There are no style points in the NFL, and the prevailing important fact to come out of the Dallas Cowboys' 16-10 victory over Tampa Bay on Sunday is that the Cowboys are 2-1. When you don't play your best but you still win, that buys you leeway. You get time, without standings-based pressure, to fix your problems.
The Cowboys have the added bonus of not having to wonder what their biggest problem is. Their offensive line is, right now, a potentially season-crippling disaster. And with the Chicago Bears coming to town next Monday night, they'd do well to find whatever short-term fixes they can this week in practice.
When the Cowboys had the ball Sunday, they had no time to do anything. Quarterback Tony Romo spent the day looking and unloading. He has no time right now to go through progressions and find the most potentially productive play downfield. He has to spot someone -- anyone -- who's open and get him the ball, lest he be crushed. And half the time, he's getting crushed anyway, even when he's getting rid of the ball in time.
One of the ways to combat the protection problem is to run the ball. And in DeMarco Murray, the Cowboys are fortunate to have a running back who doesn't mind working in tight spaces and difficult circumstances. Like Romo, Murray is the type of player who can succeed in spite of a poor offensive line. He seems to like contact, and to run well after he finds it.
The problem is not that Romo and Murray can't succeed behind a poor line. The problem is that asking them to do so for 16 games is unreasonable. At some point, they will get frustrated, worn down, or in the worst-case scenario, injured. Poor offensive line play infects everyone and everything on the rest of the roster. You may be able to succeed in spite of it for a couple of weeks here and there. But over the course of a full season, it eats away at your offense from the inside, and eventually you can crumble without a strong, reliable core.
What's amazing about the Cowboys' line is how extensive the failures are. The worst player they have right now is Doug Free, who struggled so badly at left tackle last year after getting his contract extension that they moved him over to right tackle in the hope that it would relieve some pressure and help him play better. It has not. Free looks lost and overmatched on almost every play -- like a lineman who's guessing and always guessing wrong. You can beat him with outside moves and inside moves. You can outrun, out-fake or out-muscle him. And when you load up on his side and he has to try to block two players, it looks like a dam burst on that side of the line. The play never even gets to happen. Free was flagged for three false-start penalties and one holding penalty in this game alone. He looks like a guy who feels he has no other choice, since he can't win playing straight up.
But while Free is playing the worst, he's not the only culprit. Tyron Smith, the second-year tackle who was so consistently brilliant on the right side last year, is having a hard time with his transition to the left. Specifically, he seems to be struggling to keep up with defenders who try to get around him on the outside. Could still be a footwork or reaction issue as he transitions to that side, and it's likely he'll get it fixed. But right now it's a problem. And the guards and centers remain a real problem in terms of strength. Backup center Ryan Cook may be playing better than Phil Costa was, but that's a low bar. And the free-agent guards may be better than the guys they replaced, too, but they're still not holding their own.
What amazes me is that the Cowboys aren't asking their linemen to do very much. There's no complex zone-blocking scheme being installed here. The linemen -- especially the interior ones -- are simply being asked to hold their ground and block straight ahead. They can't do it against base defenses, and when a defensive coordinator throws a blitz or even a stunt at them, they are completely overwhelmed. New offensive line coach Bill Callahan was brought in to fix this, and it's reasonable to assume that the problems he inherited were severe enough that they couldn't be fixed by Week 3. But they're so far behind just a baseline level of acceptability right now that you wonder what Callahan will ultimately be able to accomplish. At this point, it'd be a victory if he could just get them to handle those stationary, straight-ahead responsibilities.
There's so much to like about what the Cowboys are doing right now. Romo is playing well, and showing toughness even as his choices are limited on just about every play. He has three wide receivers making tough catches when they need to make them, even while tight end Jason Witten struggles mightily. Murray is running hard. And on defense, it's bright spot after bright spot, from Brandon Carr starring in two different roles to Morris Claiborne playing better than a rookie cornerback should play to Sean Lee tearing everything up at the inside linebacker spot. There's a lot going on in Dallas that should encourage the Cowboys and their fans, not only about this season but about the seasons to come.
But over the course of 16 games, consistent failures on the offensive line can't help but exhaust the aspects of the team that are playing well in spite of it. At some point, Romo's going to play a bad game, Murray's going to wear down because he keeps running into flesh instead of holes. At some point, the defense isn't going to be able to cover every opposing receiver on every play. The season has highs and lows, for every player and every position group. But the Dallas offensive line right now is so low that it's hard to imagine a real, productive high anytime soon. If it can't get significantly better than it is right now, the unit could bring down a potentially fun season.
The Cowboys know what needs to be fixed, and they know how desperately it must be. The question is whether they can fix the offensive line before the weight of its repeated failures crushes the rest of the team.