The whistle blows loudly. Again and again, the same shrill noise. Bill Parcells doesn't care. It's a few days after the first preseason game, and the football-oriented part of practice ended some time ago. Since then, the Boys have been running wind sprints--a new one starts each time the whistle sounds. There's no sign of the conditioning session ending. Parcells is riding them hard, blowing that whistle like a deranged gym teacher hell-bent on making the kiddies cry before class is out. They pant and sweat. Some look as though they might collapse from exhaustion, even though they're working in the air-conditioned Alamodome. The hunch among the press corps is that Parcells has tampered with the climate control, that he's literally turned up the heat on his players. Regardless, it's hot.
The mind-screwing he lays on them doesn't stop with altering the temperature. A few days after a decisive preseason win over the Houston Texans at home, Parcells will walk off the field in the middle of practice, his coaching staff and trainers in tow. Welcome to training camp, Parcells style. "This isn't Camp Campo," a sideline observer says.
"We don't have a lot of free time right now," running back Troy Hambrick offers. He's garnered special attention from the new coach. Last year he was a fat little cannonball, weighing more than 250 pounds. Daily weigh-ins, along with plenty of exercise, have trimmed him to around 240. "It's a business attitude around here. We don't have any free time. We're behind these walls all day." He stops and looks around with a few shifty glances before continuing. "It feels like we're in prison right now."
That's the way the warden wants it. There's a lot wrong with this crew, a lot of things Parcells may not be able to remedy, so at the very least he wants his players fit. He blows his whistle some more and watches them all with a discerning eye, never breaking a sweat. Rank has its privileges. (The irony here is obvious. Parcells is shaped like a pear. He is the softest guy on the field--his blue Dallas Cowboys shirt is tucked into his tan, high-riding shorts and does very little to hide his generous belly. His is not a good look. A friend suggests that Parcells is sorely in need of a visit from Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. I've never seen the show, but that couldn't have been a compliment.)
Even if the Tuna gets them in shape, even if he rids them of their flab and carves handsome muscles into their abdomens, Parcells' rebuilding project won't be completed soon. Granted, in the NFL it is possible to be hopeless one year and playoff-bound the next. That jump to respectability, however, occurs only when the team in question is filled with budding talent. The flowers planted here don't smell nearly that sweet. And the Cowboys brass knows it.
"I don't know how we're going to do here. I really don't," Parcells says. "I'm not brimming with confidence. I think we've got time to improve this, and I think we can do it...somewhat."
Consider that a warning. His tepid, carefully chosen words can mean only one thing: Bet on him to eventually return the Cowboys to their rightful place atop the NFL. But brace yourself. This season will serve only to iron a few wrinkles flat. A pressed finish appears years away.
It is a camp dominated by questions and quests, then. We're all looking for something here. Parcells is in search of a quarterback, a line, a running back, a leader and on and on. Me? The bosses sent me down here to immerse myself in football and return with plenty of sharp Cowboys copy for you to thankfully absorb. But all work (or even a little work) and no fooling around makes Johnny Journo a dull bastard. If I'm going to be quarantined in San Antonio for a week, I'm off in search of some sustenance, some respect and an easy time.
As it'll turn out, none of that will be smartly accomplished. Not for me or Parcells. I guess we both lose.
He smiles now and again, revealing a row of perfectly set, gleaming white teeth. But mostly he sighs a lot and rubs the loose skin that hangs around his face and below his neck. His eyes are droopy, and he makes jokes sparingly. This is not the exuberant Parcells who enraptured media and fans in the opening few weeks. He's been slowed somehow, in tongue and gait, likely because he's coming to fully understand what it means to be head coach of these Dallas Cowboys. The metallic blue star, the one that adorned the helmets of so many Super Bowl champions, was prestigious enough to lure him from retirement. That and a four-year contract worth $17.1 million. But the historic organizational achievements of the Cowboys won't help Parcells fix the latest exigencies, and neither will all that cash.
"Overall, we have quite a ways to go," Parcells says succinctly. He nods his head, and everyone understands that there's not much more to add, that he's telling the hard truth.
