OXNARD, CALIFORNIA--Off to the left, not more than a few feet away, a bird is perched high in a tree. It's obscured by the foliage, but everyone at Bill Parcells' daily news conference knows it's there. The bird is determined to show up the Cowboys head coach with its loud, incessant squawking.
At first, everyone pressed on--Parcells and the gathered media alike. No loud-ass bird was going to keep us from asking questions or Parcells from answering them. It was the classic literary struggle of man against beast, except that the bird must have been well-read, because it knew who usually wins those battles, so it kept right on squawking until no one--no one--could deny its presence.
Finally, Parcells stops what he's saying and looks up at the tree. The corners of his mouth turn up slightly in a wry, can-you-believe-this-shit smirk.
"In the immortal words of Bo Diddley," Parcells says, "the vultures don't gather if there ain't nothin' dead."
It is the last week of training camp here in California, and it's hard to figure where the laughs end and the truth begins. A few days ago, the Cowboys got smoked in Houston by the not-so-spectacular Texans--the same Texans who were 5-11 last year. Perhaps Houston will be the surprise of the league this season and play its way to glory. In the interim, though, the general consensus among fans and reporters is that the Pokes looked awfully bad. Although it was the first preseason game, you would have liked to have seen some more encouraging signs before the Cowboys break camp, stop in Oakland for another warm-up and then head home to Valley Ranch to prepare for the season's grind. (The next game, against the Oakland Raiders, will be better, but only marginally so. They'll end up winning 21-20, but, with the exception of a few players such as Julius Jones and Antonio Bryant, they won't look pretty doing it.) Parcells tells us as much--that he's disappointed in the way his team played, that they couldn't have performed any worse and that they'd better snap out of it quick.
Later, he tells us something else: He thinks they could be deeper at several positions, but he won't leave California with overinflated optimism about this bunch. There are, as he puts it, "areas of concern."
"I have some consternation about the squad makeup," Parcells says. "There are a lot of things I could do, and any of them could be wrong. There are four or five different combinations I could go with, and any of them could be wrong. They could be right.
"There are concerns. Of course, there are concerns. I just named six positions that I'm concerned about. If there are people in the league who don't see the holes, there are people who don't know what they're doing. They don't know what they don't know."
Again, it's hard to tell what's true and what's disinformation. The pattern he uses to assess his team is familiar in his profession: Always qualify compliments; always overemphasize problems. If the sky is constantly falling, and if you can keep it from clocking any of your guys on the head, then everyone will proclaim you a genius.
He used the same tactics last year. He told us the quarterback situation was uncertain and the running backs weren't much better. He wasn't sure what he was going to get out of his offensive or defensive lines, and at least one cornerback troubled him. Parcells says the team has since improved in most of those areas, and yet, he notes, it's entirely possible that the 'Boys won't be able to better their surprise 10-6 regular-season record from a year ago.
Maybe he's not posturing this time. The NFC East is shaping up to be a bitch of a division that's overloaded with talent and brilliant coaching. Despite the changes that were made to the team, there are questions with this new group of Cowboys, the same kinds of questions that hounded them last year. Quincy Carter, the prodigal son/quarterback, was cast off in ignominious fashion and replaced with 40-year-old Vinny Testaverde, but no one is certain Testaverde--who, if he were any older, could be featured on the cover of AARP magazine--will be able to last the entire season or even play well for part of it. And the two guys who are currently backing up Testaverde, Tony Romo and Drew Henson, haven't thrown a regular-season pass. Ever.
At running back, Troy Hambrick, who ran slowly and painfully, as though he had hemorrhoids, was mercifully let go. Eddie George, a former Pro Bowler, and Julius Jones, the Cowboys' first pick in the draft, figure to get most of the carries now. Which should be an improvement, but only if George has something left and Jones realizes his potential in games that count. And that's without factoring in whether the offensive line, which is still in flux at spots, will be serviceable.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Cowboys added Marcellus Wiley to bolster the line and plan to insert either Pete Hunter or Jemeel Powell to play opposite Terence Newman at cornerback. Bradie James is battling Dexter Coakley for one of the starting linebacker slots. And while Darren Woodson is recovering from a back injury, Tony Dixon will try to fill in at safety. That's a lot of shake-up for a defensive unit that was ranked No. 1 in the league last year.
Collectively, the changes the 'Boys have made seem to represent an upgrade, and, if they can keep the older add-ons healthy and in the lineup, Dallas could be on its way back to the playoffs. But no one can be sure in August because too many things could go wrong with this group between now and January. So, just like last year, the team's situation and direction are confused by lingering questions and what-ifs. I'm confused, too--about the Cowboys and a lot of other things.
