The NFL preseason is a time to work out all the kinks prior to kickoff in Week 1. For the Dallas Cowboys, however, working out the kinks has been easier said the done. The Cowboys' offense has struggled mightily during the team's four preseason games, leaving many to wonder what exactly is wrong inside the Dallas huddle?
Offensive line play? Not enough from the running backs? What can Tony Romo do to improve the situation, if anything?
These are just some of the questions the Cowboys face as they look to right the ship on the offensive side of the ball before they kickoff in Washington in the first Sunday Night Football game of the season on September 12th.
The big horses up front for the Cowboys simply have not produced like they need to give the talent they block for.
The offensive line has given up 15 sacks and opened up lanes for just 218 rushing yards in four preseason games. That isn't going to cut it for a team that will rely heavily on its offensive balance. The offensive line's struggles are having a significant effect on the entire Cowboys' offense. Their struggles arguably begin and end with their offensive line.
Teams often have communication issues between quarterback and receiver in the preseason, but an experienced, veteran line like Dallas' is a concerning sign.
The aforementioned offensive line struggles obviously isn't helping the running game. The team's 218 yards in four games is a red flag considering how much the Cowboys rely on the three-headed monster of Felix Jones, Marion Barber and Tashard Choice.
The team is rushing for 2.5 yards per carry so far this preseason with only one rush longer than 11 yards.
The Cowboys finished 14th in the NFL last season in third-down conversion rate at just over 40 percent. So far this preseason, the Cowboys are converting just 29 percent of their third downs (17-for-58).
The Cowboys are successful when they convert third downs, keep opposing defenses on the field and wear down the opponent's morale. Their 29 percent rate this postseason would have ranked 30th in the league last year.
The Cowboys ranked fourth in the NFL last year in yards per attempt with 8.2 YPA. So far in preseason action, the Cowboys have mustered just six yards per attempt including a 6.2 YPA mark for Tony Romo.
The Cowboys ability to stretch the field puts constant pressure on defenses. They need to get back to that and prevent the opposition from creeping up in the box.
Maybe it's a measure of not finding a rhythm yet, maybe it's the offensive line, but Tony Romo's 26-for-46 performance in the preseason obviously isn't going to cut it. Romo, whose completion percentage hovered around 63 percent last year, needs to and likely will improve upon his 56 percent completion ratio so far this preseason.
Maybe it is just rust, but Romo's inaccuracy is one reason for the Cowboys' offensive struggles.
How much can the Cowboys' coaching staff do? Doug Free's emergence as the starting left tackle over the departed Flozell Adams is one position that needs enhancement not only to improve the line's play but Tony Romo's as well.
Otherwise, this is a veteran line that is not new to playing with one another. Marc Colombo, Andre Gurode, Leonard Davis, and Kyle Kosier have all been together long enough their movements and communication should be well-synchronized. The line's issues is likely as simple as finding that rhythm as a unit.
Much of what the Cowboys' running game will do is predicated on the offensive line, especially when it comes to Marion Barber who isn't agile enough to general turn a loss, or neutral play, into a gain.
Likewise, Jones and Choice needs holes to slip through in order to rip off the big gains they are capable off. The Cowboys can be a little more creative in getting the ball to Jones and Choice should the offensive line struggle, but that line must play well for Barber to the be the punishing back the team's grown accustom to.
The Cowboys running game is at its best when the offensive line is the one getting the push. So far, this preseason, the line been the one getting pushed.
The last few seasons the Cowboys have used their running game on first down to set up shorter second and third downs. That hasn't happened as regularly this preseason. The Cowboys have the benefit of Barber, Jones and Choice to regularly get in 2nd-and-5s and 2nd-and-6s.
Push that back to 2nd-and-8 like the team has faced this preseason and it becomes tougher to sustain drives. Getting the running backs back to forward momentum and getting in shorter second downs will alleviate much of the offensive struggles.
The offensive line gives breath to the running game which gives breath to the vertical passing game. When the Cowboys can threaten teams with the running game, teams will begin to slack on the passing game which should open holes for Jason Witten down the middle and Miles Austin and the corps of receiver on the edges.
Opening holes in the second tier of the defense will allow the Cowboys, and Romo, to start moving the ball down field in larger chunks.
Tony Romo will be fine. He will not throw for a 56 percent completion ratio unless the wheels really fall off the offensive line. Jason Witten will be his security blanket. Miles Austin will be his deep threat. He'll have his check downs to the running backs and eventually either Roy Williams will get his act together or Dez Bryant will become many fans' new favorite player when he emerges.
While Romo's performances have been less than inspiring this summer, he is not the source of the Cowboys ills right now.