It is a hot morning in late July, and coach Bill Parcells has
gathered the Dallas Cowboys' offensive players in an end zone of
the San Antonio high school field the team uses for outdoor
training-camp practices. "Let's go to work, fellas," he says
sternly. All of his offensive assistants come around to watch. ¬∂
Each day Parcells takes one game situation and teaches every
player and coach who might be involved how to handle it. This
morning's situation: coming out, the term for avoiding disaster
when you have the ball inside your five. "We just want to make
two first downs here, so we'll be in good position to punt,"
Parcells says. "We're not going to do anything stupid." ¬∂ In
this 12-minute block of practice Parcells will show you
everything you need to know about the command he has over his
fourth--and you can write it on your little chalkboard that
we're not sure it's his last--NFL team. You will see him
emphasizing the little things. You will see his disdain for
injuries. You will see his intolerance of mistakes. You will see
his attentiveness to special teams. You will see absolute
control. In other words, you will see classic Parcells, at 61,
with perhaps one difference: a focus on teaching. Only four of
the Cowboys' 116 players, coaches, scouts and front-office
executives had ever worked with Parcells before he came to the
team last January. That's why he's spending more time teaching
his way of doing things than he ever did when he was coaching
the New York Giants, the New England Patriots and the New York
Jets deep into the playoffs. "I had no idea I was hiring someone
so intimately involved in every single thing that is taught to
the players--and the coaches," says owner Jerry Jones. "That's
been a pleasant surprise."
All Parcells, all the time.
"Four rules," Parcells says, as the ball is placed at the
one-yard line. "No penalties. No sacks. No interceptions. No
fumbles. Got it?" He steps into the crowd of 39 offensive players
and outlines the job of every position group. What he has to say
might seem trivial now, but it won't be if someone's mistake
costs the Cowboys a safety in November. "Hey, you tight ends,
listen to me," Parcells says, looking directly at returning
starter Tony McGee. "We get on our one or two, don't make me come
look for you [on the sideline], understand? Tony, you got that?"
August 17, 2003
Just before Chad Hutchinson takes the first snap in this drill,
Parcells tells his quarterbacks, "If I send in a play like a
pitch or a sweep, you'll know I'm delusional. I've gone crazy.
Don't run it. Understand?" They nod. The pop quiz comes five
minutes later. Parcells calls for a pitch to the running back,
and rookie free agent Tony Romo dutifully calls the play in the
huddle and walks to the line. "Time out!" Parcells yells, staring
daggers at Romo. "Are you insane? What did I tell you? You've got
to think! You've got to do the little things right!"
"We're all getting taught that it's the little things that win
football games," a sheepish Romo would say later. "I don't mind
him getting on me. I'm being taught by the Lombardi of my era."
In other practices Parcells spends 15 minutes with underachieving
defensive end Ebenezer Ekuban, instructing him on how to mix up
his pass-rush moves. He tutors punt returners on how to catch the
ball and be in position to run. He gets down in a cornerback's
crouch to demonstrate to second-year man Pete Hunter how staying
lower will allow him to break quicker off the snap. "I'm breaking
on the ball better since he showed me that," says Hunter.
Watching all of this is Calvin Hill, the former Cowboys running
back who is a player development consultant for the team. "The
planning, the purpose for everything, the instruction--he reminds
me of Tom Landry, who commanded this kind of respect," says Hill,
who also played for the Cleveland Browns and the Washington
Redskins. "But I see a lot of George Allen in him, too, with the
devotion to special teams and the minute details."
On one of the first plays in the coming out situation drill, left
tackle Flozell Adams steps awkwardly and a defensive player
crashes into the back of his legs. Adams lies on his stomach,
five yards behind the line of scrimmage, not moving. Parcells
glances at him and walks on. Next play.
It's the law in Parcells's jungle: If you get hurt, get out of
the way. Two of the first players to report an injury in
camp--tackle Joe Johnson (sprained ankle) and defensive end
Darrell Wright (broken left hand), a pair of no-name free
agents--were quickly given pocket-change injury settlements and
waived. When the Cowboys and the Houston Texans practiced against
each other, 11 Texans were sidelined with injuries. Zero Cowboys
sat out. "The most dramatic thing compared to last year is that
you walk into our trainers' room now and it's empty," says Adams,
who missed one play during the coming-out drill because of a leg
contusion. "Last year it was full of guys not practicing."
Early in camp Parcells recited one of his adages to the players:
I go by what I see, and if you're not out there, how can I judge
you against the other players? When wideout Antonio Bryant
suffered a chip fracture of his left pinkie, he finished practice
and then learned he would need surgery to remove the chip. At 6
a.m. the next day Bryant flew to Dallas and was in the operating
room for 90 minutes while the bone chip ("about the size of a
tooth," Bryant says) was removed. He flew back to San Antonio
and, with his hand heavily bandaged, practiced that afternoon.
