Last season may have been Parcells' hardest. For the first time in his professional life, he did not make a team better. His coaching made a team worse. So he turned inward this off-season--and looked back. Back to the New York Giants team of 20-plus years ago, the one that went 3-12-1 in 1983, and then, in 1986, stood alone as Super Bowl Champions. Then stood alone once more in 1990. Back to the New England Patriots of the mid '90s, an awful squad with a 2-14 record that Parcells took to the Super Bowl four years later. Back to the New York Jets of the late '90s, a team that went from winning one game in 1996 to playing, under Parcells, in the AFC Championship two years later. Only the great Lombardi had turned such a loser into such a winner in the same period of time.
And then to Dallas in 2003, because retirement bored him and the Cowboys had averaged five wins in the past three seasons. That first team under Parcells surprised even him: a 10-6 finish and a playoff berth. But it was last year's squad, with its 6-10 record, that had Parcells vowing change.
He got it. He got it the only way he knew how--by looking back. Because change for Parcells does not really mean "change." It means returning to what once worked and may again. This will be the question of the Cowboys' 2005 season: Can a team using the schemes and players from Parcells' former squads bring success to this one?
Parcells thinks so. "We've got to do something here," he says, two days before his first preseason game, a game he'll lose 13-11 to the Arizona Cardinals, a team that's had one winning season in its last 20. The loss, however, doesn't concern him. He's more worried this training camp with evaluating players than beating the Cardinals. He has a lot to evaluate. "Since [last] season was over," Parcells says, "I've made every effort I can to improve this team."
The change--or improvement, however you want to read it--starts with the defense. For the first time in their 46-year history, the Cowboys will use a 3-4 front (three defensive linemen, four linebackers) in addition to the customary 4-3. The 3-4 is the defense Parcells used with the Giants, the Patriots and the Jets. He believes it best attacks the quarterback, which didn't happen last year in Dallas. The 3-4 relies on speed from the linebackers--speed to get beyond pass-blocking offensive linemen, speed to swarm to the ball. No NFC team used it last year, but six AFC teams did, including Baltimore and Pittsburgh--defensive stalwarts--and New England, the Super Bowl champions. It's the defense Parcells loves.
It's also the defense that forces very good players--among them, defensive end Greg Ellis, the Cowboys' sack leader the last four seasons, and La'Roi Glover, a five-time Pro Bowler at defensive tackle--to learn new positions. It also places untested players in starring roles. The 'Boys' draft picks, linebackers DeMarcus Ware, Marcus Spears, Kevin Burnett and defensive end Chris Canty, should all see significant minutes. In fact, Ware should start; Burnett might, too. And who knows what will happen once Spears returns next month from ankle and groin injuries. "From my perspective," says Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, "I want to see the young players play. But I also want to have success immediately."
Parcells knows this. So he didn't leave just anyone to teach his beloved 3-4. No, he reached into yesteryear. Just now walking past in cleats and a XXL Cowboys T-shirt is Jim Burt, a defensive tackle from the Giants' glory years, here for a week in training camp to teach Dallas' defensive line the nuances of its new set. And over there, shoving around the linebackers, is Carl Banks, another former Giant and the man who lined up opposite Lawrence Taylor at outside linebacker; Banks is also here to teach. And, oh yeah, about L.T.: "I got a message to him," Parcells says. "He's coming." Taylor will instruct the linebackers once more on the 3-4 some time before camp is over.
But won't all these former players, the ones, ahem, who aren't coaches, cause jealousy--or at least confusion--among the people who are? "I had a long talk with Kacy [Rodgers, the Cowboys defensive line coach] and Mike [Zimmer, the defensive coordinator] before I did this," Parcells says. "I said, 'Look. These guys know how to play these positions...They just may, by osmosis, bring you something, a feel, something that I've failed to get across to you.' You just can't cover every little nuance of every little thing. It's difficult for me to do that...I told the players, I said, 'Filter out what [Burt and Banks] give you. Filter it out. Take what you think can be beneficial and use it.' And that's just what you're hoping for--a fragment here or there that makes a difference."