Anyone who knows football, or who's even vaguely familiar with what this coach has accomplished in his career (his 149 wins is third-best among active coaches), is loath to predict that he won't conquer this challenge, mighty as it may seem. That's what this man does--he rights the unaligned. He did it with the Jets and the Patriots and the Giants. He took those tattered clubs and remade them to his liking, elevating them from the dregs of the league to the postseason and more than a few Super Bowls. It should be noted, though, that he is no hokey medicine man--he offers no quick-fix, mumbo-jumbo potion. At each of his previous stops a cure took time (it took two years for all three of those teams to make the playoffs, and longer still to reach the Super Bowl with the Giants and Pats). These Dallas Cowboys will prove no different. He must rid them of any recidivism. If anything, it's going to be more arduous here than in New York or New England, because those teams had quarterbacks and running backs and real players, and this team has...mostly it has fantastic jerseys. So there's that, and then there's the ominous schedule that begins with five playoff teams in seven games.
"Oh, I don't know that," Parcells says. "I wouldn't say it's going to be tougher here. This organization is so much sounder than the one in New England. The support structure here is in place, and the talent level is better here than it was in New England. I'd say appreciably better."
That could be, but we're still talking gradations here. Everything is relative in football. If these Cowboys are better off than those early Patriot clubs, it should be understood that both are/were closer to the skeletal-infrastructure end of the development than the world-championship end.
"It's not going to be an overnight fixer," one former NFC East scout says. "He's got a lot working against him--no quarterback, no line...he doesn't really have much to work with, except a few pieces here and there. But if anyone can do it, Parcells can. He's as good a coach as there is. But it's not just about coaching in Dallas. He's got to deal with Jerry."
That would be owner and general manager Jerry Jones. The General has at the top of his credits the very public executions of other high-profile head coaches, namely Tom Landry and Jimmy Johnson. In both instances, he showed those accredited coaches the door and then explained their dismissals away by saying it had to be done "for the good of the Dallas Cowboys." The reality is that he did it for the good health of his enormous ego. That's partly why this union between Jones and Parcells seems so damn unholy; who's the alpha male here, and who's the bitch? Although that hasn't yet proven a problem, it very well could by season's end. Even Sports Illustrated's Peter King, who thinks this is a fine marriage of convenience, says in his online column: "I imagine there will be brushfires, lots of them."
At least for now, Jones appears content to let Parcells bask in the spotlight he commanded for the past 10 years. Three straight seasons of winning only five games will do that.
"Do you think that I wanted to hire Bill Parcells and then have to read from all you guys that I was admitting to failure in everything I had been doing?" the General asks rhetorically. "Once I got honest with myself, I had to admit I had failed."
Make no mistake, if the Cowboys are going to stop monopolizing the bad football market, it's going to have everything to do with Parcells and very little to do with Jones. If, or more likely when, the Boys get good again, the prediction here is that history will repeat itself and Jones will erect an ornate stage from which to proclaim his magnificence--and from which he can hang his doughy coach. But that's for later. Before Parcells can join the other Cowboys expatriate coaches, he first has an ungodly amount of ball-busting, head-splitting work to do.
"I can't convince them they can win," Parcells says, sounding less Zen-like than you generally want from your savior types. "There's no way a coach could ever do that. No coach in this league could convince them that they can win. I've said this a hundred times in my coaching career: Confidence is only born in demonstrated ability. That's all. You have to demonstrate that you can win. A team teaches itself whether it wins or not or what it is. A coach can't do that. It's got to be the players."
It's my first night in San Antonio. Not surprisingly, I'm hungry. A man in search of a cheeseburger, or any other fast food, ought to be able to find it at a reasonable hour. Eight o'clock at night seems more than reasonable.
After watching HBO--a graphic Sopranos rerun--and self-medicating with various party favors, I reluctantly went out for some food. Reluctantly because, though I was suddenly hungry, leaving the media hotel during training camp is always risky. That is, leaving the room usually means seeing someone I know. Which is all right, so long as everything is normal, so long as I'm not feeling...uh... paranoid. Otherwise, things can go all to pieces on me awfully quick. Isolation becomes my friend--nay, my lifeline. Leaving the room is strictly verboten. Unless there's an emergency. Like needing a cheeseburger.
