IRVING -- Maligned quarterback Tony Romo is an easy target for Dallas Cowboys critics when trying to assess the team's 2-3 record.
His turnovers directly led to two losses. And now there are questions whether coach Jason Garrett's supposed lack of trust in Romo led to the other.
Romo's inconsistent play has impacted the Cowboys' success and seemingly forced Garrett's hand as a play-caller.
But arguably the biggest reason for the Cowboys' struggles this season has been their inability to score touchdowns in the red zone.
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The Cowboys have scored a touchdown on just 6 of 18 red-zone chances this season. Their 33.3 percent touchdown percentage ranks second to last in the league. Only the winless St. Louis Rams, Sunday's opponent, are worse, with three touchdowns in 12 trips.
The problem was especially acute in a 20-16 loss to the New England Patriots on Sunday when the Cowboys had to settle for field goals on two of three trips not only inside the red zone but inside the 10-yard line. That doesn't include near red-zone opportunities in the first quarter that saw drives stalled at the 21- and 23-yard lines. One resulted in a fumble by Tashard Choice. The other resulted in a field goal.
It has been a similar story all season for the Cowboys.
Rookie kicker Dan Bailey has been the biggest beneficiary with a league-high 15 field goals despite playing one less game than most kickers. His average of 11 points per game is second in the league.
It stands to reason that the Cowboys, who feature an offense and defense ranked in the top 10 in the league, might be undefeated if they could score touchdowns down close rather than settle for so many field goals. The three losses have all been by four points or less.
"We have to find ways to score touchdowns, both running and passing," tight end Jason Witten said. "We haven't been as consistent as we need to. We left a lot of points out there. Those could have been difference makers in all these close games. You've got to be on top of it when you get in that area of the field. That's an area that you see the good teams -- I mean, you look at the Green Bay Packers -- when they get down there, they come away with seven."
Said Garrett: "We have a lot of issues throughout our football team we have to get better at. That is one of them. We need to score touchdowns. We haven't been good on third down. We haven't run the ball well enough. There are some areas on defense, and the kicking game we have to get better at. We are a work in progress, like every team in this league."
Reasons abound for the Cowboys' red-zone struggles from turnovers, to untimely penalties, assignment breakdowns, poor play-calling and the inability to mount a consistent ground attack.
The biggest finger is being pointed at the running game, which is key to consistent success in the red zone. The Cowboys are ranked 27th in the league on the ground, averaging 84.8 yards per game. They have scored just one rushing touchdown all season, tying them with the Rams for second worst in the league behind the Kansas City Chiefs, who have none.
Six of Bailey's field goals have come after drives stalled inside the 10-yard line and that doesn't include a missed 21-yarder.
The Cowboys also failed on a fourth-and-1 run against Detroit, turning the ball over on downs.
"When you run the ball better, it helps the whole football team," Garrett said.
Being able to run the ball better, especially in the red zone, would also help Garrett's red-zone play-calling and make the game easier for a quarterback struggling with turnovers.
The Cowboys' ability to improve in that area has been compromised by the team's struggles on the offensive line because of injuries, inexperience and overall lack of size.
Garrett admits the off-season overhaul on the offensive line, which saw the Cowboys jettison bulky and aging veterans for smaller players, has kept them from getting a good push in the running game so far, though it will likely be best for the team long term.
The issue is compounded by the loss of starting running back Felix Jones for two to four weeks with a sprained ankle.
Rookie running back DeMarco Murray will get the majority of the carries in his absence, running behind a line that could see a third new starter at left guard with the recent signing of veteran Montrae Holland to replace the injured Bill Nagy, who is out for the season.
"Felix is such a dynamic runner," Witten said. "It hurts when you lose a guy like that. We have to find a way to get our running game going. It goes hand in hand (with our red zone struggles)."
Clarence E. Hill Jr.