Cowboys face big test

Stephen Jones, 39, wears many hats for the Dallas Cowboys. He is the team's executive vice president, chief operating officer and the director of player personnel.

Crisis management is one of his specialties. After his father, Jerry, purchased the Cowboys in 1989, he installed his 24-year-old son as one of three vice presidents. The record that first season under head coach Jimmy Johnson, you may recall, was a pungent 1-15.

Things got turned around and Aikman, Smith and Irvin went on to win three Super Bowls in four seasons. Then came another fallow period. Barry Switzer went 6-10 in 1997, Chan Gailey was 18-16 (playoffs included) from 1998-99 and Dave Campo strung together three straight 5-11 seasons. Hardly the stuff of Tom Landry and Tex Schramm.

So Jones, in his 15th season with Dallas, has seen the thrill of ultimate victory, the agony of abject defeat and everything in between. The 2003 Cowboys are 5-1 under new head coach Bill Parcells, equaling their victory total in each of the last three seasons -- with 10 games left to play. But Jones is not turning cartwheels outside on the lawn at Valley Ranch.

"It's been a nice start," Jones said on Wednesday from his office in Irving, Texas. "Obviously, we're pleased but I'd say we're guardedly optimistic.

"This time last year, we were 3-3. In this league, it can turn on you in a hurry."

The 2002 edition lost four straight games at this juncture and, eventually, eight of the last 10. But that is old news.

Dallas' 38-7 torching of the Detroit Lions was the team's fifth consecutive win, something that hasn't happened since 1994. The Cowboys are off to their best start since 1995, the last season in which the Cowboys won the Super Bowl.

Dallas has a two-game lead over Philadelphia in the NFC East, and yet there is a perceived asterisk next to that snappy record. Statistics, as sports fans know, can be manipulated to make any argument. Victories over the Giants, Jets, Cardinals, Eagles and Lions left the cynics crunching the numbers. Here is what they came up with:

The Cowboys' six opponents (including the Falcons) have a combined record of 10-27 and not one has a winning record. The next six teams in line, beginning with the Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers this Sunday, have an aggregate mark of 24-15.

In two of those games, the regular starting quarterback (Michael Vick and Chad Pennington) was missing in action and in another, Donovan McNabb was struggling with an injured thumb. On the other hand, the Cowboys knocked Cardinals running back Emmitt Smith and Lions quarterback Joey Harrington out of games.

So, are the Cowboys actually good -- or merely lucky? Are they accidental tourists of exquisite timing or aggressive agents of change?

Parcells spent a great deal of time in his Monday press conference walking the line between defending his team's victories and dismissing them.

"We got a long ways to go here," Parcells said. "I have a realistic perspective.

"Who knows what was going to happen when the season unfolded. Part of the reason they have that record is because we beat them, so I don't look at it that way. We had a hard schedule that's been in place all along. Now that we've won some games, that doesn't mean they weren't hard. That was a hard game against the Giants. That was a hard game against the Jets. Those games weren't won comfortably. Tough game against Philadelphia. We've had a lot of tough games."

Added Jones, "I'll agree with what Tuna said. When we started the season, supposedly we had the hardest schedule in football. But things have happened. It's one reason we're not considered a good team. Really, it's tough to judge."

The Eagles would be 4-2 if they had managed to beat the Cowboys and the Giants and Jets would be 3-3. To take it a step further, if Dallas beats Tampa Bay the Buccaneers would be 3-4. For the record, four of the Cowboys' six opponents made the playoffs last year and three of them won first-round games.

Parcells, who has now guided four NFL teams through this awkward stage of ascendance, has developed a number of favorite truisms to guard against overconfidence and the weight of expectation:

It's not a sprint, it's a marathon.

I'm under no illusions.

Don't go putting them in Canton, now.

In other words, the glass is rarely half full. On Monday, the 62-year-old head coach added another Parcellsism to the glossary.

Citing the fact that his Cowboys had fumbled four times on kick returns in the last two games, Parcells noted, "If that doesn't change, we're flying a burning airplane."

To hear Parcells tell it, the Cowboys are not yet a good team. In fact, he used the word "stinks" at least five times in describing the team's numerous faults in his meeting with the media.

