In Dallas, Parcells works his wonders earlier than usual

After 3 straight 5-11 years, Cowboys stand 3-1, boast NFL's top offense, No. 3 `D'

October 10, 2003|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

Mirage or miracle?

The NFL wants to know but isn't sure. It normally takes Bill Parcells two years to reinvent a losing franchise into a playoff team. That's been his history in each of three previous coaching stops.

But this year, Mr. Fix It seemingly is making the turn in record time. One month into his first season in Dallas, the Cowboys are 3-1 and leading the thorny NFC East.

Parcells is doing it with a quarterback who was benched before midseason in 2002, a coaching staff that averaged a scant 5.7 years of NFL experience coming into the season, and an offense that ranked 30th and 29th the past two years.

Somehow, that translates into the NFL's No. 1 offense and No. 3 defense after four games.

"I'm just hoping I can keep this team improving," Parcells said at a news conference this week. "I'm fairly happy with what's happened so far. We [faced] three teams in the first month that had been to the playoffs last year, and we were able to win two of those games. And that's good.

"Now we've got to try to put some more wins together here to get in position for November."

These aren't the America's Team Cowboys yet, but neither are they the Dave Campo Cowboys, who had back-to-back-to-back 5-11 seasons before Campo was fired last December.

They are the league's early curiosity because of Parcells' aura and their own unmistakable mystique. But it's too early to know if they're for real, or if they will need more fine-tuning from their motivational maestro to make the playoff leap.

Sunday's game at Texas Stadium against the division champion - but suddenly vulnerable - Philadelphia Eagles (2-2) should supply more evidence.

For now, it is safe to say that Parcells has worked more of his quarterback magic on Quincy Carter. Buried on the bench for the final nine games last year, Carter has resurfaced as a potential long-term answer to a long-running problem.

Since the retirement of Troy Aikman after the 2000 season, Dallas has started five different quarterbacks, Carter among them. This season under Parcells, Carter has taken significant strides.

His 8.18 average gain per pass leads the NFC, and his 1,031 yards ranks third. He threw for 277 yards and two touchdowns in a 24-7 wipeout of the Arizona Cardinals last week.

"Give the kid credit," Parcells said. "Give Mo [offensive coordinator Maurice Carthon] and Sean [Payton, quarterbacks coach] the credit, because all I do is yell at him. That's really the truth.

"I try to give constructive criticism, and I do try to positively reinforce that when I see progress. Like last week, I told him I wanted to see him improve his play fakes. Well, he improved his play fakes a great deal this ballgame. It resulted in some big completions."

Parcells went to the Super Bowl with quarterbacks Phil Simms (New York Giants) and Drew Bledsoe (New England Patriots). He also went 9-7 with Neil O'Donnell and the New York Jets in 1997, and to the AFC championship game a year later with Vinny Testaverde.

It didn't take long for Parcells, 62, to put his stamp on the Cowboys. After signing a four-year, $17.1 million contract last January, he put together one of the league's youngest staffs. Three assistants are in their first NFL season and another is in his second. Only three have been in the league longer than 10 years.

Then Parcells began assembling his kind of players. He traded for former Patriots receiver and whipping boy Terry Glenn. He signed linebacker Al Singleton, fullback Richie Anderson, tight end Dan Campbell and offensive tackle Ryan Young in free agency. He got cornerback Terence Newman in the draft's first round.

Along the way, his program changed attitudes.

"I've heard Joe Gibbs say this, so it's not my own thought," Parcells said. "But I do think the way this game is set up, with the numbers of players you have, the whole program can make a difference. I haven't changed the way I've been for many years now, so I'm pretty set in my ways.

"I'm pretty old-fashioned. There are some things I just won't tolerate and there are other things that I'll be looser on than most modern-day coaches. But I don't spend a whole lot of time on something that isn't important any more."

Parcells, who came out of a three-year retirement to coach the Cowboys, didn't mind talking about the playoffs, either.

"If you're asking me my expectations and what I'm hoping for ... I'm not coming back to coach for practice," he said. "I'm trying to get this team to improve and understand what it takes to be competitive.

"Your whole goal is in Week 16 to still be playing for something."

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