Cowboys lower expectations with Mile High loss

Posted by ESPN.com's Matt Mosley

DENVER -- If you looked at the schedule in April and chalked up Sunday as a win for the Cowboys, at least you have company. But this team took a 17-10 loss to the Broncos in stride, perhaps because no one in charge expected anything more.

Maybe it's time we forget about the immense potential that the '07 team displayed and realize that the current Cowboys were fortunate to even stay on the field with the 4-0 Broncos. That's right, Josh McDaniels has put his team in the playoff conversation the old-fashioned way: by alienating and then trading his bonus-baby quarterback for a bus-driver with a prominent neckbeard.

Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, a man who naively believed that his players would perform to the level of a $1.2 billion stadium, went completely soft after the game. To listen to him, you'd think the Cowboys ran into John Elway and the Orange Crush circa 1984.

"There's a reason they're 4-0," Jones kept repeating as he sucked on an orange. "The Broncos are better than what anybody would have thought."

Jones didn't seem one bit surprised the Cowboys would surrender a fourth-quarter lead and lose to a team from the AFC West. Judging by his reaction, the Cowboys would've uncorked champagne at Invesco Field had they been able to escape with a win. As it stands, the Cowboys are a 2-2 team in search of an identity.

In their previous two games, the Cowboys appeared to have one of the most dominant running games in the league. And on Sunday, they fed off the energy of Marion Barber, who was returning from a left quad injury. He delivered blows to Broncos defenders in the first half and then did forward rolls in celebration. Barber had 10 carries for 39 yards and a touchdown in the first half, helping the Cowboys take a 10-7 lead and wearing down the Broncos' front seven.

Then in one half, the Cowboys' offense pretended it was December (it was brisk) and pretty much fell all over itself. After touching the ball 12 times in the first half, Barber only had one carry the rest of the way. Cowboys offensive coordinator Jason Garrett indicated that Barber's injury was a concern, but the head coach and owner acted as if that was news to them.

The Cowboys only ran the ball seven times in the second half, with limited success. Through 14 quarters, Garrett had been remarkably balanced with his play calling, then for no apparent reason he abandoned the running game. It wasn't as if the Broncos were putting eight players in the box to stop the run. They brought their fair share of blitzes, but they also stayed back in coverage for most of the game in an effort to take away the deep ball.

The Broncos sacked Romo five times, but at least three of those were coverage sacks. He was 14-of-18 for 134 yards in the first half because he was simply dumping off the ball to his running backs. He made a good throw to Roy Williams on the sideline to set up the Cowboys' only touchdown, but that was the longest throw he made.

For no apparent reason, Garrett basically put the game in Romo's hands in the second half. And despite a brilliant throw to Sam Hurd for a 53-yard gain on fourth-and-3 with 1:16 left, it should've never come to that. The Cowboys had the ball at the Broncos' 17-yard line early in the second half when Romo threw a pass to the sideline that was picked off by Champ Bailey. Several people in the locker room told me that Miles Austin turned the wrong direction on the route and that it wasn't Romo's fault, but it was still a huge play.

Romo was 11-of-24 in the second half and he kept hanging his receivers out to dry. Just ask Roy Williams, who took what he called the hardest hit of his life from Broncos linebacker D.J. Williams. He returned to make a clutch catch on the Cowboys' final drive, but he was on the sideline when Romo fired two passes into the end zone from the 2-yard line. Williams would've been a nice option on a fade route. Instead, Romo threw two passes to Hurd, who was blanketed by Bailey.

The Cowboys are obviously more explosive with Felix Jones (left knee) in the lineup, but I'm not convinced Garrett would've had him in the game. We somehow deluded ourselves into thinking that the Cowboys have a lot of weapons on offense. They appear to have three talented running backs and an excellent pair of tight ends. But there's no one at wide receiver who poses a consistent threat. Nothing against Hurd, but is he really the best option on consecutive plays from the 2-yard line?

The Cowboys' defense performed admirably for most of the afternoon, but it cratered at the worst possible moment. And if you're pinning your playoff hopes on the defense holding the opponent to seven points each week, you're dreaming. After putting 31 points on the board against the Giants, the Cowboys' offense has managed a combined 24 points against the Panthers and Broncos. It was a pitiful game plan in the second half -- and the execution wasn't any better.

"We had limited opportunities [in the second half]," Garrett told me after the game. "But you have to take advantage of those opportunities."

It did look like Garrett was ready to commit to the running game early in the fourth quarter, but a holding penalty on Martellus Bennett wiped out a 17-yard run by Choice. The Cowboys would've had the ball first-and-10 at the Broncos' 44. Instead, they were forced to punt and the Broncos tied the score on their next possession.

As he loaded up on Vitamin C, Jones kept repeating the Broncos' record as if that should explain everything. I guess we should've known that the Broncos' wins over the Bengals, Browns and Raiders had placed them among the NFL's elite. Jones even attempted to attribute the loss to the Cowboys' change in philosophy.

"That's part of the plan," he said. "There's more running and less depending on the pass."

And how's that working out for you, Jerry?