Showing a Pulse

It was growing grim around here. The Cowboys were stagnant for months, and it only got worse once free agency began. While the rest of the league drove armored cars filled with cash to the homes of various players, or made high-profile trades, Dallas remained quiet. There were rumors about the 'Boys getting this player or that one, but there wasn't much in the way of substance. I wondered if Jerry Jones was too busy polishing his Lombardi trophies to notice.

Bill Parcells warned us that it might go like this. Shortly after the season ended, he advised everyone to temper their expectations. "I can't think of a position on the team that we wouldn't think of adding players," the head coach said. "But sometimes you have to live with something longer than you want to because you don't have the opportunity to fix it. We don't want to go for one or two big-ticket items and then be constrained if something else comes along afterward." He's long been a pragmatist, but as more time passed, it seemed he wasn't kidding but rather bracing the area for an uninspired off-season.

I thought that was a bad plan from the beginning, and even more so when the radio talk shows began to fill the air with irate fans who couldn't understand why their 'Boys remained idle. It was a dominant issue around here for a while, demanding attention even while A-Rod was being wrapped with a pretty bow and sent first-class to New York. Had it gone that way much longer, I was predicting a bloody uprising--something to parallel the unrest in Haiti, ending only with J.J.'s exile.

Then they signed defensive end Marcellus Wiley. Then they traded for quarterback prospect Drew Henson and wideout Keyshawn Johnson. Then the guy who was gassing Generalisimo Jerry's jet for a quick getaway breathed easy.

"The plan was for it to come to us," Jones told various journos after the Wiley signing. "There were some numbers out there that didn't make sense."

True enough. It was good that Dallas snapped out of it and started adding players, and it was equally beneficial that they didn't grossly overpay for any of them. Johnson got a four-year deal worth $20 mil and a $4 million signing bonus, which is about right for a receiver of his caliber. He's big, and willing to go over the middle, something the wideouts around here have been reluctant to do--which, combined with the fact that both receivers had overstayed their welcome, is why the 'Boys shipped Joey Galloway to the Bucs in exchange for Johnson.

Wiley got a four-year deal worth $16 mil--or the same sum that division rival Philadelphia gave Jevon Kearse in signing bonus alone. Then, Wiley is no Kearse. Both play defensive end, but Wiley had just three sacks last year, while Kearse totaled 10. Plus, they call Kearse the Freak, which is pseudo-pimp and probably a lot cooler than whatever nickname Wiley goes by.

But the Cowboys had to address their impotent pass rush, and Wiley was the best option available. (Only Greg Ellis had more than five sacks last season.) The main question here: Which Wiley are they getting? Last year's model quit on his squad, but the '01 version amassed a career-high 13 sacks for the Chargers.

"I was really surprised when they let go of him," says one longtime NFC East beat writer. "I still think of Wiley as the guy from two years ago. You know, sacks were down all over the league last year. I think quarterbacks were being geared toward getting the ball out quicker. And plus, he's young, right? He's 29? He's in his prime. I like him a lot. I think he can play."

Maybe. From this end, Wiley looks like a nice--not a great--pickup, but he's hardly the stuff to make your football boner grow. Grabbing Henson, on the other hand, was the sort of move the armchair quarterback in all of us loved. It was sexy and promising, but it's also far from guaranteed to work out.

The Cowboys got Henson by sending a third-round pick in 2005 to the Texans and signing him to an eight-year contract (that could be voided after four seasons, depending on the circumstances) for $3.5 million. That, friends, is what you call positive risk-reward analysis by the 'Boys, because they didn't give up much to get Henson, who might turn out to be a real player.

That's the trouble: "might." No one knows what to expect from Henson. He spent the past three seasons trying to become a third baseman for the New York Yankees. But his swing had a serious hole in it; besides that, he missed playing football. (Who wouldn't miss getting crushed into the hard turf by 300-pound defensive linemen?) He took his last in-game snap for the University of Michigan, where he started only eight times in his career, completing 61 percent of his passes for more than 2,000 yards and 18 touchdowns against four interceptions. He also moved eventual Super Bowl MVP Tom Brady to the bench during that stretch.

Not that any of that means much. It's all about potential for the 24-year-old. He's 6-foot-3, 236 pounds with a strong arm, and plenty of gurus keep saying he would have been one of the first few players picked in the draft had he not gone the baseball route. But the experts also said Chad Hutchinson would make a fine NFLer following his aborted flirtation with baseball. Last time I checked, Hutch was banished to NFL Europe, which is like a German getting sent to the Russian front in World War II--the prospect for surviving isn't good.

Simply: Nothing is certain for Henson. Nothing but the likelihood that his signing will make starter Quincy Carter uncomfortable--which will, in turn, provide me with endless entertainment. Just don't expect to see Henson in a regular-season game any time soon. It seems Parcells and the Pokes plan on bringing him along slowly. As well they should.

But that also makes me wonder what the approach is here. If signing Henson is a tacit admission that they need more punch at QB, does that mean the Pokes are going to take a step back this season? Because the rest of the division looks tougher now than it did a few months ago. The influx of talent included Mark Brunell and Clinton Portis to the Redskins, and Terrell Owens to the Birds, among others. Johnson for Galloway was a fine deal, but I'm not sure Johnson is enough to make the Cowboys offense championship caliber, either. There's still time to sign some others or pick up an impact player in the draft (the 'Boys need offensive and defensive tackles, a running back and another corner). But if no other critical areas are addressed, does that mean they're planning for the distant future instead of trying to build on last year's unforeseen success?

There's no fast answer. Just understand that the NFC East is going to be a bar brawl this season. At least we know the Cowboys brass is awake now and ready to fight. Which is a good thing--I wouldn't want any of them to get cold-cocked with a beer bottle from behind.

OK...I wouldn't want most of them to get cold-cocked.