Somehow, I made it to the food court in the basement of my hotel. Much to my dismay, it was closed. At eight o'clock. I wanted to smash something, but everything was safely encased behind iron gates. Now, it's Sunday, but this is San Antonio, not Salt Lake. There's a hotel full of hungry football players and hungrier sports columnists sitting on top of a food court, and they close it at 8 p.m.? My business alone would have been worth their time.
I'm back in my room now, defeated. I had to order room service. Turned out to be another tactical error. When the food was delivered, the guy who brought it asked if he could set it down in the room. I froze and said yes. Unless he's a sensory mute, he smelled my sin in the air almost immediately. Before he left, he shot me a borderline look--either he's hip to the game, or he thinks I'm Pablo Escobar. Now I'm crazy worried, gripped by fear. What if he tells on me? Oh, sweet Christ, what if I get kicked out of my hotel? What then? Or worse, what if he's a narc and he brings the full wrath of the San Antonio Police Department down on me? I should have tipped him more.
A final note: All that commotion started because of my wanton lust for a cheeseburger. I ended up ordering the chicken quesadilla. This is how I live.
Lord knows, on most days, being a member of the sports media is just about the easiest job in the world. They pay us to do what we'd probably do on our free time. It's a cake assignment. Except at times like this. Right about now I wish someone would lop off my head. I can't take it anymore--the sights and sounds of this "quarterback battle" are driving me insane.
A few plays ago, Quincy Carter dropped back, had a good time, danced around and then fired a ball at his receiver's feet. The ball skipped harmlessly off the turf and died a few yards away. That wouldn't have been a big deal, except that his receiver was running a 10-yard pattern.
Not to be outdone, Chad Hutchinson came in thereafter, dropped back, had a good time and lofted a wobbly pass into coverage. That wouldn't have been a big deal, either, except that the receiver was a defensive back named--hold on, I've got it here somewhere--ah yes, Jeff Sanchez. I'm not sure who that is. He's not in the media guide, but he is listed on the roster. That's got to be comforting news for Hutchinson--to know that his pass was intercepted by a roster player and not by a parking-lot attendant who got lost and wandered onto the field.
"Impale the quarterbacks!" someone shouts from the stands, echoing my sentiments.
This is it, folks. This is what you'll be getting all year unless the rumors prove true and the Pokes buckle and bring in a vet like Ray Lucas or someone similar. (Parcells denied that last weekend's game against Houston, in which Hutchinson didn't play but Carter excelled, foreshadows any such development.) Even then, don't expect good quarterbacking. Bad or worse. Incapable or inept. You choose, though it doesn't much matter.
Last year the two scrubs currently in camp combined for an abject passer rating of 69.1. They threw 14 touchdowns and 16 interceptions. They completed just 53.5 percent of their passes. In short, they blew.
Since then, not much has changed. Now and then, one of them will make the right read or unleash a tight spiral on a long, completed pass, but that's rare. So there has been little separation between the two. Who will open as the starting quarterback is anyone's guess.
"No one has gone...'Here it is, Bill, this is easy,'" Parcells laments.
Each day, Parcells walks into the press conference room and braces himself for the inevitable media regurgitation. How did the quarterbacks look today? Do you have a timetable to name a starter? How important is it to establish one guy as your quarterback?
"That's OK; I expected that," Parcells says. "You go to any city in the league that has this kind of situation going, and I'm certain there's just this much attention. Because, it's a visible position, it's a leadership position and it's a position that historically, in this league and with this franchise, is a marquis position. It's only natural that people pay attention to it."
Maybe, but this absorption in who the quarterback is going to be, or whom the Boys might sign, is causing people to ignore the overall picture. Specifically, picking any of the available options right now doesn't figure to solve many (or any) of Parcells' woes. Neither does it guarantee that the opening-game quarterback will be under center midway through the season. Since 2000, the Cowboys have trotted out seven different starting quarterbacks--the most in the NFL. There's a reason for that. Carter and Hutchinson may be different in terms of style (Carter is more mobile), but they are interchangeable in their futility. And if Lucas or some other free-agent detritus is an upgrade, it's not much of one. It almost makes you pine for the days of Tony Banks. Almost.
