Cowboys Improving Under Parcells

After the Cowboys' surprising performance last season -- shockingly ending the 5-11 funks of the previous three years with a 10-6 mark and a wild card playoff berth -- what else needs to be said about Bill Parcells?

The bottom line is that Parcells' teams are usually better the second year because the players have a better grasp of how he wants things done. That improvement from within was punctuated in the offseason influx of Pro Bowl veterans like receiver Keyshawn Johnson, quarterback Vinny Testaverde, running back Eddie George and defensive end Marcellus Wiley. The end result is a more experienced and more talented Cowboys team that should be much improved -- whether they end up with a better record or not.

"It might be a better team," Parcells said. "Right now, we're better than we were last year."

Cowboys owner Jerry Jones is even more emphatic. He says the Cowboys have closed gap on the Eagles in the NFC East.

"Yes, I believe we have," Jones said. "I say that, given the caveat that the Eagles were better than we were last year. Washington may well be better than they were last year, and I think the Giants will, too. But I think we have closed the gap."

Jones says the Cowboys are better primarily because he believes the offense will be better. George and rookie Julius Jones are a big improvement over Troy Hambrick, which should translate into a better running game.

And as much as the departed Quincy Carter helped the Cowboys to a 10-6 mark last year, the passing game was also a liability at times. The Cowboys will throw the ball better with Testaverde at quarterback and a go-to receiver in Keyshawn Johnson on the team.

"I like our quarterbacking better than last year," he said. "We have a chance to throw the ball better. Just better. Better all around. We can throw it intermediate, we can throw it deep. That's not a criticism of Quincy, that's just the makeup of our quarterback position," he said. "I think we're in better shape at backup quarterback, too.

"That sounds moot, but it was really fortuitous that Quincy was able to play all 16 games last year."

A better team however will not result in a better record because of a tough road schedule that has the Cowboys playing at Seattle, at Baltimore, at Minnesota, at Green Bay and at Cincinnati in addition to their usual tough NFC East foes.

The Cowboys are also entering the season with some still unanswered, primarily at right cornerback and right tackle.

Add in the absence of veteran safety Darren Woodson, who is out at least two games with a back injury, and the secondary is a mess.

Nobody knows if Woodson's replacement, Tony Dixon, can handle the job. It's very thin behind him. Finding a right cornerback has not proved to be as easy as plugging the undeveloped Pete Hunter in for the departed Mario Edwards, especially with Randy Moss and the Vikings in Week 1.

Torrin Tucker seems to be the safe solution at right tackle as rookie Jacob Rogers is not ready. Tucker, an undrafted free agent, has problems of his own and it is a situation worth monitoring, considering that Testaverde is not mobile and needs protection to be successful. COACHING: Bill Parcells, 16th year, 2nd with Cowboys (159-113-1).

REMEMBERING: 2003 record: 10-6 (2nd in NFC East); lost in wild card game to Carolina Panthers, 14-3.

PREDICTING: 2004 regular season record 9-7 (2nd in NFC East); lose in NFC wild card playoffs.

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