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Quincy carter locked himself inside his suburban Dallas home on a Tuesday morning last October and refused to answer the phone. He prayed often and read Scripture, but he couldn't keep his mind off the events of the previous two days: his four interceptions in an overtime loss to the Arizona Cardinals, the unsettling silence on the team charter afterward and the miserable meetings on Monday with Cowboys coach Dave Campo and owner Jerry Jones, who told him that he had lost his job as starting quarterback.� Carter carries a devotional that he reads daily, and he had referred to it just before getting the bad news. It reads, in part, "You have to accept change." The demotion was still tough to swallow. Carter had never been benched before, and he couldn't turn to coaches and teammates because, as his performance had deteriorated, he had withdrawn to the point of alienating them. Even Jones, who was once his most ardent supporter, had lost faith in him. That's when Carter made the decision that would save his career. "I remember telling myself one thing that day," Carter says. "It's time to grow up and be a man."
On Sunday, 362 days after making that pronouncement and two months after winning his job back in training camp, the 26-year-old Carter played very much like the Man in a 38-7 win over the Lions in Detroit. He looked like a leader when he called a timeout early in the first quarter and then blasted his teammates for not playing with passion. He looked like a Pro Bowl quarterback when he completed 12 of his first 13 pass attempts, including three to wideout Terry Glenn for touchdowns. The toughest tests of the season are yet to come—for starters, the Cowboys play the Super Bowl-champion Bucs in Tampa this Sunday—but as the halfway point of the season approaches, Carter has been arguably the biggest surprise in the NFL.
Dallas has won five straight games and sits atop the NFC East with a 5-1 record. Carter has ignited an offense that last season ranked 31st in the league in passing and 30th overall; this year the Cowboys are 10th in passing and fourth overall. Carter, a 54.2% passer in his first two seasons combined, has completed 58.5% of his attempts while thriving on play-action passes to his fleet-footed wideouts. Joey Galloway and Antonio Bryant each average more than 20 yards per reception, and Glenn is averaging 14.5 yards a catch. "You can tell Quincy is more confident," says Lions cornerback Dre' Bly, who faced Carter last season as a member of the St. Louis Rams. "He has a lot of talent plus those three speedsters to throw to."
"I've always had a lot of ability, but there's always been a missing piece to my game," says Carter, who completed 18 of 25 passes for 190 yards against Detroit before leaving early in the fourth quarter. "In college I wanted to be an elite quarterback, but I never got there. And after not having the kind of success I wanted at this level, I decided to go all out in everything I did."
Coming out of Georgia, Carter had great size and mobility along with tremendous arm strength. But in his first two years as a pro, the 6'2" 213-pounder forced throws into coverage, struggled with his accuracy and too often made poor decisions. This year, with the Cowboys using more three-wideout sets to open up the field, Carter has been picking apart defenses.
He has been equally impressive with his work ethic. Instead of heading home as soon as practice ends—as had been his habit-Carter regularly hangs back and studies game tape after the coaches have left, even on Sunday nights following home games. "I'm not just watching the tape anymore, either," he says. "I'm looking for down-and-distance, preferred coverages, what personnel teams like on the field in certain situations. I'm seeing all those things now."
Galloway benefited from Carter's extra preparation in a 23-21 win over the Philadelphia Eagles on Oct. 12. Down by one point and facing third-and-seven late in the game, Carter hit Galloway on a quick slant, even though Galloway wasn't the primary option on the play. Carter had recognized a flaw in the coverage and exploited it for a 19-yard gain. "I've seen Quincy grow every day," Glenn says. "Every Monday and Tuesday when we're not doing anything [as a team], he's doing things on his own to make sure he's ready."
Nothing could have prepared Carter for what awaited him in Dallas in 2001. Troy Aikman had retired that April, and Jones went searching for a successor in the draft. The owner was ridiculed after he traded up and picked Carter in the second round (No. 53 overall), because many scouts had projected him to be a mid-round choice at best. With a plan not to rush Carter into the lineup, the Cowboys signed journeyman Tony Banks. Then late in training camp they cut the disappointing Banks and handed the job to the rookie. Carter went 3-5 as a starter, but he missed eight games with injuries to his passing thumb and left hamstring.
Jones had seen enough, however, so in early 2002 he signed Chad Hutchinson, a former Stanford quarterback who had failed as a St. Louis Cardinals pitching prospect. Because Jones had to outbid other teams, he gave Hutchinson, who hadn't played football since 1997, a larger signing bonus ($3.1 million) than he had given Carter ($1.5 million). That made Carter wonder about his job security. Those concerns intensified when Bruce Coslet, the offensive coordinator at the time, evenly split practice reps between the two passers in camp and started Hutchinson in a preseason game.
Carter went into a funk. He missed a couple of offensive meetings. He blamed the line for the offense's poor showing in a shocking season-opening loss to the expansion Houston Texans, and his relationship with Coslet soured to the point that they weren't speaking. Then Carter stopped interacting with many of his teammates, who before the season had elected him an offensive captain. "That was the one thing he shouldn't have done," says 12th-year strong safety Darren Woodson. "When he separated himself from us, that was when he really went downhill. He went into a shell and didn't come out."