"A running game helps the offense to not be shaky," General Jerry opines. "Even the best quarterbacks, like Troy, would have had trouble without a solid running game...not that these guys are Troy."
Wow. A moment of candor and humor from the General. Wonders never cease.
He's right, you know. There's only so much responsibility and blame you can lay at the feet of whoever ends up being the starting quarterback. The supporting cast will have to make plays and take some of the pressure off, or at least assume some of the culpability. That's going to be a cute trick. The offense, in total, is more bizarre than anything witnessed in the California governor's recall.
The main receivers--Antonio Bryant, Terry Glenn and Joey Galloway--appear to be as good a group as there is in football. They'll need to be. Last year, the offense was 29th in the NFL in passing. From there, it's downhill.
At running back, Troy Hambrick is slated to replace Emmitt Smith, a "diamond among garbage" who left town for more money and an Arizona Cardinals jersey. What you're doing there, essentially, is trading the game's all-time leading rusher for a guy who amassed 317 yards on 79 carries. Feel confident about that?
"I think the running game will be a positive in the end," Hambrick says without offering the evidence to make me believe him. "Parcells wants us to establish a running game, and I want to help him do that. I want the running game to be the focal point of the offense. When all is said and done, I think the running game will be the focal point. But we're in between quarterbacks right now; we're trying to stabilize the quarterback."
Good stuff. The owner and the quarterbacks say the offense won't work without a running game, and the runners say the offense won't work without a passing game. And around and around we go. Anyone dizzy yet?
Former Cardinals and Jets running back Adrian Murrell has been brought into the stable. The immediate assumption from the media was that Parcells was displeased with Hambrick's effort, or that he wanted to push Hambrick a bit. Apparently, we're all dolts.
"You guys are unbelievable with this stuff," Parcells says, chuckling a bit. Either this tickles him, or it's all he can do to avoid attacking his inquisitors and swallowing a few of them whole. "I don't see him as a feature back. Not right now. I'm just at a point in time where we still have that luxury of looking at things. What's the downside? There's no message there. What message would I be sending? I'm trying to get the best 53 guys on this team. That's my job. You guys better get used to that this first year, because the bottom of this roster is gonna be...churnable...if that's a word."
For years, the Boys' saving grace on offense was its line. No more. Last year that unit was a wreck, surrendering 54 sacks (or 30 more than their opponents allowed). The idea this season was to fine-tune the line by drafting center Al Johnson from Wisconsin with a second-round pick and reinstalling a healthy, slimmer Larry Allen. Problem is, Johnson sprained his right knee early in camp, had surgery and will miss the entire season. Allen, meanwhile, is as chunky as ever and hasn't demonstrated to anyone that he's capable of regaining his Pro Bowl form. While suffering a "puffy ankle," Allen has begged out of practice. Instead he's been riding a stationary bike, spending so much time on it that ESPN/NBC personality Newy Scruggs has taken to calling it the "Tour de Larry." (He didn't play against the Texans, but he did feel good enough to put himself on the first team, after practicing with the second unit, the day that Parcells walked out of practice. Awe-some.) His unwillingness to get into the fray has certainly worn on Parcells, who hardly sounds like an Allen proponent when he says, "If Larry is there, he's there. If he's not, he's not, and we'll just have to deal with that."
"I don't see why our offensive line won't be able to hold up," offensive coordinator Maurice Carthon says, playing good cop. "We just have to get the right five on the field and get them some reps. Right now, we're still looking at young linemen and trying to get the right combination together."
He could be right. This group might be cohesive enough to stop the opposition from burying Carter or Hutchinson or some other poor sap six feet under the turf. Then, given what I've seen, the O-line might want to consider letting the other team take free shots at the quarterbacks.
An idea I've been marinating: Parcells ought to treat his offensive players, and particularly the QBs, the way NASA handled the chimp training program for Project Mercury--with operant conditioning. If they make a good play, they get a cookie. If they screw up, they get an electroshock on the soles of their feet. Or, if they're into kink, reverse that.
