Cowboys figure out how to mess up

LANDOVER, Md. -- The season-opening loss to the Washington Redskins represented progress for the Dallas Cowboys' offense, which is pretty pathetic.

"I thought we moved the ball a lot better than we did in the preseason," quarterback Tony Romo said. "That's easily apparent."

That's also easy to do. The Cowboys' starting offense stunk it up in the preseason but assured the masses that the sputtering was mostly due to vanilla game plans.

Perhaps it's time to find the panic button after the Cowboys scored only one touchdown that counted in a 13-7 loss Sunday night to last season's NFC East bottom-feeder.

Sure, the Cowboys moved the ball. They racked up 380 yards and 24 first downs with two offensive line starters out, which essentially eliminated the vertical passing game. But they failed to finish drives, a continuation of their biggest flaw from last season. The only area in which they excelled was finding ways to screw things up, all the way to the final play.

"It's very disappointing," said Romo, who completed 31 of 47 passes for 282 yards and a touchdown. "We did a lot of good things and we didn't get nearly as much out of it as we should."

Fill-in right tackle Alex Barron gets a big share of the blame, something that won't exactly stun anyone who watched him underachieve for five penalty-filled seasons in St. Louis. His walk-off holding penalty negated the game-winning touchdown pass to Roy E. Williams.

It also completed a holding hat trick for Barron, whose second penalty killed the Cowboys' previous drive. But Barron had plenty of company in the penalty department. The Cowboys, who figured they could flip the switch after a sloppy preseason, were flagged 12 times for 91 yards.

"Penalties will kill you," Williams said. "I don't care how good your offense is. They'll kill you."

Of course, the Cowboys wouldn't have been in comeback mode if not for an idiotic decision at the end of the first half. Instead of kneeling with four seconds remaining, the Cowboys tried to score from their own 36.

The play turned into a total disaster, with Romo throwing an ill-advised pass in the flat to Tashard Choice, who got stripped by Washington cornerback DeAngelo Hall, who sprinted 32 yards for the Redskins' only touchdown of the night.

The Cowboys' offense clearly still isn't ready for prime time, to borrow the phrase Wade Phillips used when he briefly got upset after his team's terrible dress rehearsal in Houston.

"It's got to be eliminated," tight end Jason Witten said. "There's no beating around the bush. You can't have it. You can't turn the ball over, and we can't have these penalties in costly situations. We've got to try to eliminate it."

Frankly, that isn't likely to happen as long as the Cowboys have to count on Barron. There's a reason the Rams couldn't wait to get rid of him, preferring to have a rookie protect No. 1 overall pick Sam Bradford's blind side.

Barron has been called for 10 holding penalties since the start of last season. He's the only player in double figures in that category. He's also annually among the league leaders in false starts, although he didn't have one against the Redskins.

Accountability also isn't one of Barron's strengths. He mumbled a few words to one reporter but refused to answer questions from the media horde.

It sure seemed as though Redskins outside linebacker Brian Orakpo got the best of the matchup with Barron, but the man who signs the offensive tackle's checks had a different take.

"Other than the penalties," owner/general manager Jerry Jones said, "we had our eye on him pretty good and thought he played pretty well."

Other than the score, the Cowboys' offense as a whole wasn't too awful. At least not by the ankle-high standards they set this summer.

Tim MacMahon covers the Cowboys for ESPNDallas.com You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.