- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 28, 2003

IRVING, Texas — Imagine an NFL owner hiring a big-name coach, paying him big bucks and then watching as he does big things, almost magically changing a team’s fortunes overnight.

Imagine is all Washington Redskins fans can do right now. The Dallas Cowboys are living it.

The Redskins play their blood rivals Sunday at Texas Stadium, and the two teams seem headed in opposite directions. Under Steve Spurrier, who signed a five-year, $25 million contract with owner Dan Snyder after leaving a legacy of unqualified success at the University of Florida, the Redskins struggled to a 7-9 record last year and find themselves in perhaps even more dire circumstances this season. They are 3-4 and heading south. And not just to Texas.

Now look at Dallas. It’s Tuna Time again in the NFL.

In their first year under Bill Parcells, aka the Big Tuna, the celebrated former coach of the New York Giants, New England Patriots and New York Jets, the Cowboys already have won five games, equaling their total of each of the past three years. Spurred by Parcells’ iron-fisted, zero-tolerance form of leadership and his rigid preparation, the Cowboys lead the NFC East in defiance of all logic. With few exceptions, this is essentially the same team that went 5-11 last season.

Even though the Cowboys, who had not lost since their opener, were blanked by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 16-0 on Sunday, hope has replaced mope at the team’s Valley Ranch headquarters.

“I didn’t know one man could come in and change the confidence of this team. Parcells has done that,” says Cowboys veteran safety Darren Woodson, who played in three Super Bowls under Jimmy Johnson in the 1990s.

Lured by a four-year, $17.4 million offer from owner Jerry Jones and the challenge of turning bad into good, Parcells, 62, returned to the NFL last winter. His return came three years after he quit the Jets and announced he had coached his last game and one year after he signed a contract to coach Tampa Bay, then backed out and proclaimed, “I’m retired for good.”

Many wondered how Parcells and Mr. Jones — two large, in-charge egos who need to be heard — would get along. But Mr. Jones has ceded a lot of authority, and both pronounce their relationship fine, at least for now. The changes wrought by Parcells have bordered on the supernatural according to many, including Tampa Bay receiver Keyshawn Johnson, who played for Parcells with the Jets.

“Some people just got it,” Johnson said last week. “Michael Jordan walks in a room, and it lights up. [Parcells] just has it. He’s just one of those guys that has magic as a head coach.”

Informed of Johnson’s comment, Parcells says, “I don’t know anything about that. I really don’t. I got a lot better magic when the players are big and fast.”

Parcells’ players were neither big nor fast nor good enough to beat the Buccaneers, who were battered and inconsistent but still the defending champs. And they played like it. As bad as Dallas looked, the loss stalled but did not necessarily halt their turnaround. The Cowboys lead the Philadelphia Eagles by one game in the division, and it is safe to assume Parcells and his staff are laboring mightily to try to fix what went wrong.

A great deal has been written and said about how Parcells has instilled confidence, smarts, toughness and adherence to fundamentals, how he has his team — and here’s the operative word— believing. Much of it is true. But Parcells warns against distractions, notably the opinions of outsiders, good or bad. He tells them not to “eat the cheese,” i.e., don’t believe what you read or hear.

In what amounts to his Ten Commandments for quarterbacks, the first, he says is that “Family, friends, relatives, agents, press, media or TV people know nothing about what’s going on here. Don’t pay any attention to them on football matters.

“I am not being condescending,” he says, “but I don’t want my quarterback to be affected by peripheral people.”

But the results of Parcells, whose success with the Giants (two Super Bowl victories), Patriots and Jets place him in the company of Don Shula, Vince Lombardi and other NFL coaching legends, has been singled out and praised by nonperipheral people who are presumably in the know.

“He’s brought a winning attitude, a competitive spirit that allows us to go out and compete every day in practice, to challenge us to get better on an everyday basis,” says third-year quarterback Quincy Carter, who, one bad game against the Buccaneers notwithstanding, has improved greatly.

“He preaches that preparation equals confidence. If you’re prepared and know your assignments, it’s a lot easier to play football. He also tells us that every team we play is going to be a great challenge…. He’s a hard-nosed coach, and he expects the best of out you on an everyday basis.”

