Cowboys' Quarterback Shuffle Accelerates Henson's Learning Curve

By Mark Maske

Washington Post Staff Writer

OXNARD, Calif. -- When the Dallas Cowboys traded for quarterback prospect Drew Henson in March, the conventional wisdom was that Henson would have at least a season to learn as a third-stringer and perhaps be ready to vie for playing time in 2005.

That plan seemingly remained intact when the Cowboys signed veteran Vinny Testaverde in June and released Chad Hutchinson just before training camp. Whether Coach Bill Parcells picked Quincy Carter or Testaverde to be his starter, Henson could spend a stress-free season as the No. 3 quarterback, pressed into more than mop-up duty only in an emergency.

All of that changed, however, when the Cowboys abruptly released Carter on Wednesday. Testaverde becomes the starter, and Henson or Tony Romo -- a second-year pro who was the team's third quarterback last year as an undrafted rookie out of Eastern Illinois -- will back up the soon-to-be 41-year-old.

"It's a good opportunity for me," Henson said between practices here on Thursday. "I knew I'd get a chance to get some reps and play in the preseason. But the way the situation is now, I think I'll get a little bit more, which is great . . . . I'm confident in my abilities. By the time we break camp, I feel like I'll be ready to go."

Henson, 24, is re-acclimating himself to football after spending three years playing baseball in the New York Yankees organization. He once was a dazzlingly talented quarterback who enticed NFL scouts while battling Tom Brady for the starting job at the University of Michigan. He probably would have been a top overall choice in the NFL draft if he'd stuck with football. Instead, he was selected by the Houston Texans in the sixth round of last year's draft on the hope that he would leave behind his faltering baseball career, which he did, and he was traded to the Cowboys in March for a third-round pick in 2005.

Parcells is a former neighbor of longtime Yankees executive Gene Michael, and said that Michael and other people he knows in baseball gave him solid character references on Henson. "They were very positive about the guy from a personal standpoint," Parcells said.

Parcells said he will spend the remainder of training camp and the exhibition season getting as much work as he can for Henson and Romo without jeopardizing Testaverde's preparations. He is resisting the temptation to bring in a veteran quarterback, he said, because there wouldn't be enough work to go around. The two young quarterbacks are on about equal footing, Parcells said.

"I don't know that there is a big difference," he said. "Both are studious guys. I think Drew is a little more mature in the respect he's been a pro athlete for a few years. But football experience-wise, he's probably short of what Romo is . . . . I've just got to play them and see what they do. Do you think there are a lot of coaches in this league that feel comfortable with their backup quarterbacks going in?"

Parcells looked at former journeyman quarterback Babe Laufenberg, now a broadcaster in Dallas, and said: "You think you'd be comfortable putting Laufenberg back in there? He'd go about 3 for 20, one [interception], two sacks, a strip."

Replied Laufenberg: "That's not a bad day for me."

Henson said the transition from baseball back to football shouldn't be too problematic.

"I've flipped back and forth for pretty much my whole life," he said. "It's been a little bit more of an extended layoff this time. But once we get out here and get in the flow of things, things will come back."

The Cowboys believe that Henson will be a star someday. But they also like Romo, whom Parcells chose to keep at home this offseason, working at the Cowboys' training complex, instead of sending him to NFL Europe to gain game experience.

"I wanted to keep Tony here for a specific reason and I'm very, very glad I did," Parcells said. "I thought that Tony needed physical development first, over experience. I thought if you just throw him to the wolves, he'd get hurt. You put him in there and he's going to be all right for a game or two, and then he's not going to be able to take it. We had to get him physically ready for what I think he's going to get into."

Testaverde said he's been impressed by the team's two young quarterbacks.

"These are different times than when I came in as a rookie," he said. "It seems like these guys are a lot smarter, a lot better prepared, than I was as a rookie. They're both making strides every day, making steady improvement. They're eager to learn. They're eager to get better, and they're willing to put in the hard work that it takes to be a good quarterback."

Said Henson: "Everybody, at one point or another, comes into the league with no experience. We're both in that situation right now, but we'll get some reps in the preseason and study hard and get ready to go . . . . I want to play. Everybody wants to play. You'd be crazy if you didn't want to. I'm going in with that mindset, to be ready, and if the time comes, I'll go in there."

