It was Saturday night before the Eagles-Cowboys game, and some writer friends of mine from Philly were in town. They were looking for a grand time, but they had to settle for a grand amount of cold beer at one of those ubiquitous chain eateries in Las Colinas.
We sat around a cramped table and did what writers do--drank our way to the bottom of large mugs of brew while bitching about other scribes. It's been more than a year since I left the Right Coast (again) and came to Dallas (again). The familiar company was much appreciated. At first.
"So," a columnist buddy from the Philadelphia Daily News said, letting a sly grin take shape, "you've been sucking off the coach pretty good, huh?"
He smirked and laughed and enjoyed his little zinger. I only sat there, nodding and trying not to reach across the table and extract his jugular vein.
But what could I do? He was right. Since Bill Parcells took over and rid the Cowboys of the institutional incompetence fostered by Dave Campo, it's been hard to say or write anything negative about the man or the job he's done. This club is every bit as good as the past few have been bad, every bit as cohesive as Campo's teams were disjointed. You've seen it plainly this season, most notably right from the opening whistle against the Eagles. The Birds tried to catch the Cowboys off guard with an on-side kick. It worked brilliantly for them three years ago. This go-round? Uh, not so much.
"Not this time, you bastard!" someone screamed from the press box when the Cowboys recovered the kick and ran it back for a touchdown. I was going to point out to my "colleague" that there's no cheering in the press box, but instead I waited and hoped for him to yell his way to a heart attack. No such luck.
"That was a fine play," I offered, choking on the words. "You have to hand it to Parcells."
And there it was again: I was lauding the Cowboys and their coach. Having fostered a lifelong hatred for the Pokes, just like every other good Philadelphian, it hurt me to say such things. I felt like Aldrich Ames, only without the comfort afforded by all those rubles. It's the sort of thing that, had it been said back home in the company of my boys, would have certainly cost me a serious beating.
The bitch of it is, there's no end in sight. Because this team, your Cowboys, appears to be exactly as qualified as it looks. They are 4-1 and in first place in the NFC East--a commanding position in a division that hasn't lived up to its expectations. If you're a Cowboys fan still in denial, or if you think it too good to be true, take heart: Those words were written by the last person on earth who would want to acknowledge the truth therein.
The emboldening part for you and the Cowboys is that Dallas did not play its best, and yet it managed to win its first real test of the season. The Giants victory on Monday night was fine, but it was early in the season, and things went smoothly for the Cowboys from jump in that game. The Eagles offered something altogether different. They came to Texas Stadium as the two-time defending NFC champs, complete with a six-game winning streak against Dallas and more than a few lopsided wins during that stretch. They came snarling and swaggering, ready to pop the Boys in the mouth and leave them bloodied and defeated.
Early on, despite the on-side kick stupidity, I was confident the Birds would win. Not because Philly looked polished but because both teams did not. Close and hard games were exactly the kind of contests that the 5-11 clubs of recent memory loved to give up on. But this team chose to scrap to the end, and there's something very significant about that. The Cowboys, the league's No. 3 offense and No. 2 defense, gritted out a victory even though Quincy Carter and Troy Hambrick and the Wideout Corps were mostly unspectacular. And there's something very significant about that, too. Because if the Boys can win a brawl in tight quarters, if they can win when things aren't going exactly as planned, then they're far more dangerous than anyone forecasted.
"It's big for us to win that game," Carter says. "It gives us a little mental edge. We let them know that we're gonna fight back--that they can't come in and punch us in the mouth without us punching back. I think we gained a lot of respect throughout the league for that."
The remaining schedule is far from easy. Tampa Bay, New England, Carolina, Miami--they loom menacingly. But it's hard to look at those teams and think that they frighten the newly confident Cowboys. It seems all too possible now that we could be watching a playoff-bound club. Those words weren't spoken or written by anyone a few months ago or, if they were, they were the convictions of madmen. No longer. Now, you believe. And you have to think that the Cowboys do, too. It may not be mentioned overtly in the Dallas locker room, but it's there under the surface, regardless of the predictable denials.
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"These games are all pretty much the same to me," Parcells says, trying to quell the rising fervor. (By Monday, ESPN and every radio and print outlet across the country were falling all over themselves to celebrate the coach and his team.) "I feel pretty much the same after all of them--worn-out and dragged-through. We started to fight, and I like that. But like I told my players, I like horse racing. But if they paid off at the half-mile, I would have been rich a long time ago."
In fact, he is rich, so read into that what you will. But you should expect nothing else from the man. His attitude is why the Cowboys are where they are today.
So ignore the practiced modesty and redirection. In a very narrow scope, Sunday was a humiliating day for the Eagles, and awfully encouraging for the Pokes. In a much larger sense, it was a day that portends serious success for the Boys. What it means, really, is that this team is good, perhaps even as good as some of you secretly hoped, and that it deserves praise for a difficult win, but more so for a start that just might push it into the postseason. What it means is that the Boys are indeed back, and that your future is brilliant by proxy.
On the flip side, I once again feel like a traitor for having written all this. And, sadly, after this column, it also means that someone back home is going to want to kick my ass.