Cowboys' defense covers for offense

IRVING, Texas -- Can we stop making Rob Ryan the scapegoat for the Dallas Cowboys' dud of a 2011 season?

Can we start holding Jason Garrett accountable for an offense that has regressed from average to awful?

Yeah, Ryan's defense fell far short of his over-the-top preseason predictions a year ago, but it's ridiculous to act as if the Cowboys missed the playoffs solely because they allowed too many points. Breaking news: Garrett's offense was just as mediocre.

The Cowboys ranked 15th in the NFL in points scored and 16th in points allowed. They were about as average as could be on both sides of the ball, which was reflected in their 8-8 record. Yet the coordinator whose defense improved from dreadful to decent got a bigger share of the blame than the head coach who calls offensive plays.

Fast forward four games into this season. Ryan's defense has held up its end of the bargain despite Pro Bowl nose tackle Jay Ratliff not playing a down yet and four other starters missing at least one game. Garrett's offense has been terrible with the exception of the Week 1 win.

How bad has Garrett's offense been? Please get the women and children out of the room before reading the following stats, which might cause Cowboys fans to unleash a stream of cuss words that could make a Ryan blush:

* The Cowboys are tied with the Jacksonville Jaguars for last in the NFL in points scored (65) and rank ahead of only two teams in scoring average (16.3 points per game). The Cowboys haven't averaged fewer points since 2002, when Chad Hutchinson and Quincy Carter split time at quarterback. Blaine Gabbert, Hutchinson and Carter ain't the kind of company Tony Romo ought to be keeping.

* Dallas ranks 29th in the NFL in rushing offense with only 67.8 yards per game even though DeMarco Murray is a talented tailback. The Cowboys had 23 negative runs, which is tied for the sixth most in the league. And that's a problem that is getting progressively worse, with more than half of those negative runs coming in the last two games.

* The Cowboys have more turnovers (11) -- 10 by Romo -- than touchdowns (seven). They had as many turnovers as scoring possessions until Kyle Orton's garbage-time touchdown drive against the Bears. Their dozen scoring drives are the fewest in the league. Only six teams, all of which have yet to have their bye, have committed more turnovers than the Cowboys.

* The Cowboys have been plagued by pre-snap penalties. They have a league-high-tying 12 false starts, with tackles Tyron Smith (five) and Doug Free (four) leading the league in those whistles.

* Only two teams have dropped more passes than Dallas' dozen. Tight end Jason Witten (five) and receiver Dez Bryant (four) top the league in that category.

Ryan's defense has saved Garrett from really feeling the harsh glare of the spotlight. Imagine if the Dallas defense didn't come up with a dominant effort that served as Lysol for the offense's stinker in an ugly win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

You can have a glass-half-full outlook with a 2-2 record. At 1-3, you'd just need a stronger drink.

Dumb and sloppy is no way to go through an NFL season. The good news: The Princeton-educated Garrett is smart enough to realize his offense has a whole bunch of problems.

"I think turnovers is the big thing," Garrett said. "We've talked before about the pre-snap penalties and some of the minus plays. Certainly getting the running game going will all help. In a lot of ways, those things work together. So taking care of the ball, eliminating the minus plays, whether they happen after the snap or before the snap, and simply running the ball better, I think it's going to help our offense and really help our football team."

Recognizing that there are problems is swell, but it doesn't mean that solutions have been discovered.

It's not like Garrett is making any major changes. He's going to keep calling plays, just like Jerry Jones wants his head coaches to do despite winning three Super Bowls with so-called walk-around coaches.

Garrett is sticking with right guard Mackenzy Bernadeau, even though we've seen why the Carolina Panthers stripped him of his starting job before the Cowboys gave him a four-year, $11 million deal in free agency. The Cowboys have no reasonable options to replace Free, even though he's been just as bad as Bernadeau.

Hey, maybe center Phil Costa can come to the rescue! Oh, wait, he was the weakest link on last year's offensive line. And his replacement, Ryan Cook, has been the Cowboys' most efficient offensive lineman so far this season.

If not for Cook's strained hamstring, there shouldn't even be talk of Costa returning as a starter after missing all but three snaps this season with a bad back.

It's certainly not like the Cowboys can count on Costa to ride in on a white horse. A dirty mule, maybe.

It's hard to believe that an offense with so much skill talent can continue to be this bad. But it's foolish to believe that an offense with such a flawed line and rough track record has a bright future.

How often can Ryan's defense bail out his boss? Probably not often enough to end the Cowboys' playoff drought.