When I got here a few days ago, the Residence Inn informed me that it had lost my reservation and that I was basically out of luck. I was certain that I'd have to sleep under a palm tree or out on the beach, until I was saved by the most unlikely person, Cowboys PR chief Rich Dalrymple, who assured the hotel staff that I was, in fact, a reporter and should be given a room at the discounted rate.
I've had a shaky relationship with the Dallas Cowboys in general and the media relations department in specific. For the first two years or so, they largely ignored me, and when they did acknowledge my presence, it was in much the same fashion that President Bush smartly employs when he mentions John Kerry. Dubya seldom uses Kerry's name but rather addresses him as "my opponent." For years, the Cowboys staff either pretended I didn't exist, or they didn't bother using my name.
In the last year or so, the staff has been far more cordial, and even Dalrymple has taken to greeting me with "hello, John" or "good afternoon, John" or "how are things, John?" And then he helped secure a room for me--all of which has thrown me off balance, frankly.
The professionalism and friendliness are fine. Welcome, even. I'm all for it--really, I am. But it's also a bit surprising. It would be like Hilary Duff and Lindsay Lohan sitting down together to laugh and talk without ever addressing their past tabloid spats. (It would be something like that, anyway. I probably should stop reading Teen Beat.)
Point is, there's a lot going on out here--football and otherwise--and it's hard to sort through some of it.
I used to make fun of California for what I thought were good and obvious reasons. From the outside, it's a province of freaks and criminals, dominated in news cycles by a head of state they call "the governator," an alleged child molester named "Jacko" and an alleged rapist who moonlights as one of the world's best professional basketball players. But when you land in California and get past the annoying and omnipresent traffic trouble, all that melts away. It's hard to deride a place with so much natural beauty. With the women and the landscape and the temperature, it's a never-ending sensory orgasm. There are palm trees everywhere, and less than 10 minutes from the Cowboys practice facility are the picturesque Channel Island Beaches. From a sand-covered towel, just a few feet from the cool waters of the Pacific Ocean, I watched sailboats drift into the harbor. The temperature was 65 degrees, give or take, and humidity was only a rumor.
The setup here is exponentially better than the one the Cowboys had in San Antonio last year and Wichita Falls before that. Really, who could complain about a place like this?
"Man, I'm ready to go," grumbles Keyshawn Johnson, the receiver and full-time mouth whom the Cowboys acquired in the off-season when they traded Joey Galloway to Tampa Bay. The Bucs deactivated Johnson last year with six games to go in part because he couldn't get along with head coach Jon Gruden. Johnson says he likes Oxnard because he's from Cali and his family can come visit. But he doesn't like camp so much--no matter where they hold it--so he'd just as soon leave. "I'm tired of living in a dorm and going out to get food."
The "dorm" is actually a suite complete with a wrap-around couch, a king-size bed, a full kitchen and a balcony. Admittedly, my college days were a haze, but I don't remember any dorms that plush.
Then, that's Johnson; he's a constant contradiction. At times, he can be engaging and articulate and just plain funny. Other times, when he's in a mood, everyone should beware. Today, he's in a mood. Every question he's asked is met with a surly, supercilious answer, and he picks on at least two reporters for no reason. He's condescending because he can be--because he has huge diamond studs in his ears and you don't. Because he's a rich, famous player and you're not.
This is part of the knock on Johnson, and why you hear more about his attitude than about his ability. In truth, he probably has equal amounts of both, and there's nothing that says he can't talk shit and catch passes all at once. But the fans here aren't so sure. Earlier, during practice, Johnson dropped a slew of balls. The first few were met with groans from the masses who had gathered to watch their beloved Pokes. The last one, though, caused them to scream things in his direction. They shouted "catch the damn ball" and "stop talking and start playing" and "don't make me call Gruden."
Still, there are bigger issues with this offense than whether Johnson will be able to play nice with the rest of the children. Regardless of what people think of him, he remains one of the more talented receivers in the league. You know, more or less, that he'll be able to do whatever Parcells asks of him. And besides that, the receivers weren't a huge problem last year, nor should they be this season. With the rest of the offense, though, there is less certainty.
During the draft, the Cowboys had a chance to select one of two running backs nearly everyone considered to be the best options available. (The Cowboys averaged 124.9 yards rushing per game, good for 12th in the NFL. The problem was only three teams in the league ran the ball more than the Cowboys, so they had to work a lot harder than everyone else for that yardage.) Instead, Dallas traded down and selected Julius Jones in the second round. He's since looked the most qualified of any of the backs in the preseason.
