Cowboys can’t trust their offense, even in a win

With a 19-14 win at Carolina on Sunday, the Cowboys proved they could win a game and avoid the costly mistakes of the previous shortfall at Baltimore.
They also proved they can’t trust their offense. And with good reason.
The key moment came late in the fourth quarter with the Cowboys trailing by one and facing third-and-nine at the Carolina 15 yard line.
A team with a lot of trust in its quarterback and receivers throws a short pass there, something safe enough to avoid an interception but long enough that a good move or a missed tackle gets a first down.
Instead, coach Jason Garrett opted for a Phillip Tanner run up the middle. The result was a field goal, a 16-14 lead and 3:25 left on the clock for Carolina to mount a comeback drive.
The Cowboys were given a second chance to put the game away after Carolina turned the ball over on downs. This time the situation was third-and-four at the Carolina 18 and the clock winding down to a minute.
A first down basically salts the game away, since Carolina had used all its timeouts.
Garrett again went conservative with a Tanner run over right guard. That’s a justifiable move, since the ensuing field goal forced the Panthers, now trailing by five, to play for a touchdown with 53 seconds left.
On the other hand, it was another example of Garrett refusing to go for the dagger. It’s apparent that Garrett doesn’t trust his own offense, and why should he?
There’s the obvious issue with ball security and quarterback Tony Romo. Against Carolina, Romo didn’t fumble, throw an interception or get sacked. But a lot of that had to do with the conservative play-calling.
The Cowboys were safe and predictable in their play selection Sunday, which can get you a close win over a 1-5 Carolina but not many other NFL teams.
Of course, when Romo throws it downfield, who knows what can happen? Miles Austin had a nice, 26-yard touchdown catch. But he also had an awful midfield fumble on what should have been a big play.
Kevin Ogletree and proved a liability with two blatant drops. At least he didn’t get called for an illegal shift this week.
And then there’s Dez Bryant, who had just two catches but was constantly in the middle of one commotion or another.
Bryant dropped a pass in the end zone but caught a punt he should have let go with mere seconds left before halftime. He fielded the ball over his head at the 15 and his reckless running style could have led to a huge, momentum-crushing turnover.
As it turns out, Dez was more a danger to himself than his team. Because he refuses to protect the ball or his body when corralled on a punt return, he took a direct shot to the head and had to be tested for a concussion.
On another punt return, Bryant got tangled with a tackler – Bryant said he got kicked – and came up fuming. It’s understandable for a player in that situation to give the tackler a shove, but Bryant would stop there and seemed intent on starting a brawl.
He was eventually pushed out of trouble by a teammate, but Bryants’ antics have grown tiresome. He is constantly jawing at officials after he thinks he’s been held or interfered with. It would be fine if he barked at the refs while jogging back to the huddle, but Bryant always stands and gives the refs a full blast – while holding up the rest of the team.
If the Cowboys had a reliable running game, they wouldn’t have to throw to their unreliable receivers as much. Once again, the running game was non-existent in the absence of the injured DeMarco Murray with a mere 85 yards on 31 carries.
Felix Jones, who looked like a new man last week against Baltimore, was back to his old ineffective self with 44 yards on 15 carries. Jones did appear to tweak a knee early in the game, which is probably why third-stringer Tanner got 13 carries (for only 30 yards).
The Cowboys clearly miss Murray, who can make a sub-par offensive line look decent. They also miss Laurent Robinson, who as a third receiver was a safety valve, in every sense, for Romo.
Winning, especially on the road, is never easy in the NFL. But things are about to get a lot more difficult for the Cowboys can’t trust their offense any more than they did at Carolina.
 
Follow Keith Whitmire on Twitter: @Keith_Whitmire