The Dallas Cowboys' defense was excellent Sunday. Not just good -- excellent. I know that sounds silly to say after a team gives up 29 points, but if you look at what the defense actually did when it was on the field, you have to be impressed. The Cowboys turned the ball over six times in the game, setting up the New York Giants with an average starting field position at their own 46-yard line after the five turnovers that weren't returned for a touchdown. On those five possessions, the Giants scored three field goals and one touchdown. Cornerbacks Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne completely shut down two of the game's best receivers in Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz. The Giants were just 3-for-15 on third-down conversion attempts. The Dallas defense delivered a clinic in how to limit damage.
The problem was that there was so much damage to limit. And that falls on Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo.
Romo was a wreck in this game -- uncomfortable, jumpy, predictable and error-prone. He threw four interceptions, and these weren't the kind you could lay on anyone else. The Giants seemed able to read his every move and anticipate the mistake he was about to make. On the first pick, he made one of the worst play-action fakes you'll ever see, then locked in on his first read, allowing Stevie Brown to jump the route. The second pick was a terrible deep throw that sailed past Miles Austin and into the arms of Corey Webster. On the third, Jason Pierre-Paul stopped his own pass rush because he could see that Romo was going to try to dump the ball off, and he leaped in the air to pick it off and run it back for a touchdown.
There were other bad throws, and way too many of them, as Romo completed 36-of-62 on the day. How he missed James Hanna in the back of the end zone on the play before he ran the ball in for a touchdown himself I still can't figure out. Cowboys fans booed Romo, and after the game he said he didn't blame them. As much as any loss so far in this lurching 3-4 season, this one was squarely on Romo.
And it was proof that the Cowboys can't afford bad games from their offensive stars the way the Giants apparently can. Dallas just doesn't have enough on offense to overcome a bad game by its quarterback. With DeMarco Murray out, the running game doesn't even exist, which shouldn't be a surprise. Felix Jones is a backup running back trying to gain yards up the middle behind backup-quality players at center and guard. Those interior linemen are getting pushed around, and part of Romo's jitters have to do with inconsistent pass protection.
But all of that is what it is. The Cowboys don't have the same kind of depth of offensive talent that the league's elite teams have, and that's the main reason they're not one of them. Their path to winning a game like Sunday's is for the star players they do have on offense to play like stars. After they barely beat the Panthers in Carolina last week, I wrote that Austin and Dez Bryant had to do a better job winning their matchups in the secondary. Sunday, they did that. Each was over 100 yards receiving for the game, as was tight end Jason Witten, who caught a dazzling 18 passes for 162 yards. The Cowboys' playmakers make plays down the field. Had Bryant not felt the need to break his fall with his right hand in the final 10 seconds, the story of this game may have been completely opposite.
Instead, we look at Romo, the offensive star who had the bad game -- who couldn't stop turning the ball over in a game that was close enough to come down to a couple of inches. He gets the heat for this one. I saw a halfhearted effort in the wake of the loss to dredge up the same old play-calling complaints against Jason Garrett for not trying to run the ball on second-, third-, fourth-and-1, but no one who watched that game had reason to believe the Cowboys could get a yard on the ground when they needed to get it. With Murray out, they are extremely limited in their options on offense. That's why they need their quarterback to be sharp. On this day -- when they won the time of possession battle, held their opponent to less than 300 total yards and ran 83 offensive plays to the Giants' 58 -- they simply could not survive Romo's mistakes.