For Cowboys' Parcells, A Little Affirmation

Coach Bill Parcells watched one slip away in the final seconds of the Redskins' 14-13 comeback Sept. 19.
Coach Bill Parcells watched one slip away in the final seconds of the Redskins' 14-13 comeback Sept. 19. (By Toni L. Sandys -- The Washington Post)

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By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 13, 2005

IRVING, Tex., Dec. 12 -- Bill Parcells had reached deep into his bag of coaching tricks to save not only the Dallas Cowboys' season, but maybe his tenure with the team. He had entrusted everything to a veteran quarterback and two young offensive linemen whom he had little reason at the time to trust, and it had paid off. He had tried a couple of gadget plays that had worked perfectly, and his players and the fans at Texas Stadium were celebrating a close victory over the Kansas City Chiefs.

But in the moments after his club's narrow escape Sunday evening, Parcells already was setting a time limit for how long he could savor the win. He would give himself a few hours, and then it would be on to the next game, the next opponent, the next crisis. He would be in the office at the crack of dawn Monday. That's what coaches do. And coach not only is what Parcells does; it's who he is, perhaps more than ever.

"I'm going to enjoy it tonight," Parcells said after the game Sunday, a 31-28 victory secured only after the Chiefs missed a field goal as time expired. "But we'll be at it real early in the morning."

Parcells knew, better than anyone else in the stadium, that while the Cowboys had saved their season, that salvation could be only temporary. A 64-year-old grandfather with two Super Bowl triumphs and a future spot in the Hall of Fame, Parcells knew that, in suburban Washington, a 65-year-old grandfather who already is in the Hall of Fame and has three Super Bowl wins would be at Redskins Park just as early Monday, readying to face Parcells next weekend at FedEx Field.

It's a Cowboys-Redskins week spiced up by the fact that each of the coaches, Parcells and Joe Gibbs, has his team perhaps on the verge of getting back into the playoffs -- and perhaps on the verge of having it all fall apart, and being forced to enter the offseason facing questions about whether he still has the passion to try again next season.

"We knew we had our backs against the wall," tight end Dan Campbell said in the Cowboys' locker room Sunday. "As far as the four games we had left, we knew we had to go out and win them all. This game gives us a lot of momentum. We need that going into the Washington game."

Parcells is nearing the end of the third season of the four-year, approximately $18 million contract that he signed when Cowboys owner Jerry Jones lured him out of retirement in 2003. Many people in the league thought when Parcells accepted the Dallas job that he was doing it for the money following his divorce, or because he was bored with life outside football. Some figured he never would be able to coexist with the equally willful Jones. But when Parcells took a Cowboys team that had gone 5-11 in three straight seasons under former coach Dave Campo and went 10-6 and reached the playoffs in his first season, his coaching magic seemed as potent as ever.

Then came last season, and for the first time a Parcells-coached club regressed in his second year as coach. The New York Giants, New England Patriots and New York Jets all had improved by at least three victories in Parcells's second season, but the Cowboys went 6-10. Parcells and Jones released troubled starting quarterback Quincy Carter in training camp, and veteran quarterback Vinny Testaverde failed to recapture the glory of his previous pairing with Parcells with the Jets. Even some Parcells associates wondered if he'd walk away.

But he didn't. He tightened his grip on the Cowboys, reworking his coaching staff and the team's scouting department. He got rid of Testaverde but signed another of his former quarterbacks, Drew Bledsoe, whom he'd drafted in New England. Jones oversaw a free agent spending spree that included the additions of Bledsoe, guard Marco Rivera, defensive tackle Jason Ferguson and cornerback Anthony Henry, and the Cowboys used their two first-round draft choices in the spring to bolster their defense with the selections of end Marcus Spears and linebacker DeMarcus Ware. Parcells ordered his assistants to learn to coach a three-lineman, four-linebacker defensive scheme and invited some of his former Giants greats, nose tackle Jim Burt and linebacker Carl Banks, to training camp to help tutor young Cowboys defenders.

That raised the stakes for this season, since a flop by Bledsoe likely would have meant playing time for young quarterback Drew Henson and a rebuilding project that doesn't seem to interest Parcells. All was fine when the Cowboys won seven of their first 10 games, even with a late collapse against the Redskins in a Monday night defeat in Week 2. Then came losses to the Denver Broncos on Thanksgiving and to the Giants in a showdown for first place in the NFC East, and a defeat Sunday to the Chiefs would have left the Cowboys in free-fall.

"We had a lot riding on this game emotionally," defensive end Greg Ellis said afterward.

Instead, they're still a game behind the Giants atop the NFC East and, at 8-5, in the thick of the wild-card chase. The Cowboys beat the Chiefs in part because they benefited from a defensive-holding call in the final minute and Kansas City place kicker Lawrence Tynes sent a 41-yard field goal attempt wide right as the game ended. But they also won in large part because Parcells, known as a conservative coach, opened up the offense, figuring his club needed a big scoring day to beat the Chiefs.

That put the game in the hands of Bledsoe, who had struggled in recent weeks after the Cowboys lost left tackle Flozell Adams to a season-ending knee injury. It put the game in the hands of tackles Rob Petitti and Torrin Tucker a week after they had been dominated in the Giants game by defensive ends Michael Strahan and Osi Umenyiora, who helped to pressure Bledsoe into two interceptions and two lost fumbles. But they all came through Sunday, as the Cowboys went without a turnover and Bledsoe threw for 332 yards and three touchdowns, including the game-winner to Campbell with 22 seconds left. Wide receiver Terry Glenn scored touchdowns on a second-quarter flea-flicker and a fourth-quarter end-around.

"People try to pigeonhole Bill and make it out like he just wants to run the ball and play defense," Bledsoe said. "I've been with him before, and we threw it more than anyone in the history of the league. He's not afraid to take a chance on a trick play here and there. He felt that would give us a chance, and it obviously did. Those plays turned into points for us."

Parcells has said repeatedly that he likes this Cowboys team. When his younger brother, Don, died last month after a bout with brain cancer, Bill Parcells attended the funeral in New Jersey hours before a Monday night triumph at Philadelphia. Late that night, he talked about how he'd learned that day not to have a troubled heart. Then he excused himself to be with his "other" family, his football family. His players often get tough love from him. But, at least with this team and these players, it is love nevertheless. Some associates say that the losses in Parcells's personal life -- his crumbled marriage and his brother's death -- seem to have left him clinging even more tightly to football. Sunday's win gave him a chance to gush about his team again, albeit briefly.

"The players took the challenge real well," he said. "I told them we had to play real aggressive offensively if we were going to have a chance to beat these guys. . . . I like my team. I like the players on it. They work hard. They came in here after a couple tough losses, and they came in ready to work [last] week. It was probably the best week of practice we've had, and they were ready to roll. . . . It was big for all of us. This wasn't just Drew Bledsoe."

Then, it was back to work. Parcells was back to coaching, and he wasn't about to give Gibbs any hints about whether Sunday's offensive approach would last another week.

"I don't know," Parcells said. "We'll see what we've got to do. It could be snowing in Washington."


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