The questions, or rather the warnings, began trickling in when word got around that Bill Parcells was going to become head coach of the Dallas Cowboys. That was almost two years ago. They were authored by writers who covered him in New York and New England. When they heard he was coming to Dallas, more than one East Coast writer buddy of mine sent word advising me to be careful. He's gregarious and funny, they told me, provided that his team is winning. But if things start to slip, if his boys don't perform as expected, then Parcells can become less affable--not so much surly as agitated. His frustration manifests itself viscerally, they cautioned, adding that I'd be able to see the transition from happy to annoyed. "It'll be like leaves changing color," one scribe said.
After a good stretch of summer-like, carefree fun in Dallas--during which the sun shined brightly on both Parcells and his charges and next to nothing went wrong--it's gotten a bit chilly out at Valley Ranch. The leaves, it appears, are browning.
"Yes, absolutely I'm frustrated now," Parcells admitted during a news conference last week. Those little gatherings used to be light and easy, a quick 30 minutes of jokes and one-liners enjoyed by everyone. The Cowboys head coach still throws out the one-liners, but the laughs are long gone. "Probably more so than I've been with any other team. We're having trouble with elementary things. Either I'm not communicating right, or they're not paying attention. I assume it's me.
"They're doing dumb things. That's the truth. I don't try to shield them in any way. Collectively, we perform with a lack of intelligence. What else do you want me to say?"
As he trailed off, once again searching the recesses of his brain for answers that have eluded him all season, Parcells eased back in his chair. It was the look of a defeated man or, if not entirely defeated, then dejected. The only surprise was that he didn't throw up his hands and unleash a primal scream, because this certainly is not what he envisioned for the Cowboys.
Last year, he inherited Dave Campo's players, but he did what he's always done--he converted them to his philosophy and made them into winners. This year was supposed to be different. And better, too. After going 10-6 last season, Parcells remade the Cowboys in his image, bringing in players he felt comfortable with in the past (Vinny Testaverde, Keyshawn Johnson and the rest) and jettisoning the ones who weren't "his guys" (Quincy Carter, Antonio Bryant, et. al.). Those moves were billed as part of the paradigm that would lead to a logical conclusion--a postseason appearance and, eventually, a Super Bowl. But with the Cowboys now 3-6 and showing no signs of recovery, Parcells finds himself in an unlikely position--front man for a band that can't play the music he's written.
"I put that on me," he said, falling on the sword that was officially unsheathed long before the Eagles came to town and kicked their asses. "I, quite apparently, am not getting the point across. You have to look at yourself sometime. I'm coaching the same way I always have, but it's not working.
"How do I fix it? I don't know. We're halfway through the season. If I knew how to fix it, I would have already done it."
The situation is exasperating for Parcells, and for Cowboys fans also. It's bad enough that the Pokes have played like amputees this year, but the devastation the Dallas faithful endures is compounded now by Parcells and his obstinacy. Unless something completely unforeseen happens, the Cowboys are going to miss the playoffs this season. All signs point to the season being over. That has led most right-thinking people to assume that Parcells would want to make changes. The season may have already sunk, but that doesn't mean the Cowboys have to scuttle their future, too. It makes sense, then, that the Cowboys would substitute old (Testaverde and running back Eddie George, to name a few) with new (QB Drew Henson and RB ReShard Lee to start with), except that Parcells said he's not comfortable with Lee just yet, and he has no plans of putting Henson in any time soon.
One reporter, another in a long line who were brave enough to ask the "when the hell are you going to put Henson in?" question, mentioned to Parcells that Jerry Jones said he wanted to meet with his coach to discuss "personnel changes." The journo had barely finished his sentence before Parcells cut him off.
"Jerry's not making the personnel changes around here; I am," Parcells said. Remarkably, he managed not to snarl or strangle the reporter. "Making a change now is giving a sign to my team that I'm giving up on this season and going on to next year. I'm not ready to do that yet.
"I'm done talking about it. I've talked about it every week. I'm not trying to be rude to anyone, but I'll let you know if there's a change. You don't like the answer, so you keep asking the question. A guy throws for 2,000 yards in the first half of the season. We obviously can throw better this year than we did last year. Why would you at this point in time take an unproven guy who has not played football in three years and throw him into this with the adversity that he has to face now?"
Why? Because the season is over, like it or not, and Testaverde isn't the future around here, but Henson might be. Because if they go into next season without knowing what they have in Henson, they likely forfeit next year, too. Because if they don't play Henson now, and they have a high draft pick in next year's draft, and a quality quarterback is available, their decision will be that much harder, because they won't have all the information they need. But mainly, Parcells needs to switch things up, because what they're doing right now isn't working.
"Dallas is going to be home watching the playoffs with me," said Michael Irvin, who is now a broadcaster for ESPN but who has never hidden his love for his former team. "This team is not going to the playoffs. We haven't seen anything from this team that would make us sit here, as analysts, and analyze this team and think that they're going to the playoffs. It's just not gonna happen.
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"The Cowboys need to make some hard decisions, and they need to make them now."
He's right, of course, but the truly biting part about those comments stems from the fact that he made them a few hours before the Monday-night beatdown was served up by Philly. That's how plain the situation has become: Even an unabashed homer like Irvin understands that the Cowboys have been done for a long time now and no amount of denial will change that. Even Irvin is willing to admit that this season is over, and decisions need to be made that will set them up for the future now that the present is an unmitigated disaster.
These next few weeks will tell the tale. Either Bill Parcells accepts the current situation or he doesn't. Either he plays Henson, as everyone who's thinking about this rationally is clamoring for him to do, or he doesn't. Either he abandons the delusions that have arrested him over these past few weeks, or clings to the hubris that has blinded him.
It is a critical time for both Parcells and the Cowboys. Surely the head coach can see that now, right?