Last night's dinner and dessert: two thick slices of sausage-and-pepperoni stuffed pizza, a pepperoni-and-cheese pizza roll, two sodas and an open-faced apple pie with extra vanilla ice cream. I was hungry. Needless to say, my stomach hurt a bit this morning, and I'm feeling extremely sluggish. That wouldn't be a big deal if tonight weren't the media flag-football game. (That's exactly what we need around here--more bad football.)
The game will pit the print and online guys against television and radio; a bunch of media dorks feigning athleticism for some charity I've already forgotten. Gotta love it.
Rumor has it that Babe Laufenberg, currently of KTVT-Channel 11, formerly of the Dallas Cowboys, will quarterback the TV side. Even if he doesn't, the television team is manned by more players than the Miami Hurricanes--and more speed. They have a squad of overqualified ringers.
On the print side, we have a small knot of able bodies who are long on desire but painfully short on talent. Especially our quarterback. The guy is a real jackass, and he's even worse on the field.
Before the game begins, Clarence Hill, a football writer for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, gathers his team and talks us up. We call him coach.
"OK, we're going to have to win this on defense," he says, staring right at our signal caller, whom he tried to trade before the game for "future considerations." I'm not kidding. Maybe it's just me, but that doesn't sound like he has a lot of faith in our quarterback. Neither do I. Did I mention that I'm the jackass in question?
Heading into the game, I expected a friendly contest. I was wrong. It was pure bloodlust out there; people were pointing and screaming and cursing each other. And that was just on our team. The cross-squad communication was much racier. (Not surprisingly, I nearly got in a fight with someone from Cowboys TV who wouldn't shut his fat mouth...or maybe I wouldn't shut my fat mouth. Who can remember the details?)
OK, the good news: Laufenberg didn't play. The bad news: I did.
In the end, I passed for one touchdown, ran for another and threw a pick. Other than that, my play was woeful. I was like Steve Pelluer out there, only smaller and slower and with less arm strength. The bastard from Cowboys TV sacked me a few times, saddling me with so much shame that I wanted to commit suicide on the 50-yard line.
Largely because of my lackluster quarterbacking, the television guys smoked us. I'd tell you the score, but I really don't remember. They had a whole lot; we had decidedly less.
But hey, we raised some money for that charity I can't recall. I've gotta feel good about that, right? Mmm, no, not really.
Aside from watching these guys run themselves tired and listening to Parcells wax poetic, this camp has been a dreadful bore--a lot like subjecting yourself, at the behest of your girl, to those home-improvement shows on The Learning Channel.
I'm thinking about goosing one of the TV chicks...you know, just to get the party started. Before I can implement my plan, defensive tackle Willie Blade decides to throw down with offensive lineman Gennaro DiNapoli. The two are pushing and swearing in one of those this-is-going-nowhere football fights. Parcells is less than thrilled and breaks up the fracas posthaste. (He should have made them fight to the death, gladiator style...now that would have been worth the trip down here.) Running over to Blade, Parcells gives him a solid ass chewing and drags him around by the face mask. The coach may be thick in the waistline, but he's not the sort you want to mess with.
"We don't need that; some guys are fighting the guys they know, but they won't fight the guys they don't know," Parcells says. "We need to start fighting the guys we don't know, instead of the guys we know. You remember from the neighborhood, fighting the guys in your neighborhood, but that other neighborhood you went to, you weren't sure who was over there. That's a little different."
The indiscretion aside, Parcells expects Blade to contribute this year (once he returns from an MCL strain that will put him out for at least a month): "I think we can get something out of him." And they'd better, because if this team is going to improve in terms of record, the charge is going to be led by the defense, and no one can fall behind.
Blade will join Michael Myers and John Nix in trying to replace tackle Brandon Noble, who fled for Washington (but who has since been lost for the season because of injury). The rest of the line likely will remain the same, manned by Pro Bowl tackle La'Roi Glover and ends Greg Ellis (who tied a career high with 7.5 sacks last year) and Ebenezer Ekuban (who had only one sack last year).