In the off-season they also picked up Eddie George when Tennessee decided that he'd outgrown his usefulness. The soon-to-be 31-year-old rushed for 1,031 yards as a Titan last year, but he averaged an unspectacular 3.3 yards per carry (the second-lowest in his eight years in the NFL). Along with Richie Anderson and a cast of fill-ins, the Cowboys hope their halfback committee will be able to do what Troy Hambrick couldn't last year--ease the pressure on the passing game. Hambrick rushed for fewer than 1,000 yards as the team's lead back (or approximately 60 yards per game), so it shouldn't be too difficult for the newbies to exceed those numbers. That's what they're hoping. (It would be awfully hard for them to do any worse than Hambrick. Hell, you couldn't do much worse.)
If the running game doesn't evolve, it could be potentially disastrous for the Cowboys' offense. Now that Quincy Carter has been released, the quarterback duties are left to Testaverde. Parcells says there won't be a psychological hangover stemming from Carter's abrupt dismissal and the controversy surrounding what drugs he might have taken and whether the Cowboys administered a drug test in violation of league rules. But I think that represents a lot of drama--a starting quarterback who doesn't make it out of camp, drugs, illegal tests and an unforeseen dismissal--that would be hard to forget overnight.
Even if the Cowboys are fine with all that, and even if they adjust to their new signal caller, there's no guarantee that Testaverde will prove the better alternative. He enjoyed his best days when he, Parcells and Johnson were together in the late '90s with the New York Jets. That was a long time ago. Testaverde will be 41 before the season is over. He hasn't played a full year of professional football since 2001. Last year, he played in only seven games, and he wouldn't have played in any if the Jets' starter, Chad Pennington, hadn't gone down because of an injury. Testaverde played well enough to have a 90.1 quarterback rating, but no one was lobbying for him to stay in the lineup, either, because the team went 2-5.
"We had experience last year, and we started very, very poorly," Jets offensive coordinator Paul Hackett recently told the Newark (N.J.) Star-Ledger. "You are saying that Vinny wasn't a good fit in our offense? We won 10 games the first year, and he did well in our offense. He just didn't play at his best as he got a little bit older. That's simply the case, period."
Whatever you thought about Carter, and despite all his faults--there were many--he was still young and spry and able to get his ass out of harm's way. Testaverde lacks both youth and quickness, and so his durability and ability are rightly questioned. Can he be the quarterback this team sorely needs? Can he make the throws necessary to win and, more than that, can he last an entire season? And if he breaks his hip, are the 'Boys on the hook for his hospital bills, or will Medicare pitch in?
"He still throws it, certainly, superior to most quarterbacks in the league," Parcells says, defending his quarterback and, by extension, the decision to cut Carter. "We have to do a good job protecting him. That's always been the case. There's nothing different there. I think he's in very good physical condition. And I think mentally he wants to try to play the game. What I have to do is create the right scenario for him to succeed--or anyone to succeed, if I can. Now, that's no different than it was here last year. These players, the writers that have covered me last year, know that I was content to run the ball just to keep the other team from having it, not so much 'cause I thought we were very good at it. And it did really work for us...We have to create a situation where we use him the way we can use him. Now Vinny is capable of the big play. He can throw the deep ball. So we have to make sure that we don't neglect that and try to be so methodical."
If Testaverde doesn't make it through the year, things could fall apart awfully quickly. The two backup options have never appeared in an NFL regular-season game. Tony Romo spent last year as the team's third-stringer, and while Romo was busy holding a clipboard and looking dashing in a baseball cap, Drew Henson was finishing up a baseball career with the Yankees. It didn't go so well, which has something to do with why he decided to return to football. Before the game against the Texans, he hadn't thrown a pass in competition since his college days at Michigan.
The Cowboys are high on both backups--they've said over and over that they think Romo is a smart kid and that Henson has potential. But being bright or having a future wouldn't necessarily help Dallas if Testaverde went down. Even Parcells concedes that Romo makes too many impulse decisions (against the Raiders, he'll end up leading the game-winning drive, but he'll also make you cringe with some of his throws) and Henson has a long way to go. "Shagging grounders is a little different," the coach says, "than what he's doing now."
It's possible that Testaverde will excel and last the whole year, but it's equally possible that his walker will break and he'll spend at least part of the season in the geriatric ward. (Either way, lots of easy jokes for me.) And what then? Does anyone feel comfortable entrusting the Pokes' playoff hopes to Romo or Henson?
