Even Jerry Jones, an eternal optimist and the Dallas Cowboys' biggest fan, didn't expect America's Team to return so quickly. The Cowboys owner hired Bill Parcells in January 2003 hoping the two-time Super Bowl winning head coach could remake the team into a playoff contender. Parcells did, even sooner than expected.
After three consecutive 5–11 seasons, the Cowboys went 10–6 last year and earned a wild-card berth in their first season with Parcells as head coach. Dallas' surprising turnaround has raised expectations for 2004. "It is the thing that happens to everybody and that is, success breeds confidence and success breeds higher expectations, which the higher your expectations and confidence are, the more you expect it," says Jones.
The Cowboys made four key offseason moves. They signed Chargers defensive end Marcellus Wiley to help a line that had only 24 of the team's 32 sacks; they traded for Buccaneers receiver Keyshawn Johnson, giving quarterback Quincy Carter the possession receiver he has lacked; they traded for former Michigan quarterback Drew Henson, who could be the future of the franchise; and they drafted Notre Dame running back Julius Jones.
Everyone expected Parcells to add a veteran prior to the 2003 season, but instead he stayed with Carter and Chad Hutchinson. Carter won the job in training camp and guided the Cowboys to a 10–6 regular season. Still, he was inconsistent, making too many mistakes at crucial times. He was the only playoff quarterback to throw more interceptions (21) than TD passes (17).
Hutchinson attempted two passes in 2003 and spent the offseason trying to keep his job with a stint in NFL Europe. The Cowboys gambled a third-round pick in 2005 and $3.5 million in guaranteed money that Henson is their quarterback of the future. Henson, who has spent the past three seasons in the Yankees organization, hasn't played football since his junior year at Michigan in 2000 and had only eight career college starts.
The Cowboys still are looking for Emmitt Smith's replacement after playing their first season without the future Hall of Famer in 13 years. The Cowboys ranked only 12th in rushing and were without a 1,000-yard rusher, which is out of character for a Parcells-coached team. Troy Hambrick had campaigned for the job while Smith was going after the NFL's all-time rushing record in 2002. Hambrick rushed for a respectable 972 yards, averaging 3.5 yards, but looking to upgrade, the Cowboys drafted Jones in the second round and released Hambrick. Jones and fullback Richie Anderson are expected to share the load.
Johnson and Parcells were a match made in Dallas. Johnson, deactivated by the Bucs for the final six games of the 2003 season, had his best years from 1997-99 when he played for Parcells with the Jets. He cost the Cowboys only Joey Galloway, who was going to be released anyway after four disappointing seasons in Dallas.
Johnson has the size and toughness that Galloway lacked; 202 of his last 298 receptions went for first downs.
Terry Glenn, another former first-round draft pick who has been reunited with Parcells, was worth the sixth-round choice the Cowboys traded to Green Bay to acquire him. He led the team's wideouts with 52 receptions for 754 yards and five touchdowns.
Antonio Bryant had a disappointing sophomore season, failing to endear himself to Parcells while catching 39 passes.
The Cowboys overhauled their tight ends before last season and were pleased with the results. Rookie Jason Witten caught 35 passes for 347 yards and a score, and ex-Giant Dan Campbell sealed his reputation as one of the best blocking tight ends in the league.
Critics scoffed when Dallas gave left tackle Flozell Adams a $10 million signing bonus before last season, but Adams proved Parcells right. Adams made his first Pro Bowl, allowing only one regular-season sack. The 6-foot-7, 357-pound Adams has been a steady and durable player for the Cowboys since 1998; his 85 consecutive regular-season starts are the longest current streak on the team.
Larry Allen made his eighth Pro Bowl on reputation alone. He stayed in Parcells' doghouse most of the season, and the Cowboys were looking to trade him during the offseason.
Right guard Andre Gurode didn't win Parcells' approval either, getting benched for the division-deciding game against the Eagles on Dec. 7. But at least he didn't suffer the same fate as right tackle Ryan Young, an offseason cut. The center position, which was shared by Matt Lehr and Gennaro DiNapoli last season, is expected to be upgraded by the return of Al Johnson, a 2003 second-round pick who missed the entire season with an injury. Kurt Vollers will battle rookie Jacob Rogers at right tackle.
The Cowboys haven't had a player with double-digit sacks since 1996. They are hoping Wiley, a defensive end, changes that. He went to the Pro Bowl three years ago with the Chargers, when he recorded 13 sacks in 14 games, but he has had only nine sacks in the last two seasons combined. Wiley will be an upgrade over Ebenezer Ekuban, who had only 12 1/2 sacks in his five seasons in Dallas.
Defensive tackle La'Roi Glover, signed from New Orleans as a free agent before the 2002 season, has two Pro Bowl berths in his two seasons in Dallas. He has 11 1/2 sacks the past two seasons, giving him 61 1/2 since the start of the 1997 season.
Left end Greg Ellis, the eighth pick in 1998, has been steady if not dominant. He had a team-high eight sacks last season.
Parcells likes big linebackers, but he grew to love Dat Nguyen (5-11, 243) and Dexter Coakley (5-10, 236). Nguyen (140 tackles) and Coakley (110) were the leading tacklers on the league's No. 1 defense and were big reasons the Cowboys allowed only 253.5 yards per game. It was Nguyen's best season, and it should have earned him Pro Bowl honors.
Al Singleton, who, at 6-2, 228, better fits Parcells' mold, made 57 tackles, a sack, two interceptions and seven QB pressures in his first season in Dallas.
Roy Williams, the eighth pick in the 2002 draft, was a defensive player of the year candidate and a Pro Bowler after finishing fourth on the team with 86 tackles. The Cowboys took their cues from his hard-hitting style as he began to replace Darren Woodson as the team's defensive leader. Woodson, elected co-captain by his teammates, finished third on the team with 99 tackles and was the leader in passes defensed with 15. He has a franchise-best 1,350 tackles in his career. Woodson is expected to miss all of training camp and maybe the first few games of the season with a back injury.
Terence Newman looked like the second coming of Deion Sanders in his rookie season. Newman, the fifth overall pick in the 2003 draft, had a team-leading four interceptions, including three in a game against the Redskins on Dec. 14. The Cowboys expect a career of Pro Bowls and All-Pro accolades from Newman.
The Cowboys, who lost cornerback Mario Edwards to the Bucs, passed on the big-name, free-agent cornerbacks and didn't draft a corner until the fourth round.
Parcells put a huge emphasis on special teams, and it paid off, most notably in the 23–21 victory against the Eagles. The Cowboys, who had practiced for a game-opening onside kick by the Eagles, had Randal Williams pick up the onside kick on the bounce and run 37 yards for a touchdown, the fastest score in NFL history.
Toby Gowin, hampered by a leg injury, averaged only 39 gross yards per punt and netted only 34.9 yards. For a team that played a field-position game, Gowin wasn't nearly good enough and was released. Kicker Billy Cundiff, inconsistent as a rookie in 2002, was dependable.
The Cowboys seemingly have improved the league's No. 1-rated defense by signing Wiley, but the offense is the key to improvement. For the team to do better, Carter will have to be better. The presence of an over-the-middle threat in Johnson will help, as would an improved running game with Jones. But until the coaching staff has enough confidence in Carter to put the ball in his hands when the game is on the line, Dallas isn't likely to become a Super Bowl contender.