The linebackers, particularly Dexter Coakley and Dat Nguyen, drew "no complaints" from Parcells, and the secondary looks strong. Although an arm injury will keep Pete Hunter out for close to two months (he was battling for a job as a nickel cornerback), you're still looking at a defensive backfield manned by Darren Woodson, Roy Williams and first-round draft pick Terence Newman, who likely will start at left cornerback. Not bad. On the right side, there's competition between Derek Ross, who last season tied for the NFL lead among rookies with five interceptions, and Mario Edwards. Both have this irritating habit of not turning around and looking for the ball.
"I think the competition in our secondary is healthy," Woodson says. "Back when we had Kevin Smith and Deion [Sanders] and those guys fighting for jobs, it ended up turning us into a pretty good defense."
Pretty good might not cut it. Parcells is determined to have his defense not only stop the opposition, but also act as a catalyst for point production and increased field position. Given the flotsam on the offense, a defense that doesn't assert itself portends disaster.
"The defense has been generally OK," Parcells says in what amounts to effusive praise. "But I always tell my defense, 'Don't be satisfied with stopping guys; you've gotta create opportunities for your offense. Just because you hold them to three-and-out, don't think you've done your job just yet.'"
My job, meanwhile, is to sort through all this information, all this coach-speak and football-talk and general Cowboys propaganda and leave here with some semblance of sanity and a story that doesn't read like a Bazooka Joe comic. After nearly a week in San Antonio, the odds on either are long. I feel like Eddie Murphy in Bowfinger, constantly running in circles while muttering that I'm keepin' it together.
I need a strong drink, and fast.
In this, the last full week of training camp, the Cowboys and Jerry Jones have decided to extend a bit of good will by holding a "media appreciation dinner." I suppose it goes without saying that they didn't know I'd be here.
The dinner is being held outside downtown in a private room of a quaint Mexican restaurant. The food is good and plentiful, and there are cute little Mexican waitresses in short skirts prancing around, filling everyone's drink order with sweet smiles. Parcells is notably absent, but J.J. and vice president/son Stephen are here, along with a phalanx of reps from the PR department and nearly every journalist within a 100-mile radius (media types never miss out on free food and booze). I've got to hand it to Jones--he really did this thing with class. The liquor is all top-shelf, and every few minutes a waiter with a tray of different types of high-octane tequila wanders by offering shots. I'll never say another bad word about Jones--at least I won't say another bad word about him in this story.
If there's a sober head in the house, he hasn't presented himself. Football, and a season that might shape up as dreadful as the last few, is the farthest thing from anyone's mind right now. Everyone appears to be having a grand time, though I'm beginning to think I'm not welcome. More than once this evening I was having a wonderful conversation with a stranger, trying my best to be friendly and engender relationships, only to have it end abruptly once they learned my identity. Usually it went like this: "I'm John, by the way. I work for the Dallas Observer." Long pause; sudden, disgusted look; terse reply: "Oh, you're that guy..." Generally they made a point of telling me what a dirtbag I am for ripping on wideout Reggie Swinton's (horrendous) rap CD, or getting in a fight with former Texas Rangers outfielder Carl Everett.
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"You're way out there in left field," Jean-Jacques Taylor of The Dallas Morning News confides in me. He's trying to be nice.
As I toss back another shot of Patron and suck on an orange, I resign myself to the fact that sometimes things just don't go your way. Sometimes, despite your best intentions, things fall apart, which reminds me of something Parcells said earlier this week.
"I'm not sure what's going to transpire," he said. "But we're getting to the point where I have to decide. It's just like all of you sitting there; I'm sure you've sat there many days and said what exactly am I gonna write about today. Isn't that right? But now you gotta have this thing in by whatever time, so pretty soon you're gonna have to decide what you're gonna write about. Isn't that right? Do you always feel good about what you write about? Honestly, candidly? Do you always feel 100 percent that, hey, this is Pulitzer Prize stuff right here? Or are there other days when you say, man, this is no good, I hope they just put this on a sidebar. That's really no different than what I'm doing here. I have to decide something. Sometimes you could make a wrong decision, you could have the wrong set of information and write a story that we all know isn't what you wanted to say or that didn't come out the way you wanted. That's what happens, too, in football. You make a decision, and you make it with the best available information, the best set of circumstances you can find, the best facts; you make the judgment the best you can...and you're still wrong. That can happen very easily."
I'll drink to that. We all should.