OXNARD, Calif. -- In 2003, Bill Parcells shocked the NFL by coaching a Cowboys team that had gone 5-11 in 2002 to a 10-6 record and a trip to the playoffs. In 2004, the Cowboys made the mistake of thinking their talent base was better than it was. They didn't make enough changes and ended up losing 10 games.
This offseason, Jerry Jones turned the checkbook over to Parcells to assemble a Parcells-type team. At quarterback, Parcells hired the thrower he built the Patriots around: Drew Bledsoe. Jones dished out more money to give Parcells the personnel to switch to a 3-4 defense.
Parcells has a formula for winning, and after two years of coaching Jones-type players, he assembled the kinds of tough players he's been looking for. Jason Ferguson, signed away from the Jets as a free agent, is the ideal nose tackle to occupy two blockers at the line. Parcells raves about former Browns cornerback Anthony Henry, and so far, he's living up to the $5 million a year the Cowboys invested in him this offseason. Henry is decent in coverage and strong in tackling. At guard, Parcells couldn't resist the experience and toughness of former Packers Pro Bowler Marco Rivera.
"This year you can finally see that he has the team he likes," wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson said. "He has a bunch of stud linebackers. He went out and got a big interior defensive linemen in Ferguson. Now he's got two cornerbacks [Henry and Terence Newman]. It does have the feel of a Bill Parcells team."
"That gave me a good feeling spending the money that I spent in free agency," Jones said about how the draft complemented the Cowboys' aggressive offseason. "All told, I spent about $30 million on four players. I wouldn't have done that in rebuilding just to be sitting here with another six-win or seven-win season. If it wasn't Bill Parcells, I wouldn't have gone for it."
When Parcells moved from the Giants to the Patriots to the Jets, he always had Parcells-type players to call for help. Many of those defensive players ended up helping Bill Belichick win Super Bowls in New England.
Sure, Parcells brought some familiar faces to Dallas: Vinny Testaverde at quarterback, Richie Anderson at fullback, Johnson and Terry Glenn at wide receiver, to name a few. That helped the offense, but remember, Parcells is a defensive guy. He knows franchises win Super Bowls on defense. He's got two Super Bowl rings to prove it.
So with an active dip in the free-agent market and a draft considered to be among the league's best, the Cowboys are finding a new generation of Parcells-coached defenders.
But from the looks of things in camp and in the first exhibition game against the Cardinals, the Cowboys are still a work in progress. Parcells fumed about 12 penalties committed against the Cardinals in Saturday's exhibition loss, mostly along the offensive line. He knows he has a major hole in the line at right tackle. The defense is going to take some time to jell because it is so young.
"I think when it all sorts out, there is a chance we could be starting four or five rookies on defense," Parcells said. "I venture to say there won't be another team in the league that does that. I don't know if that is the way we are going to be but there is a chance."
When Parcells refers to his starting lineup, he's talking about a rotation that includes 14 or 15 players.
"If they have a role in the top 14 or 15, I think they have a role equal to anybody else," Parcells said.
The list of rookies who are likely to be part of that rotation includes Ware, Spears, Burnett and Canty. Defensive end Jay Ratliff (seventh round) also could be in the mix.
"We felt like we had gotten a year ahead of personnel acquisitions from what we added in the draft," Jones said. "We convinced ourselves early in the minicamp to switch to the 3-4."
The biggest improvement is in the run defense. Last year, the Cowboys surrendered 110.3 yards a game on the ground and 4.2 yards a carry. Most teams that make the successful switch to the 3-4 end up ranking in the top 10 or top five in stopping the run. Against the Cardinals, the first-team defense punished J.J. Arrington and bottled up the Cardinals' running attack, offering great signs of optimism.
Canty looks like the real deal at defensive left end. He's a 6-foot-7, 295-pound anchor who should give right tackles a lot of problems trying to contain him. Spears is out a month following a knee injury but he should be ready for the opener. And next to linebacker Derrick Johnson of the Chiefs, Ware has a chance to be the defensive rookie who makes the biggest impact. He's 6-4, 255 pounds and has incredible closing speed once he gets past a blocker.
"At linebacker, you've got to use your quickness to your advantage," Ware said. "You're going against 6-7, 360-pounders who give you problems if they get their hands on you. I have to use my quickness and make them move their feet so they will get tired so you can really work your moves later in the game. Everything in college I did was from a 4-3 and I used to rush all the time."
Because Parcells senses the defense is heading in the right direction, his focus for now has turned more to the offense. There, he has concerns. Outsiders question the Bledsoe move. Though Bledsoe still has one of the game's most powerful arms, he tends to become a statue in the pocket and holds the ball too long. That leads to sacks, stalled drives, and trouble scoring points.
In 12 years, Bledsoe has been sacked 402 times. The Bills went as far as putting a time clock on the field in practice to try to improve Bledsoe's inner clock in releasing the ball.
Bledsoe's sick of hearing the criticism. That's where this reunion with Parcells will either be a lifesaver or a death blow to Bledsoe. With Parcells during his first four years in the league, Bledsoe never had more than a 30-sack season. After that, he strung together 40- and 50-sack seasons.
"People have the misconception of Bill that he just hands the ball off all the time and just plays defense and doesn't like to throw the ball," Bledsoe said. "In my second, third and fourth years, I threw more than anybody ever threw during a three-year period. I threw 691 passes in 1994. When he started to trust me, we went on the attack."
Saturday's loss to the Cardinals wasn't a particularly good start for the offense. Bledsoe was sacked twice waiting for receivers to get open. Four holding penalties and two false start calls slowed down the offense. Bledsoe had five offensive possessions and had four three-and-outs. No one panicked, though.
"As a quarterback, the No. 1 thing he wants me to do is play smart, mistake-free football," Bledsoe said. "He wants me to protect the football and be smart. He will allow me to be aggressive. When we were together in New England, we progressed through those four years and gained confidence."
Bledsoe has decent talent to work with in Dallas. For one, he never had a tall receiver like Johnson, who allows him the luxury of throwing it even when the coverage is tight. Jason Witten is the most talented tight end Bledsoe has been associated with since Ben Coates in New England.
Plus, Bledsoe is playing with a chip on his shoulder. The Bills and Patriots gave up on him, and he doesn't like it.
"It doesn't matter if you are talking recess or sixth grade, if somebody picks somebody else over you, it's motivating," Bledsoe said. "I've had guys [Tom Brady and J.P. Losman] picked ahead of me. I don't think it's the right decision and I still don't. So it's certainly motivating. I want to prove I can still get it done."
Parcells also has something to prove. He wants to get things done in Dallas the Parcells way. Now he has the Parcells-type players to try to succeed.
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.