Tony Romo steadies wobbly ship

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Six autumns ago, Tony Romo stood in the same small room tucked off to the side of the visitors' locker room inside Bank of America Stadium, wearing a tattered T-shirt from his days at Burlington (Wis.) High School that detailed his weightlifting abilities as a senior.

He was as delighted as he could be following the first start of his career that ended in a convincing victory and kick-started a Dallas Cowboys season that was in desperate need of a kick-start.

On Sunday, Romo -- who wore a crisp, gray designer suit this time -- seemed more relieved than delighted following career win No. 50 after the Cowboys' 19-14 victory against the Carolina Panthers.

"This team grinded its way out," Romo said, "and we did the things that were ultimately needed to win and that was good to see."

Maybe he's right.

Romo's final numbers are OK: 24 of 34, 227 yards, one touchdown for a 98.5 passer rating, which is his second-highest of the season. Most importantly, Romo did not have a pass intercepted in a game for the first time this season. He was not sacked, either.

But the numbers could have been a lot better and the victory a lot smoother. Probably should have been a lot better, too, even with DeMarco Murray watching from home with a sprained foot.

Instead of just one touchdown pass, Romo -- who joined Roger Staubach, Troy Aikman and Danny White as Cowboys quarterbacks with 50 wins -- had a chance for the 26th three-touchdown-pass game of his career.

The first miss was on Romo. The second miss was on Dez Bryant.

As a result, the Panthers were able to stick around until the final seconds, and the win felt almost less fulfilling than last week's 31-29 loss to Baltimore.

On the Cowboys' second drive of the game, Romo missed Miles Austin for what would have been a 9-yard touchdown pass that seemed to haunt the offense the rest of the day. The Cowboys' 18-play, 91-yard drive that lasted 10 minutes, 10 seconds, ended in a 19-yard field goal by Dan Bailey and a 3-0 lead.

In practice, Romo said, the coverage dictated a throw to the back pylon, but in real time, Austin had to bend his route a little flatter because of the defense.

"I'm kind of in between throwing it over the shoulder or I could've thrown it right at him," said Romo, whose only other incompletion on that drive was a Felix Jones drop. "I've got to go back and look at it and make sure that doesn't happen again."

In the fourth quarter, as the Cowboys were looking for go-ahead points, Bryant did not do his quarterback any favors, dropping a pass in the end zone a week after he dropped a potential game-tying two-point conversion at Baltimore.

On second-and-9 from the Carolina 15, the Cowboys had Bryant matched up in man coverage on Josh Thomas, the Cowboys' 2010 fifth-round pick they did not deem worthy of making their roster.

Romo's pass was perfect. Bryant's hands weren't. And for the second straight week Bryant looked to the officials for a pass interference penalty that wasn't there.

"Man to man by himself," Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said. "[That's] some option to Dez Bryant."

After Bryant's drop, Garrett went so conservative that even Grover Norquist would not have liked the call. On third-and-9, Garrett went with a Phillip Tanner run that picked up 5 yards, requiring a 28-yard field goal from Bailey for a 16-4 lead and more demanding work of the defense with 3:25 to play.

"I was pleading for [a pass play] there on the sidelines," Romo said of the timeout discussion with Garrett.

You can say Garrett was showing faith in his defense. You can say he wasn't showing faith in Romo and the offense.

Too many turnovers, too many penalties and too many mental mistakes in the first five games of the season forced Garrett to play it safe.

Even the Cowboys' single touchdown drive of the game was far from perfect. It started with a holding penalty on Jason Witten, which was followed by a Kevin Ogletree drop.

Three plays later, Austin was in the end zone thanks to back-to-back completions of 36 and 26 yards, with a perfect throw from Romo over rookie cornerback Josh Norman for the score.

If the Cowboys could just learn to get out of their own way, they could be dangerous to other teams and not just themselves.

"The frustrating part is, just from a coach or quarterback perspective, is that you know little things matter a lot," Romo said, later adding, "We have to give ourselves better chances."

If they don't, they'll be in trouble because they won't face many more teams as accommodating as the Panthers.