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Parcells' season very unlike Parcells

WashPost: Coach struggles with struggling Cowboys
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

A Bill Parcells-coached team isn't allowed to not care, and the anguish was palpable in the Dallas Cowboys' locker room at Lincoln Financial Field as players packed up to get out of town after Sunday's narrow loss to the mighty Philadelphia Eagles. The Cowboys had squandered a late lead and had given away their chances for a victory that would have made them feel quite a bit better about the direction in which they are headed.

"These are the games that really hurt," rookie tailback Julius Jones said.

Parcells stood before a group of reporters at his post-game news conference and said: "It's extra disappointing when you give quite a bit and you don't have anything to show for it."

That has been the story of the 2004 season for the legendary coach who is trying to take this storied franchise back to its Super Bowl glory.

Parcells's coaching magic was at its most powerful last season, when he returned to the NFL and led a Cowboys team coming off three straight 5-11 seasons under his predecessor, Dave Campo, to a 10-6 record and a playoff appearance. The master was back in his element, doing things that no one thought could be done and turning a loser into a winner. And there was the promise of far, far more this year: No club coached by Parcells ever had failed to improve by at least three victories in his second season with the team.

But Parcells's Year 2-jump with the New York Giants, New England Patriots and New York Jets has not been repeated in Dallas. He cut his starting quarterback, Quincy Carter, in training camp, reportedly after Carter failed a drug test. He lost his veteran safety, Darren Woodson, to an ailing back. He had to play half the season without Jones, the rookie he planned to build his running game around, when Jones broke his shoulder blade.

He has watched the veteran quarterback, Vinny Testaverde, and the veteran wide receiver, Keyshawn Johnson, that he brought in for a reunion tour fail to jump-start his offense. He has watched his defense slip from first in the league rankings last season to 22nd this season. He has tried insulting his players, he has tried coddling them and he has spent much of the season frustrated that, for the first time, he can't find a way to get through.

This season, the game to which he has devoted his life is giving him nothing but misery. The Cowboys will take a 5-9 record into Sunday's game against the Washington Redskins at Texas Stadium. Neither club is mathematically eliminated from playoff contention in the comically forgiving NFC, but Parcells certainly doesn't sound like a contender.

"I think we're a combination of the things that cause you to lose -- turnovers, inability to stop the big play and quite a few untimely penalties throughout the course of the season," he said during his news conference Monday, back at the Cowboys' headquarters. "I would say that there are four to five games in there that we could have won -- could have, I didn't say should have -- with a decent performance at the right time. . . . We'd be in a lot different position. [But] we're where we are because of what we do."

It is Parcells's fifth losing year in 17 seasons as an NFL head coach, and his first since 1995 with the Patriots. His utter exasperation has led some NFL observers to wonder if Parcells, 63, might walk away after the season, two years into his four-year contract. But Parcells has given no hint of that, and those who know him well seem to believe it won't happen.

"You never know for sure what he'll do, and it doesn't really matter what he says or what he thinks now," said one Parcells associate who spoke on the condition of anonymity so as not to incur the coach's wrath. "He gets so wrapped up in the day-to-day workings of the job, solving the next problem and getting ready for the next game, that it doesn't matter what he thinks until he has a chance to step back and assess where he is and how he feels. But I don't think he'd want to leave on this note, and he has a chance to get better real quick if he can find a quarterback."

The Cowboys will have more than $10 million in salary-cap space in the offseason to try to upgrade their roster with free-agent additions, and they'll have two first-round draft picks in April. There have been no major flare-ups, at least not any that have become public, in the working relationship between Parcells and owner Jerry Jones. Parcells seems to have his running back in place, with Julius Jones having run for 597 yards in five games since returning from his shoulder injury.

But Testaverde is 41 and has thrown 15 interceptions in the last eight games, including two costly ones in the 12-7 loss to the Eagles. Parcells indicated Monday that he would reluctantly consider a switch this week to one of his youngsters, Drew Henson or Tony Romo, and announce a decision Wednesday. For now, though, the Cowboys have to win two games.

"I think right now we just have to worry about Washington," Johnson said after the defeat in Philadelphia. "I think we can't focus on the playoffs at this point. We need to learn right now how to win a football game."