Vinny's Short Job Interview

Parcells and Testaverde still speak the same language, just as they did when Parcells coaxed a career-best season out of Testaverde in 1998 and the two carried the New York Jets to within a step of the Super Bowl.

When Parcells informed Testaverde on Wednesday of his decision to release Carter and promote Testaverde to the starting job, he could do so in shorthand.

"I'll tell you the exact conversation," Parcells said Thursday. "I said, 'You want the good news or the bad news?' He said, 'Well, give me the bad news.' I said, 'The gig's up on you.'"

Parcells was saying, jokingly, that if Testaverde had any notions of spending a leisurely season as Carter's backup, he'd better dispel them quickly. In truth, the Cowboys had assured Testaverde after he was released by the Jets that he'd have a chance to compete with Carter in camp for the starting job. Testaverde used a boxing analogy to reassure his coach that he was more than ready to play, saying he was anxious to get back into the ring.

"He said to me, 'Are you giving me my boxing gloves back?'" Parcells said. "I said, 'Yeah, I'm giving them back. Do you want them?' He said, 'That's what I came for.'"

Testaverde turns 41 in November and hasn't been a full-time NFL starter since 2001. But he is a fitness fanatic. He knows Parcells's methods and Parcells's offensive system, and he threw the ball well last season while filling in for injured Jets starter Chad Pennington.

"This is an offense I've run for a few years up in New York, so I'm confident I can be successful within this system," he said. " . . . I can't sit here and tell you I'm going to make it through the season. Not many starting quarterbacks do make it through a full season, no matter what the age. But I know I've worked my butt off to give myself the best chance to go through a full season. If it doesn't happen, the next guy is going to have to step up and do it. If it does happen, hopefully it will be good enough to take us to a championship game."

In his first go-around with Testaverde, Parcells convinced the quarterback to utilize shorter passes more effectively rather than always looking down the field. The result was a '98 season in which Testaverde threw for 3,256 yards and 29 touchdowns (with only seven interceptions) and the Jets, two years after going 1-15, reached the AFC title game. But his '99 season was ended by a ruptured Achilles' tendon suffered in the opening game, and Parcells left the Jets' sideline following that season.

Parcells said he is giving himself a refresher course on coaching Testaverde.

"It involves his personality more than anything else," Parcells said. "Vinny is a very meticulous person. So if things aren't orderly, it's disturbing to him . . . . I think one of the reasons why he had success with me before was when he came there I told him, 'You just play quarterback and I will worry about all the other things. You don't have to worry about chewing those receivers out because they did something. I'll do it. So you just concentrate on your job, and you don't have to orchestrate the whole thing. I'll try to do that for you.' I think that put him a little bit at ease."

Parcells plans to refine the offense to suit Testaverde, but not overhaul it.

"It's not hard," Parcells said. "I'm used to doing it. I had to do it right in the middle of the season for [former New York Giants quarterback Jeff] Hostetler once. You don't change 80 percent of the things. But the 20 [percent] that the guy can do better than the other guy or the 20 that the guy can't do as well as the other guy, you change them. That's just good business.

"The thing you're going to notice about Vinny if you watch him for any length of time is, Vinny is really pretty hard to sack because even if they [defenders] try to tackle him, he's so strong that sometimes they can't get him down. That's really true. If you don't get a good shot at him, he's so powerful that he can just kind of throw you off . . . . Don't underestimate his power. That's all I can tell you. He's a physical phenom. He really is. That doesn't mean you're going to stay healthy in the NFL. But I'll put him up against most 40-year-olds I know."

Parcells's Mentor Philosophy Is Fluid

Parcells said Thursday he didn't want to talk any more about the specifics of the decision to release Carter, who reportedly had a recent violation of the NFL's substance-abuse program. But he did talk at length about his philosophy of disciplining his players. He and Cowboys owner Jerry Jones cut Carter on the heels of an offseason in which the Cowboys kept guard Larry Allen, who clashed with Parcells over his conditioning, and wide receiver Antonio Bryant, who threw a jersey into the coach's face in an on-the-field confrontation during an offseason practice. During his Giants days, Parcells also put up with the hard living done off the field by his star linebacker, Lawrence Taylor.

"I would have to say it basically this way: I have no interest in being consistent," Parcells said. "That's not what my objective is. My objective is to be right, and to have it turn out right -- first for the Dallas Cowboys and secondly sometimes, hopefully, for the individual involved.

