- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 3, 2004

In late October, when the Dallas Cowboys still were considered a fluke, Quincy Carter was asked what it was like to play for Bill Parcells.

Carter, like most of Parcells’ quarterbacks over the years, has developed a love-hate relationship with the coach, the product of Parcells’ ability to berate a player one minute and laud him the next.

“I never get torn down. I accept what he teaches me,” Carter said at the time. “He’s pretty harsh. He gets on you pretty hard, but I understand the message. … I’ve really grown up as a quarterback having a guy like Coach Parcells around.”

Nine weeks later, Carter is all the better for taking Parcells’ message to heart. And all the worse.

Despite leading the Cowboys to a 10-6 record and their first playoff berth in four years, Carter remains the favorite target of both Parcells and Dallas’ fickle fan base. He enters tonight’s NFC wild-card game against the Carolina Panthers under a spotlight the size of Texas, with everyone (including his coach) unsure how he will respond.

“I think it’s been obvious to those who have watched him: He has grown,” Parcells said during a news conference this week. “But this is another step.”

The NFL playoffs are filled with unproven quarterbacks this season — look across the field tonight at Carolina’s Jake Delhomme, who had two career starts entering the year. But Carter draws the most scrutiny for his past mistakes, for his current play and for his uncertain future.

Among the 12 starting quarterbacks in the playoffs, Carter is the only one who has thrown more interceptions (21) than touchdowns (17) this year. No one has a lower quarterback rating (71.4). And no one has a demanding coach like Parcells staring over his shoulder every waking moment.

Parcells, who resurrected the struggling franchise in his first season in Dallas, has been the first to praise Carter when the third-year quarterback’s play merits it. But the moment things take a turn for the worse, Parcells’ frustration boils over.

Witness the final minutes of Sunday’s 13-7 loss to New Orleans. With the Cowboys attempting to drive for a game-winning touchdown, Carter dropped back and held on to the ball for what seemed like an eternity.

On the sideline, Parcells was caught by television cameras screaming, “Throw it! Throw it!” And when Carter’s pass sailed out of bounds, the coach was spotted saying, “Stupid [expletive].”

Carter has come to accept the outbursts as a rite of passage, one that former Parcells quarterbacks like Phil Simms and Drew Bledsoe emerged from in the past.

“I think the thing that disappoints him is the inconsistency,” Carter told reporters this week. “We can come out and play good against some very good football teams, and other weeks we don’t play very well. So I can understand where his disappointment comes in.”

For all the negative attention he has received, Carter has strung together some outstanding performances. The Panthers (11-5) certainly remember his quarterbacking prowess during their Nov.23 meeting at Texas Stadium. On that day, Carter was brilliant, going 29-for-44 for 254 yards and a touchdown in the Cowboys’ 24-20 victory.

Carolina coach John Fox, whose team plays much like Dallas’ with a top-notch defense offsetting an inconsistent offense, isn’t about to overlook tonight’s opposing quarterback.

“He has got a lot of the athletic skills,” Fox said. “If anything is missing, it has just been experience. Sometimes that does lead to some inconsistency in performance. But he was very capable in our last game. I thought he probably had his best game to date.”

But has Carter done enough to retain his job next season? Opinions in Dallas are mixed.

Both Parcells and owner Jerry Jones have given Carter mild votes of confidence. But there remain plenty of Cowboys followers who question whether Carter will develop into the franchise quarterback they have been seeking since Troy Aikman retired.

And with many believing Dallas, with the league’s top-ranked defense and a deep receiving corps, is on the verge of reclaiming its status among the NFL’s elite, a top quarterback may be the final piece of the puzzle.

The best way for Carter to prove that the Cowboys already have such a player in place would be to lead his team to its first postseason victory in seven years tonight.

“The Staubachs, the Aikmans, the Merediths, that’s what my position is all about,” he said. “A lot of quarterbacks have taken their teams to the playoffs, but I want to reach the next level. I want to win in the postseason.”

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