It's hard to figure who's in a worse spot--the rookies Bill Parcells likes, or those he doesn't. The rookies who aren't his type of guys, you can see them straight away, and you almost feel bad for them. They're too slow or too lazy. They don't tackle properly, or they can't get their hands on the ball. They make too many mistakes or they freeze up entirely and don't make any decisions at all. They don't have a star on their practice helmets, and they probably never will.
"We have four or five rookies who look like they're afraid," the Cowboys head coach says. He doesn't grumble when he talks about them. Instead, he says it casually--like he's telling us the facts, and he can't change the facts, so why get all fired up? It's cold, and it's calculating, and it's not a good sign at all for the guys in question. "I guess, maybe that's not the right word. Maybe stage fright is a better word. Whatever it was, it doesn't make any difference, you know?"
Yeah, we know. Those players know, too. Those are the guys they bring in to camp just so they have enough warm bodies to go around. They never stay long; after a while they're bagging groceries at Albertson's or begging their agents to find them work in Saskatchewan. They aren't his type of guys.
His type of guys are smart and determined and, above all, tough. Mentally tough more than anything, but they also have to be physically tough and thick-skinned. They have to be willing to let Parcells hit them in the back of the head with a frying pan, and then listen to him criticize them for not absorbing the blow properly. They have to be masochistic enough to want more, and smart enough to know that the punishment he deals them is, strangely enough, good for their growth as players. For whatever reason--perhaps because even the most articulate and educated coaches give in to coach-speak--he calls them wolves. It took him about five minutes to figure out that Lawrence Taylor was his kind of guy.
He's not there just yet with rookie running back Julius Jones. But he's not discouraged, either. With Parcells, that's tantamount to praise.
"He's making good progress," Parcells said at training camp in Oxnard, California, a few days after Jones made his professional debut with an eight-carry, 58-yard performance against the Houston Texans. "He's making very good progress. I see in practice that he's starting to get a feel for his plays. I like his running style: He's hard to see; he's got a low center of gravity; he's got some quickness; he's got some vision.
"I thought he ran pretty well. He did a pretty good job. He was in there for one special teams play and, overall, he did a pretty good job."
That's about as effusive as he gets when he's lauding a player--especially a rookie. But you know the media. We're impatient, and we like things with more emphasis and oomph. So an enterprising reporter decided to follow up. He was trying to ask if Jones had earned the right to get into the next preseason game a bit earlier. (Jones didn't make an appearance in the Texans game until the third quarter.)
"Earn what?" Parcells asked. "He earned his camp check like everyone else. We're going to use him, don't worry. You ready to put him in Canton, too?"
In that second preseason game, the one against the Oakland Raiders, Jones did get bumped up in the rotation. He did get into the action in the first half. But be careful what you wish for--or what the media wish for you by proxy. During one drive in that game, Jones carried it eight times, including four in a row. He went left, right and center--and he got hit left, right and center. Again and again and again until, at one point, the announcers remarked at how tired he looked. Most of the time, the preseason is used to rotate players and get a feel for what works and what doesn't. In certain situations, though, coaches will push a particular player to see if he can handle it. No one pushes like Parcells. He was sending a message to Jones: I'm your coach, now let's see if you're my guy.
By all accounts, Jones passed the test--that is, he didn't collapse into a sobbing pile of mush--but the trouble for him is twofold. First, there will be more tests to come. Second, even if he continues to excel, he probably won't find the backfield all to himself this year. In the off-season, the Cowboys did the smart thing and picked up Eddie George, a veteran running back who has, in the past, enjoyed the type of success carrying the football that Troy Hambrick, last year's mistake, never did. George spent his entire career with the Tennessee Titans. He was a Pro Bowler, and he helped them make the Super Bowl. But last year wasn't his best. In fact, it was one of his worst seasons as a pro. He rushed for just 3.3 yards per carry--the second-lowest figure in his career. But that doesn't mean George will be a waste here. Parcells has a history of refurbishing players everyone else would have junked. Plus, George is a veteran, which makes him safe--or safer, at least, to begin the season.
So that's got to piss Jones off, right? They drafted him with their first pick and got rid of Hambrick. It looked like he was going to be the starter until George came along. This is professional football, and egos are always involved.
"You know, not really," Jones counters. "Eddie is always positive. That's one thing I can say about Eddie. He's always positive, and he's encouraging no matter what you do. He's always there to tell you things are going to work out. All I can do is learn from Eddie."
His brother, Thomas, was a highly regarded running back who hasn't amounted to much in the NFL, so maybe Jones doesn't want to tempt fate. Maybe he's content to say all the right things, do what they ask and go from there. Or maybe he knows that, if he keeps playing and improving--if he continues to be quick and elusive and durable--it won't matter who else the Cowboys have, because they'll have to get Jones the ball. Which, unfortunately for him, will mean more tough love from Parcells.
But, hey, it's better than Saskatchewan. .
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