"They [players] don't want to be treated like cattle. They want to be treated as individuals. So I try to evaluate things on an individual basis. That's not all me. We have a joint venture here. You look at it and you assess it and you do what you think is best. I've always done that. I'll continue to do it. Now the landscape, the dynamics of this league, have changed over the 20 years. Things are in place now that weren't in place before. I was on my own there for a long time. I really was, pretty much. Nobody cares why you lose. You're just getting fired.

"I generally try to be as analytical as I can. You might find this ironic, but in all of those . . . I did what I thought was in the best interests of the player at the time that I had to decide . . . . I don't try to be consistent. I try to be right and fair. Most of the sporting media is going to generalize and say, 'Well, if he's a good player, he'll do this and if he's a bad player, he'll do that.' And that's not true. There's nothing further from the truth than that."

He has a reputation as a no-nonsense coach, but Parcells said he has grown more tolerant over the years.

"I'm a lot more patient now than I used to be," he said. "I really am. I'm a lot more secure in that I'm not trying to establish myself with some two-year veteran or some rookie player at the Dallas Cowboys. I'm not even worried about that. I think that allows me to be more analytical and to assess the situations differently. And this goes in scouting, it goes in personnel and it goes in the treatment and discipline of your team: I have a reservoir of historical information available to me based on my experience. I'd be a fool not to use it.

"Some of the saddest things that have ever happened to me are the kids that I absolutely busted my butt to try to help. I had a couple of them come to my office -- this is years ago -- I had two particular players come to my office and say, 'Coach, you did all you could do.' They're telling me I did all I could do to try to help. I've had that. Now, I never lose sight of what my responsibility is here, either. I'm not Mother Teresa. I know that."

The rules are not necessarily different for one of his quarterbacks, Parcells said. It's more about having a sense, he said, of how things are going to turn out.

"There's a tremendous correlation in patterns," he said. "When you've seen things before, you know where they're going. It's simple. I've had so much experience."

Broncos, Bucs Interested in Brown

Wide receiver Tim Brown, released by the Oakland Raiders on Wednesday after 16 seasons with the club, has told friends that he will return to his home in Dallas and choose a new team by the end of the weekend. The Denver Broncos and Tampa Bay Buccaneers are among the interested teams, associates say. Parcells said Thursday that Brown's home-town club would not join the chase.

"Not right now, I wouldn't think," Parcells said. "But I will say this: I know Timmy a little bit, not real well, but I do know him, and that's one of the great players. I remember when he came out in the draft, he was the number one player on our draft board. He's been great, and he's a great kid. We'll see what happens. The journey is going to be over some day. He's been out there a long, long time. How many years? Sixteen? Seventeen? Anything after 10 is real gravy. He has almost a decade of gravy.'' . . . Carter cleared waivers Thursday and became a free agent.

Chambers's Deal Helps Dolphins Address Ogunleye Situation

When the Miami Dolphins signed wide receiver Chris Chambers to a five-year contract extension Wednesday, it not only kept him off the unrestricted free agent market next spring, but it also increased the team's leverage in its negotiations with defensive end Adewale Ogunleye, the reigning AFC sack champion who's holding out from camp in a contract dispute. Ogunleye now doesn't have the option of reporting to the team during the season and playing just enough games to get an accredited season and then leaving the club via unrestricted free agency next offseason, for the Dolphins clearly would use their franchise-player tag on Ogunleye, rather than having to choose between using it on Chambers or Ogunleye . . . .

With rookie Philip Rivers absent from camp because of his stalled contract negotiations and Doug Flutie on the mend from arthroscopic knee surgery, the San Diego Chargers were down to two healthy quarterbacks, Drew Brees and Cleo Lemon. So they signed Joe Germaine, who participated in Thursday afternoon's practice. . . .

The New England Patriots continued their habit of picking up veteran role players by signing free agent defensive tackle Dana Stubblefield. . . . St. Louis defensive tackle Jimmy Kennedy will be sidelined at least three months by a broken foot. . . . Chicago cornerback Jerry Azumah is to miss three to four months after undergoing surgery for a herniated disk in his neck. . . . Atlanta quarterback Michael Vick suffered what the Falcons called a slight hamstring injury Thursday.