One of the questions in the wake of the Dallas Cowboys' 19-14 victory in Carolina on Sunday was why they called such a conservative play on third-and-nine at the Carolina 15-yard line with 3:39 left in the game. Personally, I didn't find it at all surprising, since the Cowboys had been hyper-conservative on offense all game.
According to ESPN Stats & Information, Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo threw exactly one pass all game that traveled 20 or more yards downfield -- the very pretty 26-yard touchdown pass to Miles Austin. Stats & Info also tells me that Romo was 19-for-22 for 129 yards on throws that traveled less than 10 yards downfield, which means he was 4-for-11 for 72 yards on throws that traveled between 10 and 19 yards downfield.
When I watched the game, it seemed as though Romo was looking downfield, and that in most cases he had time to throw. But he wasn't finding anyone open, so he'd check it down to the running back or to tight end Jason Witten. Romo targeted Austin nine times, but the next two most-targeted Cowboys on Sunday were Witten and running back Felix Jones.
This is the way it's been going this year with the Dallas passing game. Romo was a 53.2 percent passer last year on throws 20 or more yards downfield -- one of the highest marks in that category in the past five seasons. But this year, he's just 5-for-19 (26.3 percent) for 179 yards, two touchdowns and one interception on such throws -- 3-for-11 to Austin and Dez Bryant. The Cowboys' deep passing game has vanished, and it's a big part of the reason they're 24th in the NFL in scoring offense at 18.8 points per game.
There are a number of reasons why this is happening. First, for much of this season, the play of the Cowboys' offensive line has been of remedial quality. The line has shown improvement over the last two weeks, but it's still got a ways to go before it can even call itself average. Even as the line blocks better and shows more strength, it continues to hurt itself and the offense in general with penalties.
There's also the issue of the run game, which of course was fantastic against Baltimore two weeks ago but couldn't get going Sunday in Carolina behind backups Jones and Phillip Tanner with starter DeMarco Murray out. Part of the reason Romo wasn't able to find Austin and Bryant downfield more may have been extra coverage the Panthers were able to devote to them as a result of not having to fear the run game.
All of that said, however, Austin and Bryant are two of the best players the Cowboys have. And since they aren't loaded with talent across the rest of the roster (though many still insist they are), the players who have top-level talent have to perform that way. You saw it with the defense Sunday, as DeMarcus Ware and his gang benefited from the return of Anthony Spencer and the Cowboys made plays at all three levels (at least until Sean Lee had to leave the game, and they looked a little more vulnerable in the middle of the field). You saw it with Romo, who managed the game well in spite of a lack of downfield options and broke a streak of six straight games with at least one interception.
But you're not seeing it from Austin and Bryant -- especially Bryant. Austin's fumble was a blot on an otherwise fine day for him. Bryant's end-zone drop and subsequent complaints to the officials were symptoms of the larger problem that is his failure to develop as a consistent performer. Kevin Ogletree's drop was a reminder that he's Kevin Ogletree, and that the Cowboys are basically two-deep at wide receiver and need Bryant and Austin to win their matchups more than they're doing.
The Cowboys got out of Carolina with a win, and that's what counts. The defense looked much better. They're a very good tackling team, which is a huge improvement over last year, and they can beat the softer teams on their schedule with defense. But they're not likely to ambush the Giants again next week the way they did in the season opener. And after next week they have daunting road games in Atlanta and Philadelphia. If they want to remain in the playoff hunt, the Cowboys are going to need to play the same kind of solid defensive game they played Sunday but add in some big plays on offense. Right now, they're barely even trying those. And while there are several reasons they haven't been able to try them this year, in the end it comes down to this: Their playmaking wide receivers need to get open, and they need to make more plays.