May the Best Man Win

To the casual observer at the Dallas Cowboys' mini-camp that opened Saturday at Valley Ranch, it might have appeared that the team had re-signed Troy Aikman. Or Roger Staubach. Or maybe Elvis or Jimmy Hoffa.

The swarm of reporters who crowded around the lockers of incumbent starting quarterback Quincy Carter and newly-arrived Vinny Testaverde was so thick that a team staffer could be heard muttering: "Damn … it's only a mini-camp."

Such is the attention paid to those competing to play quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys. From Staubach to Aikman to Drew Henson -- who was essentially ignored Saturday after being in the glare of the media spotlight at last month's rookie camp -- whoever lines up under center for Dallas seems to be of paramount importance.

So why all the curiosity? Carter started every game in 2003 and led the 'Boys to a 10-6 regular-season record and a spot in the playoffs. But earlier this week, the team signed Testaverde, who thrived when playing under Parcells before blowing out his Achilles tendon in the first game of the 1999 season.

So while observers are left to wonder which passer will open the season under center when Dallas opens its season against Minnesota, Parcells refuses to slide into the "controversy" discussions.

"Here it is, for the 100th time," Parcells said. "I go by what I see. If Quincy plays better, he's playing. If Vinny plays better, he's playing. If Henson plays better, he's playing. If (Tony) Romo plays better, he's playing. If (Chad) Hutchinson plays better, he's playing."

It all sounds simple. Yet every time the Cowboys' second-year coach talked about something else, the questions steered him back to the discussion of who would lead the offense in 2004.

"I'll tell you what I told you after last season," he said. "I'm going to try to improve this team at every position. You don't know what opportunities are going to come along, but when they do, you have to take advantage of them."

For the record, Parcells said that Carter's performance earned him the title of starting quarterback … at least the title of 2003 starting quarterback. However, he followed that by pointing out that Testaverde signed with the team under the assumption that he would compete for the job. "I know Vinny's not the long-term future here," Parcells said of his new 41-year-old passer. "He knows that."

Testaverde also knows that while his desire is to start for the Cowboys, his role might be multi-faceted.

"I'm here to do whatever I can to help this team," Testaverde said, "whether that's taking snaps from center or being on the sideline interacting with the coaches."

But Testaverde certainly didn't come across as a veteran ready to accept a role as a baby-sitter for players who are barely over half his age.

"The best thing I can do, and the best thing Quincy can do," Testaverde said, "is go out and improve. Whoever plays the best will play, but if we both work hard, we'll make each other better."

For his part, Carter sounds like he could teach a course in spouting the "team first" company line.

"I came from baseball, where I had to win my job," he said. "This is nothing different. I'm excited.

"I've been through tough situations since I got to Dallas. I've always had to split reps (in practice). My rookie year, I split reps with Tony Banks. The next year, I split reps with Chad Hutchinson. Last year, I split with Chad Hutchinson again. I'm used to it."

Despite his eagerness to let the quarterbacks sort out the hierarchy at the position with their play on the practice field, Parcells was quick to point out that Testaverde was brought in to bolster the position, not because of a lack of talent in Carter.

"He (Carter) earned the starting job here last year," Parcells said. "He was the best guy, so I played him. That's what I do -- at all positions. They know that. If you're the best guy, you'll play."

While he tries to retain his starting job, Carter said he also will make every effort to learn from his ancient challenger.

"His professionalism," Carter answered when asked what he'd like to pick up from Testaverde. "I can learn more about how he carries himself on and off the field. I know for a fact that Vinny has some more tricks he can teach me."

At one point, Parcells was asked if he would consider the competition a controversy.

"I wouldn't, but I bet you will," he said to the media. "You're going to have a fun summer trying to figure this out."

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