Cowboys capitalize on failed onside kick

IRVING, Texas -- In terms of pure (in your) face value, one might suggest the catalyst for the Dallas Cowboys' fourth straight victory on Sunday afternoon occurred on the opening kickoff, when an ever-diligent Randal Williams transformed the attempted trickery of the Philadelphia Eagles special teams into a stunning touchdown return.

But, no, the seeds of a 23-21 victory that boosted the Cowboys to a two-game advantage in the NFC East and produced the club's best start to a campaign since 1995, were actually sown by the man with whom most of the early-season success has originated.

And that, of course, would be head coach Bill Parcells.

"It all started last Monday in the team meeting," recalled owner Jerry Jones, "when Bill basically told our guys, 'Hey, I'm not afraid of the Eagles and you shouldn't be afraid of them, either.' He said he didn't care what happened in the past, that history is history, and we were starting with a clean slate against (Philadelphia). Our players responded to that."

Indeed, hours before the key divisional game, a matchup quietly viewed by some Dallas veterans as a statement moment for some of their more callow teammates, several young players like defensive tackle Willie Blade were literally bouncing off locker room walls. The high energy level and resultant frenetic approach carried over into the contest, too, as Parcells' emerging team took another step toward converting the fans at Texas Stadium into true believers again.

Philadelphia may have been Eagle-eyed on occasion. But at crunch time, it was the Cowboys who were steely-eyed and refused to blink when confronted by several late opportunities to simply pack it in. The resolve was appropriate given that the late Tex Schramm, the onetime Dallas team president and an innovator who contributed mightily to the NFL's pre-eminence in our society, was inducted into the hallowed Ring of Honor during a halftime ceremony.

The box score will correctly indicate that it was Billy Cundiff's 28-yard field goal with just 1:11 remaining -- a kick that snapped a six-game losing streak to Philadelphia during which the Eagles had dominated by an average of 23.3 points -- that morphed a veteran coach's Monday speech into Sunday deeds.

But if luck is the residue of design, then pluck is often the by-product of paying attention to details, and the Parcells band of boy scouts was certainly well prepared for Sunday's game. In truth, every coach in the league sweats the detail stuff, preaches to his team that it must do the "little things" necessary to win in a league where, historically, 50 percent of games are determined by one score.

Parcells, though, lives for detail stuff. And his inherent obsession with matters a lot of folks would deem little more than useless minutiae or trifling trivia not only borders on fanaticism, but clearly trickles down to his assistant coaches and his players.

"You name the situation, we practice for it, I think," said tailback Troy Hambrick, who slugged into the middle of the Philadelphia defense 18 times for 46 rushing yards. "There isn't anything that happens in a game that we haven't practiced for. Stuff you figure will never happen? You can bet that, at some point since camp, (Parcells) has brought it up."

That level of preparedness was never more obvious than on the opening kickoff.

Just as the Cowboys broke the huddle, special teams coach Bruce DeHaven cautioned Williams about the potential for an onside kick, and warned him about peeling back too soon to block for a return. So when David Akers knuckle-balled the opening kickoff to his left, Williams stepped slightly forward instead of in reverse, and won a jump-ball with Eagles special team players Roderick Hood and Correll Buckhalter.

Caught flat-footed by Williams' countermove, the Eagles could only chase the Cowboys backup wide receiver to the end zone. His 37-yard touchdown in a blinding three seconds now ranks as the quickest score at the outset of any game, since the NFL began using the scoreboard clock as the official timepiece in 1970.

The play, which clearly stunned the Eagles for much of the first half, was the first failed gambit by Philadelphia and coach Andy Reid. It was hardly the last, however, as a team that has advanced to the NFC championship contest in each of the past two seasons, saw a two-game winning streak halted.

Said Akers of the trick kickoff: "Either you're going to beat a team or you're going to get burned with it."

The failed onside kickoff clearly scorched the Eagles this time around.

Akers claimed the opening-game onside kick has succeeded on three of four occasions for the Eagles, and one of those times was in the 2000 season opener here, when Philadelphia shocked the Cowboys with the risky maneuver. The play precipitated a 41-14 rout by the Eagles, at the time one of the Cowboys' most lopsided home defeats.

Of the 53 players on the Dallas roster, only 11 were with the Cowboys when the Eagles pulled off the successful onside kick in 2000, and just three of Parcells' assistants were on the staff at the time. Parcells and DeHaven possess elephantine memories, though, and weren't about to be stung by the maneuver.

"Everybody says their coaches are smart," said Williams, whose touchdown was the first of his career. "But our coaches, from Coach Parcells on down, there isn't much that they haven't seen at some point in their careers, you know? Does it make you more confident, having that (knowledge) on your side, man? Sure, it does, what do you think? They tell you something is going to happen and it happens. It gives you confidence in the coaches and confidence in yourself."

There were times on Sunday when it appeared the youthful Cowboys, whose roster includes just 20 players with more than three seasons of NFL experience, might wilt. Despite controlling the action and the tempo for much of the afternoon, the Cowboys found themselves trailing 21-20 with four minutes remaining, after Buckhalter scored on an incredible 20-yard run in which he reversed field and then deked his way past strong safety Darren Woodson at the five-yard line.

But a 54-yard kickoff return by rookie Zuriel Smith, one of several huge special teams plays by Dallas, started the Cowboys' winning possession at the Philadelphia 40-yard line. A key 19-yard completion to Joey Galloway, who had two of the Cowboys' six dropped passes, moved the ball into chip shot range for Cundiff. Dallas them milked the clock before Cundiff knocked home the winning field goal.

Even after that, though, the Cowboys had to make one more critical stop. James Thrash returned the ensuing kickoff to the Philadelphia 48-yard line. But on third-and-10, Dallas defensive tackle La'Roi Glover sacked Donovan McNabb, who suffered through another subpar day, stripped him and recovered the fumble.

The play set up a rowdy, and justifiable, reaction on the Dallas sideline.

In a contest Parcells had minutes earlier termed "a slug-out game," Cowboys weak-side linebacker Dexter Coakley acknowledged that Dallas prevailed because of preparation and tough-minded approach of its leader.

"We're a reflection of our coach," Coakley said. "He's a fighter. We're fighters. He's been a fighter in the league for a long time. … It's not like he wills us to victory. But he gets you to play hard for him. And he gives you the tools with which to win. The man has a ton of knowledge that he is passing on to us."

As every knows, knowledge is power, and the presence of Parcells on the sideline has suddenly made the Cowboys a potentially potent playoff contender.

Outside a raucous locker room, Jones noted that Parcells expects to win every week, and that attitude has raised the owner's expectations as well. Jones applauded the degree of preparation to which Parcells goes, praised the diligence of his staff, spoke glowingly of the resurgence the coach has promulgated.

"To be honest, our skill level probably isn't as good as our record, and that's why this is such a statement game for us," Jones said. "We beat a very good team today. And we're moving toward being a pretty good team ourselves. That's why I pay Bill the big money."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.