For starters, the Cowboys are making too many penalties; 41 so far, which projects to 120 -- "way too many for me," according to Parcells.

There were 10 runs for negative yardage against the Lions, and in addition to all those miscues in the kicking game, punt returns (5.9 yards) and kickoff returns (22.0) are not up to league standards.

"I told you I'm realistic -- that's the key word, there -- realistic," Parcells said. "I know what's going on here, and I don't mean that arrogantly. My expectations are greater than the average fan and more realistic than that of the top prognosticators. But we have some good scuffles coming up."

And then he reached into his horse-racing background for a familiar example.

"It's a long way to the finish line, I know that," he said. "We haven't gone three-wide yet and taken the whip out."

Turning it around
This has all happened before, of course -- it just never happened so quickly.

When the Giants promoted Parcells from defensive coordinator and linebackers coach, his head coaching career almost ended just as it began. The Giants were terrible, 3-12-1, and Parcells was nearly fired. He was more assertive the next season -- his players would have upgraded that to insufferable -- and the Giants went 9-7 and made the playoffs. Eventually, they would win two Super Bowls.

Roughly the same pattern emerged when he took over the Patriots and Jets.

The Patriots started 1-11 in 1993, an excruciating period for Parcells, who had spent two years in the television studio trying to recapture his health.

"You have to be resilient," Parcells said in a press conference with Texas writers last Friday. "You have to be able to deal with a lot of things that ... I don't think most people could even fathom. And it's not all just related to your job. I mean, it affects your family, your kids going to school. It affects your wife going shopping. It affects everybody. It affects brothers, your sisters, your cousins -- everybody that has your name.

"It's not fair sometimes, not fair."

The Patriots won their last four games in 1993 and went 10-6 the following season and made the playoffs and, eventually, the Super Bowl after the '96 campaign.

The 1996 Rich Kotite Jets were 1-15, but under Parcells the 1997 team was 9-7 and followed that up with a 12-4 season that carried the Jets all the way to the AFC championship game.

Either Parcells is getting better at turnarounds or the Cowboys were in better shape than their predecessors -- the truth is probably a combination of both. Another possibility is the fluid state of the NFL, where teams can now rise (Kansas City Chiefs) and fall (New York Giants) in a single season. Parcells, however, is the new coach this year with a winning record. His 5-1 start is offset by Dennis Erickson in San Francisco (3-4), Cincinnati's Marvin Lewis (2-4), Jack Del Rio (1-5) in Jacksonville and Mariucci in Detroit (1-5).

How did Parcells spur the Cowboys through six games to equal the best (and only) win total achieved by Campo from 2000-02?

Parcells' modus operandi is not very complicated. He finds players who will work hard for him, motivates them with equal doses of fear and loathing and focuses daily on critical, controllable details like turnovers and penalties. Mental lapses are not tolerated.

The defensive unit that did not allow a touchdown to the Lions is not appreciably different than the one that finished ranked No. 18 a year ago; coordinator Mike Zimmer was retained and there are only three new starters. Only 12 teams allowed fewer than the Cowboys' 20.6 per game last season. This year the average is down to 16.7 points -- a figure surpassed by only three teams. Dallas is the No. 1-ranked defense in terms of yards (242.0).

The offense, ranked 30th among 32 teams a year ago, is sitting at No. 4 (359.0 yards), with both the running and passing games ranked at No. 8. This dramatic shift despite seemingly modest personnel additions that included tackle Ryan Young, wide receiver Terry Glenn, fullback Richie Anderson and tight end Dan Campbell. The offensive line, ravaged by injuries a year ago, has been solid. Turnovers (plus-6) and fourth-down success (Dallas is 3-for-5) have also been plusses.

While the Cowboys had scored only eight offensive touchdowns in the previous five games -- including one each in two of those five victories -- quarterback Quincy Carter directed Dallas to four touchdowns in three quarters at Detroit. Carter and Glenn each had a career day, collaborating on three touchdown passes -- in the first half.

It all adds up to a time of possession (33:49) that is the league's second-best after St. Louis. Just don't ask Parcells to praise Carter.

"Don't get me started on him," Parcells said on Monday. "I don't want to tell you what he screwed up. But I will say this: it was less than perfect."

