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THE BILL PARCELLS era has been strangely bipolar. The Cowboys boasted the NFL's second-ranked defense in points allowed in 2003, then slipped to 28th in the league last year. In an effort to summon another dramatic defensive mood swing--and to avoid the first back-to-back losing seasons of his career--the grizzled coach has switched from the 4--3 scheme back to the 3--4 he used to win two Super Bowls.
If the change puts the D back in Big D, then Parcells is a genius again; if it blows up--well, get ready for some Texas-sized tantrums. "Bill doesn't know anything about rebuilding, so the way we look at it is we have to win now," Pro Bowl safety Roy Williams says. "When we win, Bill's happy. When we lose, he's upset, and you don't want to be around him. He'll have that look in his eyes like he wants to eat you alive."
The hunger was missing from a unit that last year also lost its confidence following a back injury that ended the career of strong safety Darren Woodson before the season started. The Cowboys gave up 30 or more points five times--twice allowing opponents to score in the 40s. "We did all the things a good defense doesn't do," says defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer. "We gave up big plays, didn't get off the field on third down and didn't play well in the red zone. I didn't coach very well, either."
Now Zimmer, 49, is coaching a scheme with which he was largely unfamiliar--having "been a 4--3 guy basically my whole life," he says--and several players he has only just met. The draft netted four defenders who could contribute immediately: ends Marcus Spears and Chris Canty and linebackers Demarcus Ware and Kevin Burnett. Through free agency the team also acquired a pair of veteran starters, nosetackle Jason Ferguson (Jets) and cornerback Anthony Henry ( Browns).
Ware, a 6'4" 251-pounder from Troy, is the newcomer most likely to turn heads once the season starts. A defensive end in college, he'll play the featured rush linebacker position that Hall of Famer Lawrence Taylor made famous for Parcells's Giants in the 1980s. As is Parcells's custom, he also needled the 11th pick in the draft throughout camp, punctuating his instructions with comments like, "What, you didn't do this at Troy?" and repeatedly telling reporters that Ware, also new to the 3--4, looked lost in practice.
Then on Aug. 22, in the first half of an 18--10 preseason victory over the Seahawks, Ware found himself. He forced two fumbles (recovering one), intercepted a pass and got a sack. "The 3--4 is hard for the offense to read," Ware says. "You can disguise coverages and blitz a little more, and there are times when you can be macho and blow a guy up, which I love."
Such enthusiasm does not extend throughout the front seven. Veteran end Greg Ellis, a 6'6" 271-pounder who is better suited to the 4--3, says the switch is "scary for me" because of his unfamiliarity with it. Another relatively undersized veteran, five-time Pro Bowl tackle La'Roi Glover (6'2", 282), welcomes the chance to display his versatility, but the prospect of two-gapping--holding his ground between a tackle and guard on obvious running downs--isn't nearly as enticing. Says Glover, "I talked to Howie Long and Bruce Smith, and they said, 'Yeah, it's going to suck because you've got to two-gap a guy. But if you're successful, it's going to create crazy matchups and free you up to get to the passer on third down.'"
Among the defensive ends who could benefit in those situations are Spears, a first-rounder out of LSU who missed much of the preseason with knee and ankle injuries, and Canty, a 6'7", 280-pound fourth-round pickup out of Virginia who slipped in the draft after suffering a detached retina as a bystander in a bar fight. (Canty was cleared to play in early August.)
Can all those young Cowboys lift the defense back into the league's upper echelon? Williams is convinced the kids will do all right. "Those young guys are freaks," he says. "They are big, physical and fast; they are phenomenal. Every time I talk about this defense, I have a smile on my face. I think we'll have an opportunity to be even better than we were in 2003." --M.S.