"This wasn't open-heart surgery, but it was surgery," Parcells
told his players. "I just want to tell you guys something: This
is the kind of player I'm looking for."
On-the-bubble wideout Reggie Swinton got the message too. After
catching a long pass in another practice, he felt a pull in his
groin muscle. He rose slowly, waved off the trainer and stayed on
the field. "We've all seen what happens around here when you get
hurt," Swinton said later. "You don't make Bill Parcells's team
from the trainers' room." Swinton would be disappointed when he
heard that the strained groin not only would keep him out of
practice but also would cause him to miss the preseason opener
against the Arizona Cardinals.
With the ball on the two, quarterback Quincy Carter surveys the
situation. "Force a turnover!" Parcells yells to the defense.
"Make 'em punt right now!"
Punts, kickoffs and any number of special teams plays are never
far from Parcells's thoughts--not even the fair catch kick. An
arcane rule allows teams to attempt a field goal immediately
after making a fair catch on a punt or kickoff. "Most of our guys
had never heard of it," says special-teams coach Bruce DeHaven.
Yet Parcells takes time to practice it. He's one of the few
coaches to devote entire training-camp sessions to the kicking
"That's because he knows you've got a chance to get better faster
on special teams than on offense and defense," DeHaven says. Case
in point: In 1997, when Parcells took over a 1-15 Jets team, he
overhauled the offense to much fanfare, but he also rebuilt the
bottom of the roster with players who performed well on special
teams. The Jets' punt-return average improved 6.4 yards over the
'96 figure and they held their opponents to 4.6 fewer yards per
kickoff return. Over the course of a game that yardage becomes
significant in determining field position. The Jets finished 9-7
The Cowboys bus a half mile from their downtown San Antonio hotel
each morning to the Alamodome, where players and coaches practice
indoors, eat, practice again, eat, and have meetings before
busing back to the hotel around 9:45 p.m. Between lunch and the
afternoon practice, coaches work on plans and grade tape while
players relax for 90 minutes, watching TV or stretching out on
mattresses in Alamodome luxury suites. "There are days I don't
see the sun," Parcells says.
The last three summers he saw a lot of the sun. He dabbled with
horses and bought a piece of property near the Saratoga racetrack
in upstate New York, where he'll likely settle after he retires.
Parcells is seven years older than Allen and three years older
than Chuck Noll were when they coached their last games. Since
1999 he has said on three occasions that he had coached his last
game, most recently in January '02 when he jilted the Tampa Bay
Buccaneers, who thought they had a deal with him to succeed Tony
Dungy. When you see Parcells spending his days in a musty dome
rather than the shady confines of a gorgeous racetrack, the
logical question arises: "Do you have even one tinge of regret
"No--I know what you're going to ask me, and the answer is
never," he said last week as he walked up the Alamodome tunnel
after his 21st practice of the summer. The question, of course,
is whether he's had any regrets about taking the Dallas job. When
you think about it, why would he? Parcells has one of the marquee
sports franchises in the world in the palm of his hand. Jones is
paying him $17.1 million over four years to resuscitate the club,
and Parcells knows he can do it because he has revived three
other teams. Parcells likes money, and Jones is paying him more
than he would ever make as a TV analyst. Besides, Parcells is
having a ball. There are mornings he wakes up at two o'clock so
excited that he can't go back to sleep. Thoughts of depth charts
and play calls and free kicks are running through his head.
"I miss Saratoga," he says. "I really like the horses, and I love
it there. It's the happiest place on earth. But I haven't had any
regrets. I'm enjoying this. I've really gotten to know and like
Jerry. I just hope I can leave something good here for him."
History says he will come through again, but Parcells has never
had the likes of the inexperienced Hutchinson and the
inconsistent Carter competing to quarterback his team. Parcells
had Phil Simms when he started with the Giants, drafted Drew
Bledsoe his first year in New England and had Neil O'Donnell when
he took over the Jets. Hutchinson and Carter combined were an
unproductive 13 of 23 with one interception and two fumbles in a
13-0 loss to the Cardinals last Saturday. Neither quarterback
ever looked in control. The great running back hope, Troy
Hambrick, had four carries for minus-one yard. Dallas advanced
inside the Arizona 35 only once, in garbage time late in the
Afterward Parcells didn't appear frustrated or angry or dejected
when he met with reporters. Asked if he wanted to respond to
comments by Giants tight end Jeremy Shockey, who in a New York
magazine article called Parcells a "homo," the coach replied,
"No." As for the state of his team, which finished 5-11 each of
the past three years, his body language said, We all know we are
in for a long haul. "We had no chance to win this game," Parcells
said. "None. I just have to get back to work."
When you're coaching the Cowboys these days, there's plenty of
teaching to be done.
Check out Peter King's Monday Morning Quarterback at
"The most dramatic [change] is that you walk into our trainers'
room and it's empty," says Adams. "Last year it was full."