All coaches hate mistakes and say they pay attention to details. Parcells is brutally unforgiving with such matters and, probably more than any coach since Lombardi, uses fear and intimidation as coaching tools. He can be one menacing, scary man, especially to players whose effort or intelligence is lacking. Carter was asked about that.

“I only fear God,” he says. “There’s no fear but a great respect and regard for the man.”

But wide receiver Joey Galloway came right out during training camp and said it: “This man scares me.” Wide receiver and special-teams ace Randal Williams, who returned an opening onside kick for a touchdown against Philadelphia a few weeks ago, confessed he had a little fear when he learned of Parcells’ hiring.

“Just from what I’d heard, what I’d seen,” Williams says. “I grew up in New York, so I watched him coach the Giants and the Jets. And it’s pretty much true. Training camp was probably one of the toughest camps in the NFL. But you know what? We bought into his system. A lot of people are out there working hard, and when we go out there on Sunday, it all pays off.”

It’s best that Parcells didn’t hear that. He is prickly about a good many things, including the notion players have bought into (others have called it “brainwashing”) what he is trying to teach.

“I don’t like that term,” he says. “I think it’s a very overused thing. ‘Bought into.’ It implies a coach has to convince the player that what they’re doing is the right thing. I don’t think players look at it like that. Anything you can do to help a player be successful and present it in a manner that’s conducive to a good learning laboratory, I think a player will take that from any teacher.

“If he’s smart enough, just because it’s a little different from what he’s heard before, a good guy will try to assimilate that information and say, ‘Hey, you know what? Maybe that’s something I can add.’ Half these young players, they wouldn’t even know what they were buying into. They have no point of comparison in professional football to Bill Parcells.”

What some see as fear tactics, Parcells views as performance maximization. And it isn’t that he constantly screams. True, he intimidates and infuriates. But Parcells also knows when to teach and not terrorize, when to offer a pat on the back as opposed to a slap on the head. Figuratively speaking, of course.

“I’d say that he is one of the best communicators in the world,” Carter says. “He understands how to get along with people. He understands what motivates people differently.”

After one unproductive season, the Green Bay Packers gave up on Terry Glenn, a talented but sometimes troubled wide receiver whom Parcells once called “she” when both were with New England. Glenn had three touchdown receptions against Detroit earlier this season, including a spectacular, tiptoe grab in the back of the end zone. Galloway, a three-year bust since coming from Seattle for a pair of No.1 draft picks, is having his best season in Dallas. Players previously considered marginal, such as defensive tackles Willie Blade — released last year by the Cowboys and the expansion Houston Texans — and Daleroy Stewart, are contributing to the defense.

“Bill Parcells has created a vision,” defensive tackle La’Roi Glover says. “We’re well-prepared, and it’s his motivational tactics that separate him from the rest of the coaches in this league.”

Parcells acknowledges he sometimes treats his players unfairly, but he wants to see how they react under dire circumstances. Will they fold or meet the difficulty head-on? As he told a reporter recently: “If the world comes down on their head a little bit, where are they going then?”

The Cowboys are going back home to play the Redskins on Sunday. Beyond that, their destination is unknown. The Buccaneers exposed many of their weaknesses, especially on offense, many of which Parcells warned people about, even during the winning streak. Not once did Dallas run a play inside the Tampa Bay 20.

The Cowboys might be different — they haven’t made the playoffs since 1999 — but Parcells has repeatedly warned that some sort of “crisis” looms, that it’s just a matter of time until it hits. The Buccaneers game doesn’t qualify, but losing to the troubled Redskins certainly would.

“I keep going back to boxing,” Parcells says. “The higher up you go, there’s a greater chance you’re going to run into somebody that knows how to fight, too. And it’s when you get there that the little things that could be overlooked, the minutiae, that now decide the outcome of the fight.

“It’s very simple, but it’s very misunderstood. Winning and how to win are very much misunderstood in sports, I think. I think you have to teach your team to guard against things that cause you to lose games. You have to continually harp on ‘em, harp on ‘em, harp on ‘em. Not tolerate ‘em. And replace players that continue to do things that aren’t going to put you in the best situation.”

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