The Dallas Cowboys were running a hurry-up-offense drill during a training-camp practice here last week. No defensive players were on the field and the place was as quiet as a classroom during an exam. Coach Bill Parcells wanted to see his players do things just as they'd been instructed. When young quarterback Tony Romo got a little over-exuberant and signaled and yelled for a timeout after throwing a completion, Parcells expressed his disgust, reminding Romo less than gently as the quarterback headed to the sideline that no one had asked for all those gyrations.
A couple minutes later, when it again was time for Romo and his fellow second-stringers to take the field in the drill, Parcells called out: "Come on in here, Romo, you're so smart."
Yes, Bill Parcells still has his bark, even coming off a humbling 2004 season in which the Cowboys went 6-10 and put a blemish on the legend of their two-time Super Bowl-winning coach. The Cowboys seemed to have gotten the same old Parcells when he led the club to a 10-6 record and a playoff appearance -- after three straight 5-11 seasons under Dave Campo -- in 2003 after being lured out of retirement by owner Jerry Jones.
In his previous coaching stops with the New York Giants, New England Patriots and New York Jets, Parcells's teams never failed to improve by at least three victories in his second season. But things came crashing down for the Cowboys last season and they finished tied with the Giants and Washington Redskins, seven games behind the Philadelphia Eagles in the embarrassingly one-sided NFC East.
"If I were a betting man, you could have had a lot of me, with what happened last year," Jones said.
Now the question is whether Parcells and the Cowboys have regained their bite after last season's struggles that so surprised Jones. The team said goodbye to one veteran quarterback who had a successful history with Parcells, Vinny Testaverde, and added another, signing Drew Bledsoe in February after he was released by Buffalo because the Bills had decided to go with J.P. Losman. The addition of Bledsoe prompted Jones to continue to sign expensive free agents in March in a win-now push, and the Cowboys blended in some youth by using three of the first 42 picks in the NFL draft in April to bolster their defense.
"I hope we've closed the gap" on the Eagles, Jones said. "I would say I've really misjudged here if we haven't closed the gap. With the commitment that we've made financially and with what we've done at quarterback, we should have closed the gap."
Jones said the Cowboys underestimated the impact the offense would feel last season from the exit of quarterback Quincy Carter, who was released in training camp last summer by Parcells and Jones after reportedly failing a drug test. The team tinkered too much, Jones said, with a defense that ranked first in the league in 2003 but dipped to 16th last season.
Bledsoe, 33, reached a Super Bowl with Parcells with the Patriots in the 1996 season. He signed a three-year, $14 million contract with the Cowboys six days after his release by Buffalo. Parcells has been working with Bledsoe during camp on quickening his decision-making process in the pocket and getting rid of the ball instead of holding on to it and being sacked or making a poor throw under duress. Parcells created a bit of a stir last week when he said he needed to see better play at quarterback. But he quickly backtracked and indicated he wasn't criticizing Bledsoe, and he says he thinks Bledsoe still has some good football left in him.
"Reuniting with my former quarterback didn't have anything to do with it," Parcells said. "I was just trying to improve the position for the Cowboys, and I thought he might be able to do it. . . . He's thrown for almost 40,000 yards in this league. It's not like he didn't have some kind of track record."
The signing of Bledsoe convinced Jones that there should be no consideration given to starting an all-out rebuilding project around young quarterback Drew Henson. "Getting Bledsoe triggered a 'We can win now, plus build for the future' attitude on my part," Jones said.
The Cowboys promptly devoted $29 million in bonus money in the first two days after the unrestricted free agent market opened in March to sign defensive tackle Jason Ferguson, cornerback Anthony Henry and guard Marco Rivera to contracts worth, in total, $66.5 million. They added veteran cornerback Aaron Glenn in April after he was released by the Houston Texans.
"We added some good parts," wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson said. "We should be a much better football team."
The Cowboys are crossing their fingers that second-year tailback Julius Jones remains healthy; he missed most of the first half of his rookie season because of a shoulder injury but rushed for 819 yards in eight games. They used their two first-round draft picks (one of which came from Buffalo in the 2004 draft-day trade that enabled the Bills to select Losman) to try to repair their defense, getting Troy University linebacker Demarcus Ware with the 11th overall choice and LSU defensive end Marcus Spears with the 20th selection. They used their second-round pick on Tennessee linebacker Kevin Burnett.
Still, Parcells conceded last week, "I am worried about a couple things on defense."
The Cowboys still don't know if they will use primarily a four-linemen, three-linebacker alignment or a 3-4 setup. Parcells told his defensive assistants during the offseason to learn how to coach a 3-4 scheme. He brought in two of his former Giants defensive cornerstones, tackle Jim Burt and linebacker Carl Banks, during camp to try to help teach his players the nuances of playing the 3-4, and the Cowboys have alternated between the two defensive schemes during practices.
For Ware, that means alternating between being a defensive end in a 4-3 alignment and an outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme. "One play I'll be down at defensive end," Ware said, "and the next play I'm up at linebacker. . . . Everybody is sort of in a learning process."
As if that wasn't enough, Ware also has the season-long duty -- as the team's top draft choice -- of bringing Parcells water during practice-field breaks.
"Yesterday I was a little late," the rookie said one day last week. "He was like, 'You'd better bring that in five seconds.' Today I got it in four. . . . He doesn't lay off you. He wants you to be really mentally tough. He's going to test you on that each and every day."
That day, Parcells wore a white T-shirt with a Cowboys' star on the front and the inscription "Winning Is Our Business" on the back. When winning wasn't part of Parcells's business last season, there were whispers around the league that he might not return for this season. He has called himself a slightly kinder, gentler coach in recent seasons, and some observers wondered if he still had the same single-minded passion for the job. But Parcells brushed off the speculation and reasserted his authority by overhauling his coaching staff and the organization's scouting department. Jerry Jones said he never had a conversation with Parcells about not returning and never sensed that was a possibility.
Said Johnson: "He's back, so it's not an issue for me. . . . The team made progress in the first year with him here. It took a step back the second year. But the third year, he's always shown to have pretty good teams, so hopefully this year is the lucky charm for us."
There are question marks. The roster has a graybeard look. Bledsoe is every bit as immobile as Testaverde was. There are still-glaring holes at right offensive tackle and one safety spot. Spears has had his training-camp development slowed by knee and ankle injuries, and Rivera underwent offseason back surgery and has suffered from hamstring problems during camp. Julius Jones must prove he can stay healthy.
But the Cowboys were more aggressive than any other NFC East team during the offseason in attempting to catch the Eagles, and the Jerry Jones-Parcells marriage hasn't had any major turbulence as it enters its third season.
"By the time the season was over last year," Jones said, "in the great scheme of things for me, that's just getting started with Parcells."