Parcells Guys

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Let's keep walking, he says. He'll talk about the off-season if we keep walking. So we do. We walk first past the other lingering members of the media, then past the autograph seekers behind the gate shouting "Greg! Greg!"

Greg Ellis stops a few yards shy of the Cowboys' locker room, where it's quieter, where other media and fans can't bother him. He's a large man, 6-foot-6 and 280 pounds, a basketball player gone bigger, and for the past four seasons the defensive end has led the Cowboys in sacks. But he worried this off-season whether he'd be able to do it again.

In the new 3-4 defense, Ellis moves over one spot. He used to line up opposite the offensive tackle's outside shoulder, using speed to get past the tackle and pressure the quarterback. Now, he's directly across the line of scrimmage from the offensive tackles, all of whom outweigh him by at least 40 pounds. Now, having to face them straight up, he fears the tackles' size and power will compromise his speed. He fears he might fall out of favor with Jerry Jones. He fears he won't get the $500,000 bonus due him at the end of the year.

At least, that's what he told The Dallas Morning News a month ago. Tonight, downplaying his past statements, he says his fears were overblown and his talent underestimated. "The coaches tell me I'm getting better at it, so I think I am," Ellis says.

The concerns, however legitimate, are a microcosm of this Cowboys defense. The switch to the 3-4 may be good for the team, but it may also minimize certain players' best assets--so Parcells wants it both ways. He said last Monday he'll also use the 4-3 this year (four defensive linemen, three linebackers). It's the defensive package with which most of his players are familiar. It will also put onto the field the quality players alienated by the 3-4.

So why use the 3-4 at all? Well, aside from it being Parcells' baby, it's an aggressive defense, and it pressures the quarterback. Plus, the Cowboys sorta drafted their picks this off-season with the 3-4 in mind. And they spent money on free agents that would best serve the 3-4. And they harped on it throughout mini-camps and the first two weeks of training camp to the exclusion of other defenses--because it's not like the 3-4's easy to learn. Just ask DeMarcus Ware.

Ware says he feels "confused." He's the Cowboys' No. 1 draft pick, a defensive end out of Troy State with a smile as expansive--and maybe one day as profitable--as anyone's in Hollywood. Parcells put Ware at outside linebacker hoping he'd play the position the way ex-Giant Lawrence Taylor did. Fast and hard. He did that against Seattle. He forced two fumbles, recovered one of them, sacked Seahawk quarterback Matt Hasselbeck and intercepted one of his passes. All in the first half.

"He's L.T. reincarnated," says Jim Burt, who played beside Taylor in New York and accepted Parcells' offer this month to help the Cowboys linemen learn the 3-4. "He might be even a little bit faster." Still, his play so far is inconsistent. At times, Ware looks "lost," Parcells says. But that's because he's learning a new position (linebacker) in a new league (the NFL) in a different set (the 3-4). Plus, Parcells says the outside linebacker position in the 3-4 is the "most mentally taxing" of any on the field. Ware's adapting, though. He says he understands "90 percent" of the new defense. Of course, he said that before Parcells announced he'd also use the 4-3 this year. Who knows how confused the kid is now.

Blame La'Roi Glover and Jason Ferguson for that. No, better yet, blame Parcells. Glover is a defensive tackle and a five-time Pro Bowler. Ferguson is a former Jet and a Parcells Guy acquired in the off-season to fill the nose tackle void in the 3-4 defense--the same position Glover was to learn. This left Glover without a job coming into camp. The argument could be made that Parcells was hasty in signing Ferguson, never letting Glover prove his worth at nose tackle. This is no knock on Ferguson; the man, after all, had 75 tackles and 4.5 sacks in 2003, but by signing him, Parcells has created an oh-shit phenomenon on the defensive line. Glover's played his way back into a starring role, so how do you use two guys for one spot? If a game's on the line, which guy do you turn to? And if you switch to the 4-3 to utilize both their skills, do you use that defense if the same game's on the line? And if you do that, will some of your best pass rushers watch from the sidelines? And just how confused will all these guys be anyway switching from 3-4 to 4-3?

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Paul Kix