TAMPA — The Bucs had a chance to end a seven-game slide or at least show the nation — and America's Team — why coach Raheem Morris should return for another season.
But against the Cowboys on Saturday night, the Bucs offense kept going three-and-out.
Morris might be asked to do the same.
With only three games left to convince the Glazer family, which owns the Bucs, he's worth bringing back for a fourth season, Morris watched Tony Romo throw three touchdowns and run for one during the first half in a 31-15 loss.
The eighth straight defeat for the Bucs (4-10) matched their longest in-season losing streak in 24 years.
Meanwhile, Romo continued to pad his passing stats against a defense that was stranded on the field for nearly as long as the referees. His three scoring passes to as many different receivers increased his career numbers in three games against Tampa Bay to 11 touchdowns and no interceptions.
The Bucs offense managed one first down during the first half and went three-and-out on its four other possessions until a kneel-down to end it.
In fact, it was the Bucs defense that found the end zone first.
Trailing 28-0, defensive end Adrian Clayborn sacked Romo on third down and stripped him of the ball. Linebacker Dekoda Watson recovered and returned it 4 yards 1:21 into the third quarter. Clayborn, the first-round pick from Iowa, leads the Bucs in sacks with 7½.
By the time Dan Bailey padded the Cowboys' lead to 31-7 with his 30-yard field goal with 6:38 remaining in the third quarter, the Bucs defense had been on the field for 51 plays to 15 by its offense.
Clayborn's sack seemed to light a spark in the Bucs offense. Spreading the field with three and four receivers, Freeman drove the Bucs 75 yards for a touchdown, connecting with Dezmon Briscoe on a 13-yard score with 23 seconds left in the third quarter. Freeman then hit tight end Kellen Winslow in the back of the end zone for a two-point conversion.
Prior to the game, general manager Mark Dominik made it clear he expected more from the Bucs this season.
"It's not a moral victory we're after," he said, "but we need to become that kind of football team that can play any football team any week and win."
The Bucs entered tied with the Eagles for the most turnovers in the league at 31, and it did not take them long to add to it.
Freeman, who had only nine turnovers last season, ran 25 yards for a first down on the third play of the game. But when he escaped the pocket on the next play for a 7-yard run, he was stripped by linebacker Anthony Spencer. The fumble was recovered by linebacker Bradie James at the Dallas 44.
The Cowboys needed only seven plays to get into the end zone, Romo rolling right and zipping an 8-yard pass to Miles Austin on third and goal with safety Sean Jones draped over him.
Romo's second touchdown pass came without much sweat, an 8-yarder to Dez Bryant. He was so open in the back of the end zone, he had time to bobble the ball and catch it twice.
The play capped a 68-yard drive over 10 plays and gave the Cowboys a 14-0 lead just before the first quarter ended.
Romo found a third receiver for his third touchdown, a 9-yarder as he rolled right, directed traffic and found Laurent Robinson.
How wretched was the Bucs offense in the first half?
It went three-and-out four consecutive times after Freeman's fumble.
The Cowboys had a 19-1 advantage in first downs and 279-55 advantage in yards.
Freeman finished the first half 2-of-4 for 14 yards, and his 31 rushing yards led the team, about all of it coming on one play.
The offensive ineptitude came in every phase of the game. Facing third and 1 on their second possession, running back LeGarrette Blount was hit in the backfield by end Marcus Spears, who beat tackle Jeremy Trueblood.
On the next possession, facing third and 2, the Bucs receivers failed to get open, and Freeman was forced to throw the ball away. The next try ended when Freeman was sacked on consecutive plays, first by linebacker DeMarcus Ware then on a corner blitz by Orlando Scandrick. In each case, the pressure came from the right side, and Trueblood was unable to lay more than a hand on either.
When the Bucs went three-and-out on their final possession of the half, with Freeman's attempt to set up a screen pass, they left 2:52 on the clock, too much time.
Romo, who finished the half 18-of-22 for 189 yards, completed six passes on the drive. But his third-and-goal throw to Kevin Ogletree came up a yard short, so Romo simply hurried to the line of scrimmage and called his own number, sneaking across the goal line to make it 28-0.