ATLANTA – Earlier this week, I was posed with an interesting question to sum up the problems with this team, particularly the offense.
Asked to rank the issues, starting with the most detrimental, using the quarterback, play-calling, running game, wide receivers and offensive line as my categories, I needed all of about three seconds to pick my No. 1 problem area.
It was the offensive line.
After Sunday's 19-13 loss to the Falcons here at the Georgia Dome, I'm feeling even more comfortable about my decision. I wouldn't need as much hesitation now.
Yes, this team has all kinds of issues, and for the most part, they revolve around a lack of consistency. One week the receivers are making big plays, and the next they come up empty.
The running backs have been hit, but mostly miss this year, and the quarterback, yeah, we all know how up and down Tony Romo has been.
But aside from one game in Baltimore, the one thing that has been rather consistent has been this offensive line. And that's not really a compliment. The offensive line has consistently struggled, and it was never more evident than Sunday night against the Falcons.
And it was across the board like always. Nate Livings and Ryan Cook had all sorts of problems getting their blocks, while Tyron Smith struggled on the outside. Mackenzy Bernadeau and Doug Free weren't exactly dominant, but at least held their own.
But none of them were without problems.
Pick your play. Pick your key moment in the game and I'm sure the offensive line had something to do with it.
This team had its moments to make plays, but like always, kept shooting themselves in the foot – or better yet, missing a block on the outside, grabbing a lineman for holding or simply not having enough push up the middle.
Sure, this team probably misses DeMarco Murray as the running back. He's the best one they've got and he's been hurt. But the Cowboys have now used four different backs this year at various times and nothing really seems to be working.
Against the Falcons, the Cowboys' lack of a consistent running game ended up hurting them in the end.
Last week, we thought the Cowboys lost the game in the first half when they got down, 23-0. Yet, they found a way to claw back and take the lead before eventually losing by five points in the final minutes.
This week, although the game was tied in the fourth quarter, the Cowboys arguably lost this game in the first quarter once again. Two chances to score inside the Falcons' 20 and both times they settled for field goals.
Again, there were plenty of problems to go around, but I think it all starts up front with the line.
Too many times in this game the Cowboys had moments in which they simply needed to run the ball and pick up necessary yards, and they couldn't convert. It happened early in the game on those scoring drives and then again before halftime with a third-and-1 at midfield.
Hey, I've never designed an offense before. Haven't called any plays in the NFL – although I have suggested one play that netted a first down once last season in a college game – needless to say I don't pretend to be a wizard of offense.
But honestly, I can't understand why this team continues to try to go big-on-big in short-yardage situations after constantly failing at it.
It happened several times against the Giants last week and it occurred yet again Sunday night in Atlanta.
When it's third-and-1, why in the world do they continue to go with a jumbo package of three tight ends and a fullback? It basically draws all 22 players into the center of the field. There's really no trickery or misdirection here.
It's basically my guy vs. your guy and let's see who wins. Well, how many times do we need to see it? The Cowboys had five total rushing touchdowns last year. They've got four already this year, but that's not exactly a high number.
It all starts with the line up front and they just don't get the push.
On the first drive of the game, the Cowboys get down to a first-and-goal from the 10. Now that's always a tough place to punch it in, but on second-and-goal from the 6, they need more than a 1-yard run from Felix Jones. He was stuffed at the line of scrimmage, setting up a passing situation on third down that resulted in a field goal.
The biggest rushing miscue was right before the half when they had third-and-1 at midfield with a 6-3 lead. That's the only time in the game they went with Phillip Tanner, and he was stopped at the line of scrimmage for no gain.
If you're trying to be aggressive, it's a spot on the field you at least consider going for it. You have a chance to go up 9-3, or even 13-3, and all you need is a yard. But other than letting Tony Romo go out and try to draw the defense offside, there was no real thought in going for it.
That's how much the line is struggling. They don't really trust them to get a yard.
And it's not just in the running game. Romo didn't have much time to throw all night. He was often rolling out, scrambling left and right and trying to make throws on the run.
Even in the final play from scrimmage, Romo couldn't even get enough time to throw a Hail Mary to the end zone – instead having to dump it off to Felix Jones for a meaningless 39-yard pass in which he decided to get tackled and end the game. (Looking back on the coach's film, Jones might have had something working if he had seen Jason Witten and Kevin Ogletree all alone on the right side of the field, although it would've taken quite a throw across the field from a running back).
But let's not forget about the fact Romo didn't even have time to set his feet and throw it to the end zone.
It's not like the Falcons are a menacing, relentless defense that can't be stopped. Yet the Cowboys simply couldn't get them blocked Sunday night.
You can't run it or throw it consistently when you can't block them. And you can't sustain much, especially when it gets tight in the red zone.
Add it all up and you can't win. This team has all kinds of problem areas, but offensive line has been the No. 1 issue for this team, and it was on full display Sunday in Atlanta.