In the second half of the Cowboys' grim preseason opener—a 13-0 loss at Arizona—it was time for some gallows humor in the Dallas radio booth. Play-by-play man Brad Sham, who has seen the great and the gruesome in his 25 seasons as a Cowboys broadcaster, said, "I'm reminded of the time when Leo Durocher took over a pretty bad Cubs team in the '60s. He said, 'I'll tell you, this is no seventh-place ball club.' He was right. The Cubs finished 10th."
These Cowboys, complete with a new coaching savior in Bill Parcells, couldn't be that bad, could they?
They could. They have so many holes to fill and are so deficient at key positions, compared with other teams, that Parcells will have to resort to his old standby—special teams—to be competitive.
Dallas has arguably the worst quarterback-running back combination in the league, which doesn't bode well for a team that was last in the NFC in scoring last year—by a whopping 41 points—and has seen its total points decline in each of the past four seasons. The amazing thing is that the Cowboys knew they had Quincy Carter and Chad Hutchinson at quarterback and Troy Hambrick at running back before Parcells took over and did nothing to upgrade either position through free agency or the draft. The receiving trio of Joey Galloway, Antonio Bryant and Terry Glenn has speed, but can the quarterbacks, who completed just 53.5% of their throws last year, get them the ball?
"If we can run it, watch out," Parcells said during training camp. That's a pretty big if, especially with major questions still to be resolved on the offensive line. Wisconsin's Al Johnson was drafted in the second round and was practically handed the center job; on Aug. 8 he underwent season-ending microfracture surgery on his right knee. Seven-time All-Pro guard Larry Allen, who had surgery to remove bone spurs from his left ankle last December, looked like a shell of himself in training camp. Parcells derisively took to calling him Secretariat, mocking his lack of speed and quickness.
For the first time in his 16 seasons as a head coach, Parcells has ceded control of the makeup and direction of his team's defense to an assistant. Mike Zimmer, a highly respected holdover from fired coach Dave Campo's staff, gets the honor, but there's no guarantee Parcells will stick with him. Zimmer's group has ranked 19th, fourth and 18th in total defense in his three seasons at Dallas, producing only 73 sacks in 48 games, and there's no magic pill on the horizon. The two defensive ends ( Greg Ellis, Ebenezer Ekuban) and the two outside linebackers ( Dexter Coakley and Al Singleton, a free-agent acquisition from Tampa Bay) combined for 10� sacks last season. Zimmer is hoping an improved secondary will cover better and longer so the pass rush can be more effective. To that end, second-year free safety Roy Williams, the Cowboys' first-round pick in 2002, seems ready for a breakout season, and this year's top pick, Terence Newman, brings his 4.35-second speed to start at left corner.
Gone is colorful special teams coach Joe Avezzano, who never met a postgame TV or radio show he didn't like but whose outfit was nothing to talk about. Replacing him is one of the most underrated assistants in the NFL, former Bills and 49ers aide Bruce DeHaven. At every stop Parcells has made early improvements in the kicking game, and the Cowboys will be no exception. DeHaven has persuaded Parcells to make one change, switching his punt protection from man to zone. "He just wants to find the best way to do things," DeHaven says. "He doesn't care whose idea it is."
As he has done with the Giants, the Patriots and the Jets previously, Parcells will turn over the bottom of the roster throughout the season. "You're not just competing with the players in this camp," he told the team early on. "You're competing with any player from other teams that I can get my hands on." Cowboys fans be forewarned. This may be a long season, but it won't be a boring one.
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