Fitting the Bill

Now and again, one of the beat writers would run into him in the empty hallways at Valley Ranch, but for the most part no one had seen Bill Parcells in months. He warned us that it would be that way. After the season ended, he told us that he'd go underground, that he had work to do, and that's how he got it done--by surfacing only when necessary.

The NFL draft and rookie camp demanded he climb out of his spider hole. Wherever he was hiding, there couldn't have been much sun. Sitting near the facility's atrium following a rookie-camp workout, Parcells looked the way he always does--pasty and busy. He shifted in his chair while he fielded questions. Lots of questions. Questions about the quarterbacks and the running backs, the draft and free agency, who killed Kennedy and where he thought Jimmy Hoffa was buried.

OK, so he wasn't asked all those questions, but it was close. They came quickly, one on top of the other, centering on a common theme--to determine how good the 'Boys are now and how much, if at all, they've improved. We were anxious, even impatient to know what he was thinking. So: good or bad, better or worse?

"I don't know that," Parcells said. "I think we're going to get better on the defensive line for sure. We've had them for a year. They're much stronger, much better conditioned. I just know we're going to be better there if we stay healthy. We're going to develop a couple of young linebackers. We'll see how they come along. You know Darren [Woodson] is at the age where you have to see it. It could happen any time. He's been working hard, and I'm hoping he can still play.

"Offensively, I think just with a year experience under Quincy's belt, that's got to help. [Jason] Witten should be better. I think we know how to use our players. Keyshawn should help.

"We'll see."

Throughout the three-day rookie camp, Parcells touched on plenty of topics, but that was his overview: some ambiguous evaluations sandwiched between an "I don't know that" and a "we'll see." Considering that he had several months of private time to prepare that answer, it was a subpar performance--akin to sleeping out for tickets to see your favorite band only to have them start their show with a Nelly cover.

But that's Parcells. He's a master of qualified expectations and tempered appraisals. In poker terms, it's called giving yourself outs. It's the smart way to handle the media, but it's far from exciting. Not if you're a Cowboys fan. It's only May, and the season is a long way off, but it's hard to gauge what exactly is happening with the 'Boys. In what direction are they headed? Again, what can we expect: good or bad, better or worse?

On that, there can only be theorizing--something Parcells is loath to do, but something at which I excel. The hunch here is that they could be improved this season and still not see that progress reflected in the standings. The NFC East is reshaping itself to mirror its image from the late '80s and early '90s--an equal-chance lottery that could spit out the winning ticket to just about any team. Take a number, hope for the best.

And so you have to wonder if what the Cowboys have done is enough. Picking up Keyshawn Johnson was a fine move, and Marcellus Wiley can't be any worse than what they had on the defensive line last year. But even Parcells will admit that they're still a little (or a lot) thin on the corners, and the capability of the offensive line, for the moment, remains suspect. And that's without even addressing whether or not Quincy Carter is the season-long answer at quarterback or if second-round draft pick Julius Jones can be the halfback they've so sorely needed. Maybe it's just me, but that's a whole lot of uncertainty for a team that hopes to get better.

"Parcells taught [Bill] Belichick how to be a head coach and run a franchise," a longtime NFL writer said, trying to assuage my concerns. "Look at how the Patriots do it--don't overpay, look for role players, find guys who provide chemistry in the locker room. You can win a championship with 52 role players--the Patriots proved that last year. They have the trigger--[Tom] Brady--and I think Parcells hopes he has that guy in [Drew] Henson."

A couple of things bothered me about what my NFL writer buddy opined. First, I'm not sure you can compare the Patriots' outline to what the Cowboys have sketched here--regardless of the link between the front men. That's a club that's won two Super Bowls in three years; considering last year's botched postseason foray, I'm not sure these 'Boys could even find the Super Bowl on TV.

Second, the allusion to the trigger made me nervous. Because if Henson is going to be the long-term signal caller, if he's the guy they hope will ultimately guide them to a championship, then he's going to need some time to develop, right? And if Henson is going to need time to develop, and if Quincy figures to be the starter this year, then how much does that retard the team's overall growth? How much does that push back the timetable? And how fantastic is "retard" as a verb? Parcells said he wouldn't "dismiss" the chance of Henson playing this season, but added: "My best guess is he's going to need a little while."

It's entirely possible that Dallas will make another quantum leap--similar to last year's surprising jump from awful to awesome--and win the division or advance deep into the postseason. But looking at the way they've set it up, and factoring in how they traded down in this year's draft to get an extra first-rounder next season, it sure looks like they're nodding to the future instead of planning for a push right now.

"I'm not building for 2005," Parcells said. "I'm just trying to take the best course of action we can. I'm not disappointed in our off-season.

"We talked it over, we considered some stuff strongly, very strongly, but we decided not to do it. That's the thing about free agency. You get graded for everything. You really do. I was telling some guys before the draft [that] what they should do is look at last year's draft. Just last year--one year back. Go through the first round and regrade.

"Some of these, you know, what do you call them? Talking hairdos? You never hear about what they said that was inaccurate."

True enough.

Off he went to disappear until the next minicamp. And off I went to talk and comb my hair.

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John Gonzalez
Contact: John Gonzalez

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