When Jerry Jones walked into the news conference flanked by Vinny Testaverde and Stephen Jones, I knew I'd been duped--along with the rest of the media and probably you, too. For the past few months and ever since Dallas was dumped from the playoffs, the Cowboys did their best to make us believe that the starting quarterback would remain the same. Quincy Carter was the guy in town, they kept saying, and so we could stop with the hypothetical conjecture.
Naturally, I didn't believe them, not at first, because the Pokes have long been masters of misinformation. True, head coach Bill Parcells had said that he'd like to bring in a veteran QB, but it sounded like a safety net instead of a primary option, someone to be there in case Carter went down. When guys like Kerry Collins and Kurt Warner and Jeff Garcia switched teams without so much as a layover at D-FW, it made me think that Parcells was set to take off once more with Carter. It made me think that the 'Boys were going to try to stretch out his abilities for another year in the hopes that Drew Henson would take over thereafter. It made me think that the Cowboys were leveling with us all along. That's what I thought, because that's what it looked like, and so I eventually bought what they were trying to sell.
But when General Jerry escorted Vinny to meet the Dallas media, all I could hear was my father mouthing cautionary advice: "You have to be wary. Someone is always trying to pull a fast one on you." All that was left was for J.J. to point at me, maybe chuckle and shout, "Sucker."
"We basically have an incumbent in Carter, but we want to be better at quarterback than we've been, and competition is good," Jones said after announcing that they'd signed the former Jets quarterback and Parcells disciple to a one-year deal. "We think this will make us better. Vinny will speak for himself, but he came here to compete, to compete as a starter, and he'll be given that opportunity."
The worst part about declaring an open competition for the starter's job was that Jones gave Fox SportsNet's Ric Renner all the ammo he needed to load up his "is this a quarterback controversy?" gun. A gun he dutifully and annoyingly fired at any Cowboy who came within shouting distance on the first day of minicamp. It made me wish I'd brought earplugs--or a different kind of gun. Still, Renner had a point, or at least the beginning of one. The quarterback position is in a state of unrest--there's no denying that. Though some tried their best to do so.
"I'm not calling it a quarterback controversy," Carter said softly. "You guys can call it that, but I won't. I had to compete for jobs here before; I had to compete for a job in college and in baseball. Competition makes it better. This is nothing new for me."
It's not new for him, and it's not new for Dallas, either. At quarterback, the Cowboys are in pretty much the same spot they were last year and the year before that. Only the names have changed. (Poor Chad Hutchinson. If they even buy that guy a bus ticket back from his post-NFL Europe rehab in Alabama, he should consider himself fortunate.) Which makes me wonder if this is the best way to go. It makes me wonder if it wouldn't be better to have an established starter and an established backup and then let them move up or down from there. Because there's something to be said for defined roles and order.
In fairness, Parcells has always said that he wouldn't hesitate to add depth to any position or significantly upgrade a spot if the chance came along. Testaverde becoming available, Parcells said, was just that sort of serendipitous opportunity. (Parcells also says he doesn't deal with what-ifs, which is why he was able to label Carter the starter over the past few months and then, with a straight face, bring in Testaverde and throw the position up for grabs...The man would be fantastic if he ever had to testify in front of a congressional oversight committee.) Which works, but only if you believe that Testaverde represents a serious improvement. I'm not so sure.
He's 40 now, and he'll be 41 before they've played 16 games. His numbers last year were good--62 percent completion, 1,385 yards and seven touchdowns in seven games--and Parcells said he's in fine physical condition, but he also admitted that "there's a lot of wear on those tires." The last time Testaverde played an entire season was three years ago when he had essentially the same quarterback rating (75.4) that Carter had last season (71.4).
"Quincy earned the starting job last year because he was the best guy at the position," Parcells said. "That's why I played him. That's what I do every year. If he's the best player this year, he'll start. If he's not, he won't. That's no surprise. They all know I'm gonna play the best player."
It amounts to dogma for Parcells, and that's fine. He likes to toss his guys into the fray and let them bloody each other until the alpha male is established. But if Testaverde looks better in the preseason, if they watch him throw pretty balls, as he's wont to do, and they watch Carter throw ugly ones, as he almost always does, does anyone think Testaverde can be the guy over an entire season? Because he's accurate, but he's not fast, and with an offensive line that's anything but certain, being able to run away ought to be a prerequisite. Plus, old people are fragile. Starting an old, slow guy might not be in their best interests. The whole idea makes me nervous.
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The flip side is equally troubling. Because if Testaverde doesn't win the job immediately, and they go with Carter again, will the open competition leave Quincy as damaged goods? Will Carter be looking over his shoulder the whole time, worried that he could be replaced at any moment? It's no secret that Carter's confidence has ebbed now and again. At least last year, when they finally decided that Carter was it, you had a good feeling that Hutch didn't have the stuff Parcells was looking for and that Carter was relatively safe. But with Testaverde in camp, anything is possible. And so what if this move just ends up screwing with Carter's head?
"That's a fair question," Parcells said. "But I can't worry about things of that nature. I have to do things that I think will be good for the team. If paranoia sets in or insecurity sets in, that's the way it is. I can't worry about that. This is the NFL.
"It's just like when I'm golfing--I keep two drivers in my bag. I just like her to know if she acts up, I have this other one over here that I'll go to."
There's no easy answer, and I'm not sure one of them is a better option than the other. I'm not sure what I would do, but I am sure of this: I don't envy Parcells.