Not Dead--Yet

Nobody loves Browns QB Jeff Garcia more than Pete Hunter does.

The panic set in sometime last week and descended on Dallas. Nearly everyone, fans and players both, looked as though they'd given up. Which made most of us wonder if a recovery was even possible or if, after only one game, the Cowboys were done.

That first game against the Vikings didn't count double in the standings, but it may as well have. The alarmists were mobilized following that drubbing, and they got a good deal of mileage from screaming about the Cowboys defense. Or lack thereof. Against Minnesota, the defense, especially the backfield, was abysmal. The Boys' d-backs got smoked for five touchdowns. Five. There are a number of pro athletes (and at least one Dallas Observer columnist) who can't count that high. Pete Hunter, the corner everyone loves to hate, wasn't the only one who looked lost; Terence Newman let up plenty of big plays, too.

The game had barely ended before everyone started yelling "we told you so" in the direction of head coach Bill Parcells.

Shortly after training camp broke and the migration from Oxnard, California, back to Dallas was completed, nearly everyone who had paid even cursory attention to the Pokes was worried about their cornerback situation. But that was speculation. After the Vikings game, there was proof.

"I'm gonna stay with what we have," Parcells told everyone after returning from Minnesota. A few months earlier he'd said that there were options if things devolved. He explained that there were a few defensive backs that he could go get if need be. So we expected him to tell us, after the Vikings game, that he was making one of those moves. The fact that he reversed field, especially in the wake of how awful his d-backs played in the first game, made me think he'd finally lost his edge--that he was being obstinate because he's Bill Parcells, because he's a legend, so he must be right. Right? "That's what I want to do. I don't want to give up on some young players and what I think is some talent there. I'm gonna try to take them through the year and see where we are."

Where they are today is a much better spot then where they were a week ago. The panic has lifted, replaced with a general feeling that, perhaps, everyone got a little carried away. You, me, the players, the rest of the Dallas-Fort Worth media, we all thought that the defensive backs, especially Hunter, should have been burned in effigy.

But then the Browns came to town. And then Hunter had an interception. And then Newman had an interception. And then, suddenly, things didn't look so grim after all. The Boys got the win, and no one would have faulted Parcells if he had screamed "I told you so" in our collective direction.

But if the fallout from the first game was a gross over-reaction then any sort of warm, they're-gonna-be-OK-now sentiment would be equally misguided. After two weeks, we've seen the Dallas backfield look pretty good and pretty awful. That doesn't mean they'll be one extreme or the other over the remaining 14 games. If anything, it points to inconsistency; they might be able to get this crew in shape, but it's equally possible they'll regress against quality competition.

That's the key here. The corners and safeties did play better against Cleveland last weekend, but the Browns receivers can hardly be considered stellar. With the exception of rookie tight end Kellen Winslow (who suffered a broken leg in the game), none of them appear destined for greatness. And no one did a better job helping the Cowboys cause than Browns quarterback Jeff Garcia, who had his worst day as a pro. I'd say that Garcia played like an amputee (8-for-27, 71 yards, three interceptions), but that would be insulting to the handicapped.

You have to put it in context. What you had in the Boys-Browns game was a questionable defensive backfield pitted against an equally questionable receiver corps and a quarterback who, after that performance, should be stoned in downtown Cleveland.

Which brings us back to the original concern: This group of defensive backs. In their only real test so far (the Vikings game), they failed miserably. The starting corners, Hunter and Newman, were terrible, and the backups were even worse. At safety, you had Roy Williams and, well, Roy Williams. Tony Dixon, who's keeping the spot warm while Darren Woodson rehabs, wasn't awful, but he didn't do anything grand, either. So they fell short against a good team, and excelled against a bad one. It could have been worse, they could have lost to the Browns, but a split in that scenario shouldn't make anyone feel overly comfortable.

If the Cowboys played a schedule this year that was replete with soft competition at wide receiver, then maybe we could pretend that the Browns game was a precursor of things to come. We could all sit back and get drunk and know that everything is going to be fine. But we don't really know that, so the beers would be better served at a later date.

If you want to be kind, you could say that what lies ahead is uncertain. We've seen one good game and one bad game and so anything could happen. You could say that if you want to, but you'd probably be fooling yourself. Because we can look at the schedule and understand that there are a lot of match-up problems ahead--plenty of serious receivers and quarterbacks remain. They still must face Terrell Owens/Donovan McNabb and the Eagles (twice), Laveranues Coles/Mark Brunell and the Skins (twice), Amani Toomer/Kurt Warner and the Giants (twice) and a number of others who figure to give them fits. If you and me and the opposition can see the potential disaster there, surely Big Bill can see it. Right?

In fairness, the defensive line hasn't helped matters any by not pressuring the quarterback (as a unit, they have just one sack in the first two games), which makes it that much harder for the d-backs. Still, if nothing changes--if no one new is brought in or if they don't promote or demote from within--then we can only go by what we've seen, and there's no real reason to be optimistic. Until they show us that they're capable of making quality plays each Sunday, then we're stuck in a holding pattern, left to worry which group of defensive backs will show up.

"It's a little early for the state of the union," Parcells cautioned. "Let's get halfway through. Let's get into it and a little way through first. Leave the funeral hearses in the garage for right now."

OK, fair enough. It's early, and they're not dead yet. Not nearly. There's a lot of football to be played. But based on what we've seen, based on the real-deal competition they still have to combat, isn't it reasonable to be concerned?

Big Bill wants to let the hearses idle for now. Which is fine. But you have to wonder if he's keeping them gassed up.

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