Cowboys lose their way in red zone

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Go ahead and second-guess Jason Garrett for his ultraconservative play-calling approach with the Dallas Cowboys leading by a field goal late in the game.

It's being done by armchair coaches around the country.

That includes one who watched the Cowboys' 20-16 loss to the New England Patriots from a luxury suite at Gillette Stadium on Sunday afternoon.

"You'll always second-guess whether or not we should have tried to run a little offense down there instead of running it three times," owner and general manager Jerry Jones said in the losers' locker room.

That's a waste of time and energy, and it's passing up a much better opportunity to point the finger at Garrett.

His mistake wasn't making Tony Romo a game manager on that run-run-penalty-run-punt series that chewed up only 65 seconds but cost New England a couple of timeouts. The problem was that the Cowboys didn't cash in prime opportunities to score more points earlier in the game.

We'll dig into the Cowboys' red zone woes -- and Dez Bryant's weekly second-half disappearing act -- in a bit. Back to the series that red-faced Cowboys fans keep screaming about.

Garrett took the right approach despite the wrong result that ensued when Tom Brady's Patriots marched 80 yards on 10 plays for the game-winning touchdown.

Garrett would never put it this way, but when it was time to protect a late lead, how can you possibly blame the head coach for trusting Rob Ryan more than Romo?

Garrett bet on Ryan's defense, which had been dominant most of the day. The Cowboys lost. But the primary reasons for their previous two losses this season were Romo's poor decision-making and failure to protect the ball with a lead.

It would have been foolish to rely on Romo's arm with 3:36 remaining in Dallas territory with a three-point lead.

"As a competitor, you always want to be in a situation to have a chance [to make a play]," said Romo, who completed 27 of 41 passes for 317 yards with a touchdown and an interception in the loss. "At that time in the game, though, I can understand definitely why we didn't."

The worst-case scenario for the Cowboys would have been for Romo to gift-wrap another game for the opponent. Not that Garrett would ever acknowledge that Romo's recent failures influenced his approach in that situation.

"You're certainly challenging your defense in that situation," Garrett said, "but we believe you have to manage the game in the way that we did."

The Cowboys really need to manage to find a way to stop sputtering when they reach the red zone.

Suggestion: Give No. 88 a chance to make a play.

Bryant didn't catch a pass in the second half, which continues a troubling trend. He's been shut out after halftime in three of his four games this season. The only time the Cowboys targeted Bryant in the second half Sunday was a Hail Mary on the final snap.

How about giving the guy a chance to fight for the ball in the end zone? Detroit Lions touchdown machine Calvin Johnson might be the only better jump-ball receiver in the NFL.

The Cowboys have thrown to Bryant twice in goal-to-go situations this season. He scored on both plays. Why didn't he get any opportunities against the Patriots?

Romo mumbled some fancy football jargon when asked that question. Garrett said coverage often dictates where you're going to go.

But there were plenty of times in the red zone when a Patriots cornerback was left alone on Bryant. The Cowboys didn't exploit the matchup.

"It's all good," said Bryant, who appeared to vent on the sideline after the Cowboys' final red zone failure but watched his words carefully after the game. "You got to understand who we got on our roster. We got a lot of great players, and each and every last one of us can make plays."

OK, let's take a look at Romo's red zone targets in the second half.

He threw to tight end Martellus Bennett twice. Bennett still hasn't scored since his rookie season of 2008.
He threw to DeMarco Murray once. The rookie running back's next NFL touchdown will be his first.

He threw to Tashard Choice three times. Yes, we're talking about a four-year veteran running back who has never scored on a reception.

None to Bryant. None to perennial Pro Bowl tight end Jason Witten. None to No. 1 receiver Miles Austin.

No touchdowns in the second half. No surprise.

The Cowboys were satisfied to settle for a field goal when they got within sniffing distance of the end zone in the fourth quarter. If you want to whine about a Garrett gaffe, focus on the conservative-but-cute shovel pass to Choice that lost a few yards on third-and-goal from the 5.

That play came on the heels of a screen to Bennett and a pass in the flat to Choice. Garrett called plays like he was scared of Romo making a mistake, which turned the Cowboys' playmakers into multimillion-dollar decoys.

"We felt like when it was 13-13, it was important for us to come away with points and make sure we got three and went ahead in the game," Garrett said. "But certainly you want to score touchdowns when you get down there."

The Cowboys rarely do, despite their arsenal of big-bodied weapons in the passing game. That ought to be enough to finish drives despite an anemic running game, but it usually isn't.

The Cowboys converted one of three red zone trips into touchdowns against the Patriots. That's par for the course for a team that has reached pay dirt on six of 18 visits inside their opponents' 20-yard line this season.

"I don't know what stat is good or not good for scoring touchdowns or not, but I'd like to see where we're at in the league on something like that," Romo said, "so write that tomorrow and then that will help us."

Here you go, Tony: The St. Louis Rams are the only team in the NFL with a worse red zone conversion rate.

That's been Garrett's biggest flaw. That's what cost the Cowboys a chance to pull off an upset over the Patriots.

Join Jerry in second-guessing Garrett for playing it safe in the final four minutes if you want.

"We rolled the dice at the end and went conservative rather than to try to get some points," Jerry said, "and it bit us."

Jerry was right, but he was talking about the wrong point of the game. Settling for a punt didn't cost the Cowboys this game. Settling for field goals did.

Tim MacMahon covers the Cowboys for ESPNDallas.com.