By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
OXNARD, CALIFORNIA--Off to the left, not more than a few feet away, a bird is perched high in a tree. It's obscured by the foliage, but everyone at Bill Parcells' daily news conference knows it's there. The bird is determined to show up the Cowboys head coach with its loud, incessant squawking.
At first, everyone pressed on--Parcells and the gathered media alike. No loud-ass bird was going to keep us from asking questions or Parcells from answering them. It was the classic literary struggle of man against beast, except that the bird must have been well-read, because it knew who usually wins those battles, so it kept right on squawking until no one--no one--could deny its presence.
Finally, Parcells stops what he's saying and looks up at the tree. The corners of his mouth turn up slightly in a wry, can-you-believe-this-shit smirk.
"In the immortal words of Bo Diddley," Parcells says, "the vultures don't gather if there ain't nothin' dead."
It is the last week of training camp here in California, and it's hard to figure where the laughs end and the truth begins. A few days ago, the Cowboys got smoked in Houston by the not-so-spectacular Texans--the same Texans who were 5-11 last year. Perhaps Houston will be the surprise of the league this season and play its way to glory. In the interim, though, the general consensus among fans and reporters is that the Pokes looked awfully bad. Although it was the first preseason game, you would have liked to have seen some more encouraging signs before the Cowboys break camp, stop in Oakland for another warm-up and then head home to Valley Ranch to prepare for the season's grind. (The next game, against the Oakland Raiders, will be better, but only marginally so. They'll end up winning 21-20, but, with the exception of a few players such as Julius Jones and Antonio Bryant, they won't look pretty doing it.) Parcells tells us as much--that he's disappointed in the way his team played, that they couldn't have performed any worse and that they'd better snap out of it quick.
Later, he tells us something else: He thinks they could be deeper at several positions, but he won't leave California with overinflated optimism about this bunch. There are, as he puts it, "areas of concern."
"I have some consternation about the squad makeup," Parcells says. "There are a lot of things I could do, and any of them could be wrong. There are four or five different combinations I could go with, and any of them could be wrong. They could be right.
"There are concerns. Of course, there are concerns. I just named six positions that I'm concerned about. If there are people in the league who don't see the holes, there are people who don't know what they're doing. They don't know what they don't know."
Again, it's hard to tell what's true and what's disinformation. The pattern he uses to assess his team is familiar in his profession: Always qualify compliments; always overemphasize problems. If the sky is constantly falling, and if you can keep it from clocking any of your guys on the head, then everyone will proclaim you a genius.
He used the same tactics last year. He told us the quarterback situation was uncertain and the running backs weren't much better. He wasn't sure what he was going to get out of his offensive or defensive lines, and at least one cornerback troubled him. Parcells says the team has since improved in most of those areas, and yet, he notes, it's entirely possible that the 'Boys won't be able to better their surprise 10-6 regular-season record from a year ago.
Maybe he's not posturing this time. The NFC East is shaping up to be a bitch of a division that's overloaded with talent and brilliant coaching. Despite the changes that were made to the team, there are questions with this new group of Cowboys, the same kinds of questions that hounded them last year. Quincy Carter, the prodigal son/quarterback, was cast off in ignominious fashion and replaced with 40-year-old Vinny Testaverde, but no one is certain Testaverde--who, if he were any older, could be featured on the cover of AARP magazine--will be able to last the entire season or even play well for part of it. And the two guys who are currently backing up Testaverde, Tony Romo and Drew Henson, haven't thrown a regular-season pass. Ever.
At running back, Troy Hambrick, who ran slowly and painfully, as though he had hemorrhoids, was mercifully let go. Eddie George, a former Pro Bowler, and Julius Jones, the Cowboys' first pick in the draft, figure to get most of the carries now. Which should be an improvement, but only if George has something left and Jones realizes his potential in games that count. And that's without factoring in whether the offensive line, which is still in flux at spots, will be serviceable.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Cowboys added Marcellus Wiley to bolster the line and plan to insert either Pete Hunter or Jemeel Powell to play opposite Terence Newman at cornerback. Bradie James is battling Dexter Coakley for one of the starting linebacker slots. And while Darren Woodson is recovering from a back injury, Tony Dixon will try to fill in at safety. That's a lot of shake-up for a defensive unit that was ranked No. 1 in the league last year.