After three straight 5-11 seasons, the Cowboys hired Bill Parcells, and he doubled their victories in his first year in town. As the summer approaches, he has more talent than he had a year ago, but whether it produces more wins remains uncertain because their still rebuilding offense has to blossom.
Defensively, Dallas is not built in the mold of past Parcells teams. It lacks size in the front line and at linebacker yet was first in the league in total defense and rushing defense and was the only unit to hold opposing quarterbacks to below a 50 percent completion average. This unit should be improved by the addition of defensive end Marcellus Wiley, who will be Parcells’ summer pet project.
Wiley once appeared to be the league’s next great pass rusher, but his play fell off considerably once he left Buffalo for San Diego. It has been three years since he made the Pro Bowl and he since has had too many injuries and too few sacks (nine in the past two seasons), yet Parcells believes he can light a fire under him. If he’s right, he could have added a premier edge rusher to join pocket collapsing defensive tackle La’Roi Glover (11 1/2 sacks the past two seasons) and defensive end Greg Ellis (eight sacks). If the old Wiley emerges, Dallas could have an elite front four and flexibility to play some 3-4 as well.
The big question mark on defense is whether Pete Hunter can replace departed Mario Edwards at cornerback. Terence Newman showed he could become an elite cover corner and safety Roy Williams is the Mike Tyson of his position -- a knockout artist -- but the secondary will suffer if Hunter can’t hold his own, because Dallas often asks its corners to play man-to-man to free the safeties in run support.
Offensively, the big issues are at quarterback and running back. Quincy Carter is the incumbent and Parcells likes his work ethic and his elusiveness, but he doesn’t like those 21 interceptions he threw. Carter was the only playoff quarterback with more interceptions than touchdown passes (17), so the Cowboys brought in veteran Vinny Testaverde, who played for Parcells with the Jets, and young Drew Henson to fight Carter for the job. Carter has more weapons with the arrival of wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson to team with Terry Glenn, but he has to show he can make the best use of them.
Dallas will also use a double-tight end set more, giving more blocking power when it wants to control the ball on the ground. Parcells’ first aim is to control the clock, protect his defense and find ways to win late, which means whoever the quarterback is must limit his errors and manage the game. Whoever does the best job of that will start in the fall. Don’t bet against the old hand, Testaverde, if he has anything left.
Whoever it is will most often be handing off to second-round draft choice Julius Jones of Notre Dame. Dallas averaged 124.9 yards a game rushing, which was right in the middle of the NFC pack, but leading rusher Troy Hambrick averaged only 3.5 yards a carry, so he’s gone. Jones had the second-fastest 40 time among backs in the draft and Parcells believes that combination of speed and quickness will make him effective running inside or out. He had better be, because other than 12-year vet Richie Anderson, a pass-catching fullback, there’s no other answer on the roster to the question of how Dallas is going to control the clock this season, and controlling the clock is imperative for this team.
A year ago, Dallas was 9-4 when it had the edge in time of possession. One way to continue doing that is a quarterback who won’t turn the ball over and a back who can convert on third down so that’s what Bill Parcells is seeking.
Quincy Carter. With the signing of 40-year-old veteran Vinny Testaverde and young Drew Henson, Carter is sandwiched between the past and the future. How he reacts to the pressure of having a proven veteran familiar with Parcells’ offense shadowing him for playing time and a young, live arm and athletic leader dogging his heels for his own chance will decide Carter’s future. Although he has many holes in his game, Carter led the Cowboys to a 10-6 season and can control his own destiny simply by playing well. If he falters or withers from the heat, he’ll be on the sidelines in a hurry because Parcells wants to win and he doesn’t care what quarterback is doing the winning.
The spring blowup between wide receiver Antonio Bryant and Parcells could end up hurting both Bryant and the Cowboys. Dallas needs his speed and athleticism to give the offense a dangerous third receiver to team with Terry Glenn and Keyshawn Johnson. But Bryant went backward last year after a strong rookie season and is feuding with Parcells over playing time. He can’t win that battle, but if young Randal Williams shows enough, Bryant could lose his job.
The Cowboys have more talent than a year ago, but their record may not reflect it. It will be difficult to top 10 wins, and maybe even to approach it, unless everything goes right. Either way, Parcells has them set up for a big draft next spring and a run for the playoffs in 2005.