There was a time when a local television reporter asked former Dallas Cowboys coach Bill Parcells, with all sincerity, how important was it to score touchdowns … in football.
An incredulous Parcells was dumbfounded.
But in taking stock of the dumpster fire that has become the Cowboys’ season, that question is as relevant as the team’s downfall.
While we’re at it, let’s add the questions of how important is it to convert on third downs, score in the red zone, run, pass and catch?
Just being able to do the basics has been a challenge for an injury-plagued offense that is the root of this 4-9 team’s struggles. The Cowboys have lost nine of their past 11 games.
They have used three quarterbacks, lacked playmakers, lacked continuity and have done nothing well enough to lean on — all cause for some sleepless nights and self-reflection from offensive coordinator Scott Linehan.
A year ago, Linehan was considered a genius in directing a high-octane offense that powered a 12-4 NFC East title team before losing to the Green Bay Packers in the NFC divisional playoffs.
Linehan was able to quantify just how much things have changed before Sunday’s 28-7 loss to the Green Bay Packers, which ended with the Cowboys scoring one touchdown or less for the seventh time this season.
Last year we could lean on the run. That affected everything we did. We were successful on first down. It was like a luxury. Even if they were playing the run, we were still getting yards. McFadden has fit in well. But it has been different.
Cowboys offensive coordinator Scott Linehan
“I was looking at warmups at the last game,” Linehan said Wednesday.” All the quarterbacks and running backs that were dressed on game day were not even here in training camp. And I count running back Darren McFadden because he missed time in camp and there was time I didn't see him.
“And definitely the last time I was in Lambeau Field there were all different players. And that was 13 games ago.”
That was when the Cowboys were led by quarterback Tony Romo, who led the league in passer rating, completion percentage and was considered an MVP candidate. The offense relied on NFL leading rushing DeMarco Murray, who set a team-record with 1,845 yards and proved to be the foundation of the Cowboys’ success.
Murray was allowed to walk in free agency. Romo has missed seven games with a fractured collarbone, returned for two, only to be lost for the season with another fractured collarbone. Pro Bowl receiver Dez Bryant has been hobbled by foot, knee and ankle injuries, causing him to miss six games.
“We were really fortunate last year,” Linehan said. “There were never any continuity issues. So we were blessed in being able to stay in our rhythm regardless. We had the one game we played without our starter. Other than that, nobody missed time. The challenge this year has been to try to bring guys along.”
When you don’t convert third and shorts, and you’re not good in the red zone, and you turn the ball over, you’re not going to win many games,”
Cowboys tight end Jason Witten
And while McFadden has come on strong — he ranks 11th in the league with 798 and averages 4.2 yards a carry — the Cowboys don’t run it consistently enough to make a difference.
The Cowboys are 32nd in converting third-and-1, 31st in touchdowns, 30th in scoring, 29th in passing touchdowns, 29th in passing and 28th in total offense.
“Last year we could lean on the run,” Linehan said. “That affected everything we did. We were successful on first down. It was like a luxury. Even if they were playing the run, we were still getting yards. McFadden has fit in well. But it has been different.”
The Cowboys have had to design game plans for three quarterbacks. Brandon Weeden initially replaced Romo before giving way to Matt Cassel, a veteran who has no experience in the offense and no chemistry with the receivers.
While there has been a push to blame Cassel and make a change to a fourth quarterback in backup Kellen Moore, the Cowboys say the problems go deeper than the quarterback.
“It’s everybody,” coach Jason Garrett said. “Matt’s certainly a part of it, but it’s the offensive line. It’s the tight ends, the receivers and the backs.
“When you break the huddle on offense, you’ve got to be able to attack the defense in different ways.”
Time on task is an issue because Cassel wasn’t with the team in off-season. It’s something that can’t be made up during the season in practice no matter how hard or long they work.
The Cowboys have tried to tweak the scheme to fit Cassel. They have tried to feature different players and different things while trying to maintain their offensive identify of being a physical, power-running team. Nothing has worked.
“When you don’t convert third and shorts and you’re not good in the red zone, and you turn the ball over, you’re not going to win many games,” Witten said. “It makes it really tough to win games and have confidence.”
Jets at Cowboys
7:25 p.m., Saturday, NFL Network, KTVT/11