Cowboys focused on critical situations

IRVING, Texas -- The new scoreboards at both ends of the Valley Ranch practice fields would look in place at Pee Wee games. They will serve as simple, functional, everyday reminders of the importance of fundamental football.

It's another method to deliver the message Jason Garrett has been emphasizing from the moment the Dallas Cowboys reported for training camp.

Then again, there have been sidelines on those fields for decades, but the Cowboys still struggle with avoiding them when appropriate.

You can't stress the importance of situational football any more than Garrett has the last few months. He showed his team highlights of several historic drives and duplicated those situations in scrimmage drills during practice. He repeatedly made the point that the Cowboys' last six games in 2010 were decided by a field goal or less.

If any Cowboys don't get by now what Garrett has been hammering into their heads, they're just plain dumb.

Every Dallas game this season has been in doubt during the last drive. The results have been mixed, with the Cowboys rallying for wins over the San Francisco 49ers and Washington Redskins and blowing big leads in losses to the New York Jets and Detroit Lions.

"I think we need to be more consistent handling the different situations that come up in the game," Garrett said, "and I think we need to do the things that winning teams do at crunch time."

Sometimes the Cowboys perform like the poised team Garrett has tried to prepare them to be in clutch situations. Sometimes they make head-scratching mistakes that are inexcusable at the high school level, much less the NFL.

"No question it's a work in progress," tight end Jason Witten said. "The urgency is there. Guys understand how important it is."

The spotlight in these situations always shines brightest on the quarterback. That's especially true this season with Tony Romo, who has been either awesome or awful, with his performance in the clutch being a primary factor in deciding the outcome of each game.

Romo has been at his playmaking best in the comeback wins, particularly at Candlestick Park, when he completed 12 of 15 passes for 201 yards and a score in the fourth quarter and overtime despite playing with a punctured lung and fractured rib. Engineering a pair of drives that resulted in field goals in the fourth quarter against the Redskins despite an injury-ravaged, playbook-challenged receiving corps was pretty impressive, too.

He's been at his worst with five second-half turnovers in the two losses, one of which marked the first time the Cowboys had blown a 14-point lead in the fourth quarter and the other which was the first time the franchise had lost after leading by at least 24 points. The interceptions that set up the deciding scores in those games were throws that never should have been made: forcing the ball to Dez Bryant despite double coverage fronted by All-Pro cornerback Darrelle Revis, and trying to hit Witten deep down the middle of the field despite pressure that prevented Romo from setting his feet in the pocket.

But it's not all about the quarterback.

A couple of plays by running backs provide examples that illustrate how much work the Cowboys have to do to become a smart team. Neither play cost the Cowboys a game, but they displayed an alarming lack of awareness.

Example A actually occurred on the last play of the game-winning drive against the Redskins. Garrett called a run on third-and-9 inside field-goal range after the two-minute warning because he wanted to force the Redskins to call their second timeout or let the clock tick. Tashard Choice made it a moot point, bouncing outside and hurdling a defender to go out of bounds after a 2-yard gain.

Outside linebacker Anthony Spencer's strip sack at midfield with 38 seconds remaining saved Choice from goat status.

Example B occurred when the Cowboys needed a fourth-and-long miracle against the Lions. Felix Jones didn't quite have the appropriate sense of desperation, stepping out of bounds after a short catch-and-run because he forgot it was fourth down.

"You've got to know the situation. You've got to think," Witten said. "I always say those 15 or 20 seconds before the play, that's when the mind is rolling. Seeing the coverage, knowing the situation, those kind of things. It happens fast, there's no question, but we've got to continue to work at those things. All of us need to do a better job."

With the parity in the NFL, and particularly in the NFC East, it can be the difference in the Cowboys winning the division or owning a top-10 draft pick again.

That's why late-game situations will continue to be one of the coaching staff's primary teaching points. Maybe the light bulbs above the Cowboys' heads will pop on at some point, like the bulbs on those new, old-fashioned scoreboards on the practice fields.

Tim MacMahon covers the Cowboys for ESPNDallas.com.