Crystal Balls

Eddie George will have to run the ball better if the 'Boys have any shot of making the playoffs.
Ken Howard

I'm not sure who or what Bill Parcells was talking about that led him to make the "fool's errand" comment. I was a bit distracted at the time because I was looking over my notes (code for picking at a hangnail). I'm not even entirely sure that he said "fool's errand." It could have been "fool's mission" or "fool's exercise." Either way, you get the point. He was talking about fools. Idiots. The dim-witted.

He was talking about me.

When the news conference was over, I checked with a peer and learned the context of the quote. (This is how I got through college: pretend like you're taking notes and then ask a more attentive classmate what, exactly, the professor was droning on about.) The Cowboys head coach was talking about preseason prognostication and how it's all but pointless. The media get into it because that's what we get paid to do, but no one really knows how the season will unfold--which teams will be good or bad, which units on those teams will be able or unable to perform as needed--until it actually happens. It's an exercise in futility, best left to fools.

Here's the thing about fools: We have a lot of time on our hands. We have to occupy ourselves with something, and what better distraction than evaluating a team that hasn't played a game? I gotta tell you, when you're at training camp for a week and you listen to the Cowboys say the same things over and over, you find other ways to entertain yourself. Now, that said, I am admittedly extremely bad at the preseason prognostication business. I said that Vinny Testaverde is old and that I wasn't so sure that someone so old could last an entire season, much less play more than 16 games. To drive home the point, we put a picture of Testaverde using a walker on the cover of this publication. Subtlety is often lost on us here at the Dallas Observer.

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The time for what Parcells calls the "state of the union" is sometime after the season has started. So I was a little too quick with my indictment/evaluation. So sue me. But the last time I checked, the season was, in fact, under way. The 'Boys have now played four games, or one-quarter of their schedule. I think even Parcells would agree that you can get a pretty good handle on what a team is or isn't after a quarter of its games have been exhausted.

"I told the team I haven't been able to change things about the team that I want to change, no matter how hard I try to emphasize it," Parcells said while I actually listened. (Seriously, I was listening that time.) "Right now, it's not good. We've got our hands full. We need to get going here, or we're not going to be too successful at all.

"Fellas, here's what we need to understand right now: We have 12 games to go. This isn't the last week of the season. We have time. But right now, this is what we are."

What they are, after a bad outing against the Giants, is 2-2. Considering the injuries and how awful they looked in that first game against the Minnesota Vikings, that's still a better record than most might have expected from them. Testaverde has been better than I thought, and if Parcells can figure out a way to keep him from breaking in half, then the Pokes should be fine at QB. The wide receivers have been serviceable, too. But there are still concerns.

Last year, the Cowboys had the No. 1 ranked defense in the NFL, which helped mask some of their deficiencies. When the offense was struggling, Dallas was able to rely on its defense to keep games close. This year, the Cowboys haven't been nearly as sound on that side of the ball; they are ranked 20th in the league. Now, that has a lot to do with the injuries they sustained in the defensive backfield, but it has just as much to do with the fact that the defensive line, to be polite, has been inconsistent.

When you can't slow the other guys down as much as you'd like, the other option is to slow things down yourself, which is where the other, glaring concern comes into play. The Cowboys' running game has been pedestrian at best. They are ranked 21st in yards per game and 15th in yards per carry. That's not good. That's mediocre. It didn't help that Julius Jones, who showed flashes of speed and agility, went down with a shoulder injury. That left the running load to Eddie George, ReShard Lee and Richie Anderson. Of the three, only Lee has shown anything special, but his carries have been limited.

They are 2-2, and they are this, too: a team that can throw OK but can't run so much; a team that could be better defensively if the line ever got going or if the defensive backs ever got healthy. This is what they are, a quarter of the way through the season.

Parcells knows as much. Someone asked him the other day if he looked at the schedule the way the rest of us do, if he looked at it once he had a good feel for his team and the competition and saw stretches where the 'Boys could pick up wins or stretches where he was worried they might falter. He admitted that he did that a little bit and that his team is in one of these stretches now where they'd better accumulate some victories. You know, pile them up for later because later is going to be hard on them (which is why the Giants loss hurt so much). After they play the Pittsburgh Steelers (and their rookie quarterback) at home, things get much tougher. Consider: They still must play at Green Bay, at Seattle and at New York, along with two games remaining against division leader Philadelphia. That's not easy. On the positive side, they have a home game against Chicago.

So there are some games they ought to win and some games they'll probably lose. All of which means what?

"This streak of games, we find out our identity here," said defensive tackle La'Roi Glover. "Can we win at home? Can our defense step up? Can our leaders step up? It's still early. It's probably too early to decide what we already are. But we're going to find out now. Coming up here, we're going to find out.

"We have a shot to make this a good year for our club. I don't look around the league and see one team that's so much better than us that we can't compete with them. That's what I'm trying to tell these guys. I don't have that many more chances to win a Super Bowl. We need to get going."

This isn't fool's work anymore. After four games, this is who they are: a team that's middle-of-the-road, average. A team that could be better. A team that, like Glover said, needs to get going if it wants to be playing come January.

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