Taking control
Before last Sunday's game in Detroit, Parcells stood on Ford Field and watched defensive tackle Daleroy Stewart work out on a tender sprained ankle.

Stewart wanted to play, but Parcells wanted him to understand the stakes.

"You're playing and now we lose (Willie) Blade and (La'Roi) Glover," Parcells told him. "You've got to be able to finish the game. If you can't do that, we need to have somebody that can."

Stewart played all right. He was double-teamed early and often and it allowed Glover to cash in a first-quarter sack.

"I didn't want to let (Parcells) down," Stewart said after the game.

After all the bluster and the hype, this is what Parcells does best. He communicates a sense of urgency to his players and, more than any coach in today's game, gets them to play. It's a simple concept but very hard to execute in a league populated by millionaires.

One of the ways Parcells takes control of a locker room is bringing in people who understand his methodology. When he was with the Giants, one of his chief lieutenants was fullback Maurice Carthon. He enforced policy with other players and eventually followed Parcells to New England, New York and now Dallas, where he is the offensive coordinator.

The roster is sprinkled with veterans of life under Parcells. Then the Jets head coach, Parcells drafted Young in the seventh round of the 1999 draft and, when the line became a pressing issue, signed him as a free agent from Houston in the offseason. Anderson, who played for three seasons under Parcells with the Jets, was another free agent acquisition.

And then there is Glenn, who froze himself out of the Patriots' lineup when they were charging toward the Super Bowl in 2001. A talented wide receiver, Glenn had his best season under Parcells as a rookie in 1996. He caught 90 passes for 1,132 yards and six touchdowns, this despite the infamous label of "she" bestowed on him by Parcells. After Bill Belichick grew frustrated with Glenn's sulking, the Patriots traded him to Green Bay before the 2002 season. The Cowboys traded for Glenn last February, giving them a dangerous tandem in Glenn and Joey Galloway.

"He demands your attention," Glenn explained. "He's not afraid to call you out. That's been the thing so far -- no one is above anybody on this team. All of us are equal."

Jones, who engineered the trade in exchange for an undisclosed draft choice, has been pleasantly surprised.

"He had a reputation as having a low tolerance for injuries," Jones said, "but he's a different guy around Bill."

People wondered how Parcells was going to get through the season without picking up a veteran quarterback. But Carter separated himself from Chad Hutchinson in training camp and has improved almost on a weekly basis. He completed 18 of 25 passes for a passer rating of 133.3 against the Lions -- a career best -- before Hutchinson came on in relief in the fourth quarter.

Parcells has made his money. His spot in the Hall of Fame is secure. He has his place in South Jersey. He can hang with the horses in Saratoga, Fla. in August and watch NFL games on the satellite. So why come back and do it a fourth time? Why subject yourself to the potential pain and humiliation? That was the question Detroit writers asked Parcells last Wednesday in his conference call with the opposing media.

"You're asking me, probably, the most difficult question anybody's asked me -- and I'm not trying to be dramatic," Parcells answered. "My former wife, Judy, used to ask me the same thing: 'Explain to me why you must continue to do this, because the times that you're happy are so few compared to the times that you're unhappy.

"I will say this, at this point in my life, with my children grown up and productive in society, I was unfortunately divorced two years ago -- and I'm not happy about that -- I didn't really have anything ... I was just ready for something. I don't know why. I do know that if I said no to this -- and I had said no to a couple of others -- I knew it was over.

"I said, 'You know what? I'm just going to do it and see what happens.' "

And that is the prevailing question here. What will happen with these Cowboys?

Sunday's game at Tampa Bay will offer clues.

"That's going to be a very difficult game for us," Jones said. "They're great champions, their players know how to win. And we're probably catching them at a bad time."

The Bucs are 3-3 and coming off a humbling 24-7 loss to the San Francisco 49ers.

A loss would not be devastating because Tampa Bay is followed on the schedule by 3-4 Washington and 4-3 Buffalo. A telling three-game stretch follows: at New England and home against Carolina and Miami.

Parcells, always looking ahead, has already laid the foundation for a temporary swoon.

"We've got a lot of things to work on here," Parcells said. "We are going to have some crisis here this season. We could lose four or five in a row. That could happen. But we still wouldn't be out of the race. That's the good thing.

"So, we'll see where we go. It's interesting."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.