MIAMI — Any hope for the Dallas Cowboys to finally make a breakthrough in 2014 has always centered on an explosive offense.Led by quarterback Tony Romo, Pro Bowl running back DeMarco Murray, receiver Dez Bryant and an offensive line that is billed as good as any in the league, the offense is expected to make up for some obvious deficiencies on defense to help the Cowboys break a four-year playoff drought.It’s a good thing the Cowboys still have 14 days until the start of the regular season, if Saturday’s 25-20 loss to the Miami Dolphins is any indication.In what was considered to be the dress rehearsal for the regular season and in what was Romo’s longest outing of the preseason after being limited since the start of training camp because of back surgery, the offense left a lot to be desired.Instead of an explosion, Romo and the first team sputtered through two quarters that featured penalties, sacks and miscues.There were no touchdowns, only field goals of 52 and 50 yards by Dan Bailey.With the Cowboys, now 0-3 in the preseason, planning to sit most of their starters in the preseason finale against the Denver Broncos on Thursday, coach Jason Garrett said he would have preferred a cleaner performance against the Dolphins. He said the team will go back to work but declared them absolutely ready for the Sept. 7 regular-season opener against the San Francisco 49ers.“There are still some things we have to work on,” Garrett said. “I thought the offense did not get into a great rhythm. We had ourselves moving backward a little bit with some penalties. We simply have to get better and play better, and we will after we watch this tape.”The good news was that Romo, who completed 10 of 18 passes for 87 yards, took a number of hits for the first time since he suffered a herniated disk in his back in December. He got up each time and looked no worse for wear following three sacks, including a blindside hit from Dolphins defensive end Olivier Vernon on the second drive of the first quarter.Romo, who didn’t play in the preseason opener and only got 14 snaps against Baltimore last week, fumbled the ball on the play. But he got up and walked off the field.Romo spent extra time in the cold tub after the game — a routine he plans to continue all season because of his back.“Yeah, I took some hits,” Romo said. “That was good just in regard to getting up and keep playing. That part of it was positive. The hits in general, hopefully we can avoid.”Garrett had no problem with the hits Romo took because it gave him a feel of what it was going to be like during the season.“It was good to see Tony out there playing,” Garrett said. “He got knocked around a little bit, and that could be good and bad. You want the protection to be clean, but at the same time for him, in his preparation for San Francisco, it’s good to have him feel the physical part of the game.”Owner Jerry Jones, however, admitted concern about his quarterback being under so much duress so close to the season opener.“I’ll be very candid with you: They were doing a pretty good job with their defensive front, so he took those three sacks,” Jones said. “That concerned me, not because of being able to correct what it takes to block them, but it just concerned me that he was taking those sacks.”The first drive of the second quarter ended with a sack by Cameron Wake, who beat right tackle Doug Free. Left guard Mackenzy Bernadeau was flagged for illegal use of hands on the play, but it was declined because of the sack.The next drive was thwarted by a holding penalty on Smith.Romo came back in for one more drive before halftime, driving from the Cowboys’ 20-yard line to the Dolphins’ 19. But a host of penalties and another sack scuttled any hopes of a touchdown.Nothing was smooth for this supposedly potent offense, which totaled 110 yards and was 2 for 8 on third-down conversions.Romo averaged 4.8 yards per attempt, Bryant caught four passes for 32 yards and the running game managed 35 yards on 10 carries between Murray and Lance Dunbar.“It felt good to get through a half,” Romo said. “We want to put more points on the board, but we hurt ourselves with penalties.”The disappointing play of the offense was offset by a solid performance from the undermanned defense, which again played without tackles Henry Melton and Terrell McClain and cornerback Morris Claiborne.The Cowboys didn’t allow the Miami starters, who played into the third quarter, to score a touchdown.Tyler Patmon, an undrafted rookie free agent from Oklahoma State, got a pick-six in the fourth quarter. He jumped a swing pass from backup quarterback Matt Moore and returned it 9 yards for a touchdown.
Clarence E. Hill Jr., 817-390-7760 Twitter: @clarencehilljr