"You know what I like about the media?" Parcells asks. "I really do. And this is funny: They think you could dial 1-800-get-a-quarterback. You know, there's been teams who have been trying to dial that for 10 years. They think you can just dial it up. You think we don't look around? Well, you gotta get a quarterback. Well, no shit. You think we're not trying to?
"That's where we are. I can't be worrying about that in terms of what my alternatives are immediately. I have to deal with what I've got and know full well that some circumstances could change here as training camp goes on; some people could become available, some people could get cut, anything could happen. But there's nobody out there right now that I'm interested in."
Last night wasn't so good for me. I went to dinner with two writers who work for major metropolitan dailies. Their names and the names of their papers aren't as important as what we talked about: More people distrust me, and my ethics, than I previously believed.
We talked about how I think journos can be hypocrites--content to lampoon and pick at their subjects, but never themselves or their co-workers. And we talked about what happened at last year's camp in San Antonio. A friend of mine, also a media member, got arrested for doing nothing more than being black. I know because I was there, and the cops let me go. I wanted to write about it, but I didn't because my pal said it would cause him problems at work.
The people I went to dinner with didn't see the value in telling that story. They said that's not how things are done among journalists--we don't write about each other or what happens to us. What if next time, they asked, I wasn't writing about a run-in with cops? What if, instead, I was writing about a journo who's a drunk or an adulterer? What business is that of mine? That's not the way things should work, they contended. But I wasn't so sure.
To this day, the fact that I didn't write about the San Antonio incident marks one of the greatest disappointments in my life. It had nothing to do with getting a good story and everything to do with righteous indignation and my hunger to attack two racist cops. I tried to explain that to my dinner companions; I tried to explain that writers and words have influence and, when properly exercised, those words can effect change. If we can cover and criticize players and owners and abstract policies, then we should hold ourselves to the same standard. Everything should be in bounds.
I tried to explain all that to them, but our viewpoints were diametrically opposed. When among other journos, they told me, they shouldn't have to worry about what they say or do. That's the way it works--the way it's always worked, apparently. But I thought that was a cop-out. (At that point, things got uncomfortable, and if we hadn't come in the same car, I think someone might have left early.)
Perhaps it had to do with the fact that they work at daily newspapers, and the fallout at those shops can be heavy for even minor infractions. But there was something else to it: They've been conditioned. Our profession lends itself to drinking and hanging out with peers. When you're on the road, there isn't much else to do. It's a fraternity culture governed by the Fight Club understanding that you don't talk about Fight Club. You can gossip about it in secret--a favorite pastime--but you're not supposed to make it public.
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.
Marcellus Wiley walks slowly off the field carrying his helmet in one hand and stops just outside the end zone. The defensive end is large (6-foot-4, 280 pounds), and he sweats exactly the way you'd expect after a man of his size spent a long practice in the afternoon sun--beads of perspiration stream down his face, as though an invisible faucet was turned on over his head.
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."
I understand where he's coming from.
The day before camp breaks, the media gather for the daily Parcells news conference. But when Big Bill is done talking, we're told to keep our seats because there's an important announcement to be made. I'm not so thrilled about that because it's lunchtime and there's free McDonald's to be eaten.
Cowboys owner Jerry Jones walks to the podium accompanied by someone I've never seen. He's a short man who's wearing a Cowboys shirt and too-tight pants that are needlessly held in place by suspenders. Still, I like this guy's style. He has a big puff of hair--like he blow-dried it all day and then picked it out--and he's just goofy enough to be cool.
Turns out he's the mayor of Oxnard. General Jerry and Mayor Manuel Lopez tell us that the Cowboys will be back here for training camp next year. (This has been the worst-kept secret in camp. Yesterday, Parcells was asked about coming back here next year, and he was just about to say he was all for it when he had to stop in midsentence because Rich Dalrymple was waiving him off. "Wait, is that official?" Parcells asked. "OK, I don't know anything. I'm like Sergeant Schultz on that one.")
For the first time all week, I'm absolutely positive about something; there are no shades of gray on this issue. The Cowboys couldn't have made a better decision in coming back to Oxnard. It's a first-rate camp, and more convenient than any other in recent memory. The housing, food, weight-training, media and practice facilities are all on the hotel grounds and within a short walk of each other. Which is good for the players, because it saves time, and it's good for me, because I'm lazy.
And while I'm not sure how the Cowboys will do this season, I am certain of at least one other thing: Just like the Cowboys are "America's Team," there needs to be a push to name Lopez "America's Mayor." I mean, what other mayor in America rocks suspenders and a mini-Afro? Seriously, the man is a pimp.
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