The return of Tony Romo was supposed to mean a return of the Dallas Cowboys’ offense.
That was not the case Thursday afternoon at AT&T Stadium. Romo threw three first-half interceptions, including two pick-sixes as the offense was held to 210 total yards in a 33-14 loss to the unbeaten Carolina Panthers.
And with Romo leaving the game in the second half with a left clavicle injury, the offensive outlook the rest of the season appears bleak.
The Panthers’ top-tier defense, which ranked eighth in the league with 94.5 yards rushing allowed per game entering Thursday, rendered the Cowboys virtually useless on the ground, holding them to a season-low 31 yards on 14 carries. Darren McFadden had 10 of those attempts and finished with just 11 yards, eight of which came with under seven minutes remaining and Dallas trailing 33-6.
“They came ready to play ball. They did a heck of a job. They have the top rush defense in the league for a reason,” McFadden said before excusing himself after 48 seconds with the media.
Receiver Dez Bryant skipped out on the media altogether. He finished with two catches for 26 yards, although Romo targeted him a team-high eight times.
The poor performance on the ground comes two weeks after the Cowboys rushed for 42 yards at Tampa Bay. The 31 yards on Thursday are the ninth-fewest in Cowboys history and their fewest since being held to 19 at home against the New York Giants on Oct. 28, 2012.
“They did a good job of getting extra guys down in the box,” tight end Jason Witten said. “We press on the fact that that’s our identity as a football team is being able to run the ball as an offense. We just weren’t good enough at it. I don’t know the exact reasons or why that happened. When you don’t run the ball very good, and you’re not good on third down, it’s tough to overcome.”
In their past three games, including the past two with Romo, the Cowboys have been held to their two worst offensive games of the season — 216 total yards at Tampa Bay and 210 yards Thursday.
Romo’s interceptions prevented any type of momentum in the first half. But the running game, which mustered just 22 yards from running backs, never was a viable option.
For Cowboys’ guard La’el Collins, it was a lack of execution, not anything tricky the Panthers’ were doing.
“They played hard, physical, and they played together and it showed. That’s really what it was,” he said. “We’ve just got to do a better job of executing our own plays.”
Cowboys coach Jason Garrett tempered his praise for the Panthers while lamenting his team’s turnovers.
“I give Carolina a lot of credit, but those were the significant plays of the game,” he said of the interceptions. “Our turnovers gave them 17 points, and we can’t do that against a football team like that. They’re 10-0 for a reason coming into the ballgame and you have to play a clean game. We didn’t do that today.”
Stefan Stevenson, 817-390-7760