shifting Bernadeau over meant journeyman Derrick Dockery started at right guard.

Then starting left tackle Tyron Smith left the game with a high ankle sprain. Jeremy Parnell replaced him and immediately showed why he hasn’t been able to get off the bench.

But the line’s problems can’t be blamed entirely on injuries, not when well-paid right tackle Doug Free continually got beat.

The offensive line has been an issue all season. It was just at its worst against the Browns. The Cowboys did not address the unit sufficiently in the offseason. That might be because of limited cap room, but again, your offensive line is your foundation. A bad foundation leads to cracks everywhere else.

The other definition of a foundation for any successful team is its leadership structure. Who are the leaders of the Cowboys? Who can get this team’s attention?

The Browns were a team the Cowboys should have dominated. This was not a case of the Browns playing over the heads, or parity. The Browns were awful, too, on Sunday.

Yet the Cowboys played the most lifeless first half since the final days of the Wade Phillips era. Coming off a season-saving win over Philadelphia, the Cowboys seemed determined to throw it away again.

Yes, they came back and won the game. But a good ending does not erase all the bad that occurred along the way.

Where was the leadership to get the Cowboys ready to play an inferior opponent? Where was the leadership to right the ship before halftime?

You have to wonder how much this team responds to Jason Garrett when they seem so ill-prepared every week.

Coaches don’t have to be leaders if there are players who can fulfill that role. So who on the Cowboys has the respect of his teammates? Tony Romo has tried to show some leadership by venting at teammates who keep screwing up, but that’s not really Romo’s nature. He wants to be one of the guys, rather than The Guy.

Jason Witten? Too much of a Boy Scout. DeMarcus Ware? Too soft spoken. Miles Austin? Shies away from controversy. Sean Lee? Maybe, but he’s hurt.

Believe it or not, the one guy who may become a team leader is Dez Bryant. As much as Dez is criticized for bonehead moves on the field and immature actions off it, he’s the one guy who stood up Sunday.

Bryant had 12 catches for 145 yards and a touchdown that gave the Cowboys a fourth-quarter lead. While others were making mistakes and turning invisible, Bryant stepped up his game and made plays. It was the kind of performance teammates can rally around.

The Cowboys did, ultimately, rally. But if they continue to play without a solid foundation, they’re always a step away from having the bottom drop out of the season.

Follow Keith Whitmire on Twitter: @Keith_Whitmire