Commentary

Keys to saving Dallas Cowboys' season

The Cowboys are last in the NFC East, so here are five things they must fix

Updated: October 12, 2010, 12:04 PM ET
By Calvin Watkins | ESPNDallas.com

The Dallas Cowboys' season is not over, although you would never know it by the team's 1-3 record and placement at the bottom of the NFC East standings.

Expectations were high coming into this season, and the Cowboys are not achieving them. Coach Wade Phillips said he has a bunch of fighters, and several players have noted the intensity is still there. Yet penalties, an inability to stop big plays and other issues have the Cowboys in this hole.

We look at five things the Cowboys have to do to salvage their season.

Lineup changes

With the Cowboys in such a hole, the need to make lineup changes isn't pressing on Phillips. He benched starting right guard Leonard Davis because of his poor play in the first half of Sunday's loss to the Tennessee Titans. Davis said he deserved to get benched, but Phillips went back to him in the second half when Montrae Holland suffered an eye injury.

Phillips said Holland played well. When Davis returned to the field, he performed better. "He was just having a lot of trouble with the guy that was in there for some reason early in the game," Phillips said.

Davis will remain in the starting lineup, which is a surprise considering how poorly he has played this season. Sitting Davis for Sunday's game against the Minnesota Vikings would make a powerful statement.

Phillips said it was an easy decision.

"Yes," he said. "The guy's a Pro Bowl player. I thought he played good when he went back in."

Doesn't Phillips feel the need to make a statement to his club that a bad effort, even by a starter, is unacceptable?

Phillips will tell you yes, and that he evaluates all the positions on his team. But the lack of depth at certain positions might hurt his ability make more changes.

[+] EnlargeKurt Warner
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesDavid Buehler is only 1-for-4 this season on field goal attempts when the Cowboys could take the lead or tie the score.

Making clutch kicks

On the season, David Buehler has made 6 of 9 field goal attempts. But there is some concern within the organization about his ability to make clutch kicks. Buehler is 1-for-4 in potential lead-changing or game-tying situations.

Buehler made his first clutch kick of the season in the fourth quarter against the Titans on Sunday -- a 26-yarder that tied the score at 20. But it came after he had missed a 44-yarder in the third quarter that would have broken a tie.

After Buehler missed kicks the first two weeks of the season, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and Phillips voiced their support.

However, the lack of production on clutch kicks could hurt the Cowboys down the line.

"It all concerns me," special-teams coordinator Joe DeCamillis said. "Any time you line up for a field goal in this league, you want to make it, no matter what the distance is, no matter what the situation is. He's a young player, and we've got to go through growing pains with him. That's just the way it is. I wish that was different, but there are not many rookie guys that come right in and make every one."

Must force turnovers

The Cowboys are tied with Baltimore for 31st in the NFL with just three takeaways on the season. NFL teams are 4-28 when they don't create a turnover and are 35-12 when they force three or more.

For a defense that's designed to create pressure on the quarterback, especially with DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer, turnovers don't happen on a consistent basis. The playmaking in the secondary is lacking at times.

In Sunday's loss to the Titans, Mike Jenkins dropped a potential interception on a pass that hit him in the chest. Keith Brooking also could have made an interception if he had stayed on his feet instead of jumping up in the air. Bradie James, who forced a fumble, couldn't get the ball on a play that was wiped out by a penalty anyway.

If the Cowboys want to take some pressure off the offense, creating turnovers and turning them into points is one way to do it.

"Opportunities are there," Marcus Spears said. "They'll still be there. Jenks won't drop the interceptions much, and when Bradie causes fumbles, we will tend to get them. It just didn't happen for us."

[+] EnlargeColombo
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesMarc Colombo was penalized for unsportsmanlike conduct after falling down during a post-spike chest bump with Jason Witten.

Cut down on penalties

The Cowboys have been called for 38 penalties, tied for sixth in the NFL. The offense, however, leads the league with 23.

It's not so much as who is being penalized as it is when they're happening.

Alex Barron was called for holding to negate a winning touchdown in the season opener. Marc Colombo was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct after celebrating a Cowboys touchdown, leading to a go-ahead touchdown for the opposition.

We have seen offensive pass interference, false starts, even a player being flagged twice for defensive pass interference on the same drive.

Several Cowboys players have called the penalties dumb, but it seems that nobody around Valley Ranch has any real answers to fix the problem. Benching players doesn't seem to do the trick.

"The answers are very clear," Brooking said. "You can't play stupid football. You can't do silly things in the course of the game. You can't have 12 penalties."

Added Gerald Sensabaugh: "It is dumb football, I guess. We look terrible."

Tony Romo has to take control

When the Cowboys beat the Houston Texans for their only win of the season, Tony Romo completed 23 of 30 passes for 284 yards and had a season-high quarterback rating of 127.6.

Tony Romo
AP Photo/Mike FuentesTony Romo and the Cowboys are now 1-3 and face a tough game against the also-desperate Minnesota Vikings on Sunday.
He commanded the game. Phillips even said so.

He made two perfect passes -- one to Dez Bryant for a first down and another to Roy E. Williams for a touchdown. He made excellent decisions in terms of recognizing what the defense was giving him and taking advantage of it.

Against the Titans, Romo had three interceptions -- two on tipped balls -- and didn't command the game as he did in the victory over the Texans.

After Sunday's game, Romo seemed lost, as if he wasn't sure what was going on with his football team. He looked numb.

"From being the quarterback of the team, it's a hard pill to swallow," Romo said.

Although a strong running game helps Romo, the fact that he's able to not be forced to win the game helps him. He needs to manage the game -- be a bus driver, if you will -- and pick his spots as to when he needs to take over a game.

He has too many weapons in the passing game in Miles Austin, Williams, Bryant and Witten. If Felix Jones gets enough touches in space, he's hard to contain.

Romo can't win games by himself. He needs help. And when he gets it, he's a much better quarterback.

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

Calvin Watkins joined ESPNDallas.com in September 2009. He's covered the Cowboys since 2006 and also has covered colleges, boxing and high school sports.