Starting From Scratch By MICKEY SPAGNOLA DallasCowboys.com Columnist July 30, 2004, 5:35 p.m. (PDT) OXNARD, Calif. - Time to start . . . over. That's right, over. From scratch, right here in sunny southern California, where the Dallas Cowboys have assembled for the first time in 26 years to stage an entire training camp in a climate someone up high must have control of the thermostat. Do not fool yourself for one minute. The Cowboys do not start this training camp a 10-6 ball club. Do not fool yourself. The Cowboys do not start this training camp a puffy-chested playoff team. Do not fool yourself. There are no guarantees in this National Football League of a natural progression - 10-6 in 2003 does not mean 12-4 in 2004. A first-round playoff appearance in 2003 does not automatically parlay into a NFC title-game reservation in 2004. Now sure, sure, you'd love to believe the Cowboys are on the right path toward totally resurrecting from those four consecutive non-winning seasons. But don't take winning 10 games in a season for granted. My favorite example of not taking a meteoric rise for granted is the Chicago Bears, who went from 5-11 in 2000 (Ring a bell?) to 13-3 in 2001 to 4-12 in 2002. Beware the swale following the killer wave. This ain't just me, either, as the Cowboys passed through their conditioning test here on Friday and were prepared to open training camp practice at 9 a.m. (PDT) Saturday just this side of the Pacific Ocean. This is the head guy, too, Bill Parcells , and goodness he's been doing this a lot longer than most of us have even been watching - even me, if you can believe that. "You never, ever in this game pick up where you left off," Parcells said, probably the first Cowboys coach forced to wear long sleeves as a training camp site since they were last here for two weeks in 2001. "You have to go back and start where you started, and if not, you're making a terrible mistake." He means from 0-0. He means from being just one of 32 teams trying to earn one of 12 playoff berths. They don't let you buy insurance in this league. There are no guarantees. The reason Parcells proceeds this summer with such caution has more to do with just being a self-admitted glass-is-half-empty kind of guy. He knows this team has legitimate questions marks sprinkled throughout the roster. When asked if his talent was better this year, Parcells arched his eyebrow, saying, "I don't know. You never know if things you put on paper . . . ." Parcells is not being coy. There are several aspects on paper that would seem to be encouraging, but as he will repeatedly tell you, he's got to see it first to be sure. Start at quarterback. The Cowboys would seem to be better if mere logic prevails; that Quincy Carter improves with experience, Vinny Testaverde gives them a trusted backup and Drew Henson is being groomed for the future. But . . . . "I'm not confident at all, because I don't know," was Parcells' response when asked if he was confident Carter would improve this year. Same with Testaverde. Who knows what to expect out of the 40-year-old quarterback? And he's never even coached Henson in pads. Running back? More of the same, although Parcells seems to think there is something to this Julius Jones. You can just tell. As for Eddie George, again, he worries about how much tread is on those tires, but takes solace in knowing George is a warrior. Same cautious approach with Larry Allen. Parcells knows the 11th-year veteran made weight. He knows Allen has been running twice a day for the past month or so. Fine, but what's he got left in his tank? More of the same with Keyshawn Johnson. He thinks he knows the player. But does he really know the player who did not play the final six games of last season after falling out of favor with the head coach? Now Parcells knows he'll get whatever Johnson has left, but he seems anxious to see just exactly what is left. Which way does Antonio Bryant go? Which was does Andre Gurode go? Which way goes Al Johnson go? Is he right about Pete Hunter's ability to play right corner at least as well as Mario Edwards? Can Mat McBriar punt as well when the lights come on as he has throughout the off-season? Does he have a return guy? Which Marcellus Wiley do the Cowboys have, the one the Chargers saw fit to cut and eat millions against the cap, or the one who racked up 29½ sacks during a three-year period (1999-2001)? Can Darren Woodson successfully return from back surgery, and if he can't, can Tony Dixon do the deal? Does he even have a right offensive tackle? Hey, I'm not making this stuff up. It's real, and Parcells, better than most, knows it's real. On top of that, he knows he can't count on winning an overtime game by kicking a 52-yard, game-tying field goal while waiting for a kickoff trailing by three with 11 seconds remaining in regulation. He knows you don't win many games by two points thanks to returning an onside kick 37 yards for a touchdown. And he darn well knows you don't win many games 10-6 these days, especially when he recalls Antoine Winfield breaking on a Carter pass he could have taken to the house for the winning touchdown had he not dropped the sucker. Let's put it this way: The Cowboys had more lose-able games they won last year than they had winnable games they lost. Over time, that stuff evens out. Ask the Bears. That, and all these pesky questions are why it is not wise to count your Cowboys chickens before they hatch. Natural progression in the NFL is not an inalienable right. Man, it's hard to win 10 games, and as those Dallas Cowboys of 1993 discovered the opening two weeks of the season, not even Super Bowl champs get grandfathered right back into the playoffs. You have to earn it. You have to start right from scratch. The Cowboys are 0-0 today, just like the Chargers and Giants and Cardinals. Here is Parcells' bottom line on releasing Chad Hutchinson: "I said if I didn't see it in Europe, then I didn't expect to see it here, and I didn't see it in Europe." Can you believe this, and probably will after what I had to say about Willie Blade the other day? Last year's 15-game starter got cut Friday by the Giants, who claimed him on waivers after the Cowboys released him earlier this week. Why? Couldn't pass their conditioning run. In fact, word was he could barely run. Unbelievable. Former head coach Chuck Fairbanks, Parcells' extra set of eyes for most of training camp last year, is back again, serving as a talent evaluator and trusted sounding board for the Cowboys' head coach. The Cowboys are planning to hold a few nights practices out here, and will do so at Oxnard High School.