ARLINGTON _All that needs to be known about the Dallas Cowboys' 16-10 victory against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday at Cowboys Stadium is that the team threw a postgame concert/party on the east plaza and only a handful of the announced crowd of 81,984 bothered to stay.
Aside from a dominating effort by the defense, which recorded two sacks by linebacker DeMarcus Ware, an interception by Sean Lee and held the Buccaneers to 166 total yards, the fewest allowed since 2005, this was not an overall performance worth celebrating.
The Cowboys even admitted as much, never mind that it was their home opener or that the victory put the Cowboys in a first-place tie with the Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants at 2-1 in the NFC East.
"The game was far from artistic," coach Jason Garrett said. "I was proud of our team when you don't have your best fastball and don't have your best stuff to find ways to win the game."
They won, but if the Cowboys hope to achieve their goal of making the playoffs and finally putting together a long postseason run, much improvement is needed.
"We all know there is a lot to work on here," owner Jerry Jones said in a subdued victory locker room. "But the good news is we won a game doing a lot of things that can cause you to lose."
Those things were three dropped passes by seven-time Pro Bowl tight end Jason Witten, 13 penalties for 105 yards, including six false-start flags, poor blocking that limited the Cowboys to just 38 yards on the ground and got quarterback Tony Romo sacked four times, resulting in two lost fumbles.
Romo was intercepted on the game's first series that led to Tampa Bay's only touchdown, a 1-yard pass from Josh Freeman to tight end Luke Stocker.
The Cowboys overcame it all because of a stellar bounce-back performance by a defense that was still smarting from being run over in the second half of last week's 27-7 loss to the Seahawks.
After giving up 181 rushing yards to Seattle, the Cowboys held the Bucs to 75 and then harassed Freeman into completing 10 of 28 passes for 110 yards.
Lee's first-quarter interception off a tipped pass led to the Cowboys' only touchdown, an 11-yard run by running back DeMarco Murray.
Most impressive was the Cowboys' success on defense while shuffling their secondary because of injuries. Cornerback Brandon Carr played safety on passing downs with backup Mike Jenkins and rookie Morris Claiborne at cornerback because free safety Gerald Sensabaugh missed the game with a calf strain. The Cowboys then lost strong safety Barry Church in the game to a season-ending Achilles tendon injury, meaning safety might be a permanent thing for Carr.
"Whatever it takes for us to get victories and W's," Carr said. I'm a team player. I'm down for it."
The biggest challenge the Cowboys' defense faced and likely the turning point of the game was in the third quarter when Romo fumbled while being sacked by defensive end Michael Bennett after a missed block by Witten. Cornerback Eric Wright recovered and ran for an apparent touchdown.
The officials, however, ruled Romo down by contact and blew the whistle. The play was overturned on replay, giving the Bucs the ball at the Cowboys' 31. But the touchdown, which would have given Tampa Bay a 14-10 lead, was not allowed. The defense forced the Buccaneers to punt a few plays later.
"They bailed us out," Jones said of the defense. "The defense was outstanding all day and won the game for us."
It had to because the Cowboys offense lacks rhythm and consistency after scoring just one touchdown in back to back weeks. They rushed for 38 yards after gaining 49 against the Seahawks.
Three times they settled for short field goals after scrimmaging inside the Tampa Bay 20 yard-line, twice inside the 10.
Penalties and poor blocking were the main culprit.
Consider a fourth quarter drive when receiver Dez Bryant returned a punt 44 yards to the 6-yard line only to have any chance of a touchdown ruined by a holding call on fullback Lawrence Vickers.
"I think the biggest thing is to not get behind the chains," Garrett said. "I think it goes to the penalties and mistakes we made. It makes it hard to get a rhythm. We have to get better and more productive on offense."
Quarterback Tony Romo completed 25 of 39 passes for 283 yards and a quarterback rating of 75.1 in what was his worst performance ever against Tampa Bay after throwing 11 touchdowns and no interceptions in three previous meetings.
He took as many hard hits in the game as he ever has and is happy to get the win as well as to survive a helmet to helmet hit that wasn¡¦t flagged by the replacement officials on a sack.
"We have to get better," Romo said. "We did not do some of things we are accustomed to doing. It was a hard battle. This was a satisfying win. These are the kind of wins you have to have. It gives us a chance moving forward."
It just wasn't one to celebrate.
Clarence E. Hill Jr.