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-less streak.
It’s a good thing the Cowboys still have 14 days until the start of the regular season _if Saturday’s 25-20 loss against the Miami Dolphins is any indication.
Simply put, the offense left a lot to be desired _ in what was considered 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.
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Instead of an explosion, Romo and the first team sputtered in two quarters of play that featured penalties, sacks and miscues.
There were no touchdowns, only field goals of 52 and 50 yards by Dan Bailey.
"There are still some things we have to work on," coach Jason 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 disc in his back last December. He got up each team and looked to be 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 play. But he got up and walked off the field.
"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."
That drive proved to be atypical of the effort by the offense in the first half, especially the team’s highly-touted offense line. Pro Bowl right tackle Tyron Smith gave up the sack to Vernon.
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 also 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 the half, driving the Cowboys from the 20 to the Dolphins’ 19. But a host of penalties and another sack scuttled any hopes of a touchdown. A pass from Romo to receiver Terrance Williams appeared to give the Cowboys a first and goal at the 9. But the play was nullified by an illegal shift penalty.
An incompletion came next then Romo was sacked again by Wake. A holding penalty against Free was declined.
A third-and-23 play resulted in another incomplete pass. It also featured another illegal shift penalty.
Nothing was smooth for this supposedly potent offense, which totaled 110 yards and was two for eight on third-down conversions.
Romo averaged 4.8 yards per attempt. Bryant caught four passes for 32 yards, but nothing downfield. And the running game managed 35 yards on 10 carries between Murray and backup Lance Dunbar.
"It felt good to get through a half. We want to put more points on the board, but we hurt ourselves with penalties,"Romo said. "The game is always going to be hard if you keep putting yourself behind. We are out there playing football, and that's what we do."
The disappointing play of the offense offset a somewhat solid performance by the undermanned defense, which again played without tackles Henry Melton and Terrell McClain and cornerback Morris Claiborne. Cornerback Brandon Carr only played 12 snaps as the Cowboys were careful with him in first preseason action. Defensive end George Selvie left in the second quarter with a shoulder injury.
Yet, the Cowboys didn’t allow the Dolphins starters, who played into the third quarter, to score a touchdown.
A strong opening drive by the Dolphins stalled at the 8, resulting in a field goal.
Rookie cornerback Tyler Patmon recorded the first of his three turnovers on the next drive with a forced fumble.
The Dolphins punted their next two drives and then Patmon got an interception off former Texas A&M quarterback Ryan Tannehill when stepped in front of an under thrown pass to Brian Hartline.
The Cowboys were gashed on the ground as the Dolphins ran for 93 yards in the first half on 5.5 yards per attempt .
But the defense never broke.
Patmon got a pick-six in the fourth quarter. He jumped a swing pass from backup quarterback Matt Moore to receiver Armon Binns and returned it 9 yards for a touchdown.
Patmon, an undrafted rookie free agent from Oklahoma State , might have earned a roster spot with his performance if he already hadn’t.