By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
After all this, I'm pretty sure my membership--if I ever had one in the first place--will be revoked. And I'm certain I'll be forced to eat alone next year.
Someone asks Wiley if Parcells has worked him harder than any other coach. Without pausing, Wiley leans into a tape recorder--his sweat dripping onto the hands of the inquisitive reporter now--and delivers an emphatic "hell yeah."
But, as he's said repeatedly, he needs that. He needs to be pushed, and he wants to be pushed. That's the surest way to success, he offers, and he doesn't want to fail. Not here, not with a club that will pay him $16 million over four years.
Wiley, perhaps more than any other change made to the Cowboys defense, will help dictate how Dallas plays on that side of the ball. If he and fellow D-end Greg Ellis can reach the quarterback, then the 'Boys won't have to rely on the blitz--a strategy Parcells has never loved. Ellis led the team last year with a career-high eight sacks. Wiley's season wasn't so smooth. He had just three sacks as a San Diego Charger, the fewest in his career. It's left people wondering which Wiley the Cowboys are getting--the underproductive model or the version that amassed 13 sacks in 2001. If Wiley reaches double digits this year, it would be a coup for Dallas, which hasn't had anyone with more than 10 since 1996.
"It's a game where, if you get 15 sacks, people love you, but out of 500 rushes, [offensive linemen] win most of those battles," Wiley says. "That's what people have to remember. Right now, my priority is to trust in the defensive scheme and do what they tell me. I have to learn the system first and learn how to do things the right way. It may look a little bland right now, but after a while, we'll throw the seasoning on there."
That would be fine with the Cowboys, but it probably won't keep them from using a number of linemen, especially on the interior. With the exception of tackle La'Roi Glover, whom Parcells says he doesn't have to worry about, the strength or weakness of that group will have less to do with any one individual than with the unit. (On the whole, none of them will look very good against the Raiders, especially when defending the run.)
"At the end of the day, our defensive line, much like last year, will have to be on a rotation basis," Parcells says. "But, right now, I'm concerned about the play inside. We haven't been strong in there since I've been here."
Not surprisingly, the Cowboys have other positions that demand more immediate attention. The plan to have Tony Dixon fill in at safety for the injured Darren Woodson might not be that big a deal if there were experienced players at both cornerback positions. Terence Newman, who proved his worth as a rookie, will man one corner and shouldn't cause Parcells too many headaches. But Pete Hunter or Jemeel Powell will occupy the other spot. It's a close competition, and no one is sure who will emerge. Powell, who was cut by the Detroit Lions before being picked up by the Pokes, got a lot of practice reps this week. (Against the Raiders, he'll end up getting burned for a big touchdown, which won't help his cause.)
Hunter is probably the safer option for now. He's in his third season in the league and spent the first two playing special teams and working as the nickel corner. But he's been criticized for his soft tackling and, at times, for getting distracted.
"We have four new guys at key positions, and that's important that they adjust and contribute," defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer says. "I thought [Hunter] has done a pretty good job so far. He's done some pretty good things on the field. He needs to tackle better. He's been here three years. He's gotten a lot of reps. I don't know if he needs any more reps. It's understanding what his role is and what we need from him to win. Pete's been doing well. Anyone can do the job if they show up. But it's the consistency that we need."
In that regard, Hunter's situation embodies the main issue with this club: Anything could happen. Just like the team, he could go either way. Up or down, good or bad--no one is really sure. Either he steps up, and the team will be better for it, or he falls flat, and the Cowboys will find themselves in bad shape.
"Man, I'm not going to give up," Hunter says. "I'm going to keep trying and keep doing what I'm doing. People can say whatever they want about me. Man, they want to snipe at me? That's fine. It won't faze me."