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Cowboys passing, winning

Parcells is surprising some with air attack

Dallas Cowboys coach Bill Parcells shouts instructions to his team as 40-year-old quarterback Vinny Testaverde looks on at training camp.
Dallas Cowboys coach Bill Parcells shouts instructions to his team as 40-year-old quarterback Vinny Testaverde looks on at training camp.
Tony Gutierrez, Associated Press

IRVING, Texas — Bill Parcells loves needling his players with witty sarcasm. It's his way of sending sharp messages.

The last two weeks, Parcells has been tweaking opposing coaches, letting them know right from the start that his Dallas Cowboys have become both a passing team and an unpredictable one.

Parcells insists it's more coincidence than message. Still, the evidence shows that he's been calling games more like Mike Martz than, well, Bill Parcells.

Rather than running on third-and-1 during their first drive against Cleveland, the Cowboys emptied the backfield and threw. A few plays later, a flea-flicker set up a touchdown.

Dallas opened against Washington with five receivers and no huddle. The winning touchdown came on a halfback pass.

The key factor is that the formula is working. The Cowboys can enjoy their bye this weekend with a 2-1 record, knowing the rest of the league is wondering what might be next for Air Parcells and 40-year-old wing man Vinny Testaverde.

Actually, anyone truly stunned that Parcells isn't living by the three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust philosophy hasn't followed him closely. While it's true he believes a strong running game is a vital component, he's willing to scrap that if his personnel can't support it.

Exhibit A: In 1994, his New England Patriots threw 699 passes, second-most in league history.

Exhibit B: In 1995, his New England Patriots threw 686 passes, third-most in league history.

"He does what his teams are most effective it," said Drew Bledsoe, the quarterback of those Patriots teams. "People have Bill stereotyped and pigeonholed as this running coach. . . . That's not who he is. He's going to throw it as much as he needs to throw it."

The Cowboys have thrown 116 passes. Only Cincinnati has more, 117.

Dallas has run 70 times. Only five teams that have played three games have fewer attempts.

The most surprising thing about that ratio isn't Parcells' reputation. Or his often-stated goal of being more balanced. It's that the Cowboys made so many changes to upgrade their running game so they could rely on it more this season.

Dallas used its top pick on Julius Jones, then added Eddie George late in the summer. Fullback Darian Barnes was acquired in a trade and Parcells asked Richie Anderson to lose 10 pounds so he could see more time at halfback than fullback.

The combination of injuries and the way games have unfolded prompted Parcells to start airing it out. It's worked out so well that Parcells has recognized the best way for this team to win is by passing early and often.

"I do think we have some firepower," Parcells said.

Perhaps the best indication that Parcells is going to stick with this approach came Thursday, when he put his best blocking tight end on injured reserve and replaced him with a tight end who came into the league as a receiver.

"I would like to run it more," Parcells said. "I could run handoffs and go three-and-out, three-and-out, three-and-out, three-and-out, three-and-out. I don't want to do that."

It certainly helps that the passing game is anchored by several of the players Parcells trusts the most: Testaverde, Anderson, receivers Keyshawn Johnson and Terry Glenn, and second-year tight end Jason Witten.

Parcells coached Testaverde, Anderson and Johnson on the Jets. He had Glenn on the Patriots. And Witten reminds him of a young Mark Bavaro, a reliable receiver on his Super Bowl-winning New York Giants teams.

The comfort they give him can't be overstated when he's putting together a game plan.

Things were different last season, when Parcells was getting reacquainted with Anderson and Glenn and figuring out what kind of team he had.

Through three games, like now, Dallas was 2-1. But the then-and-now statistical comparison ends there.

With Quincy Carter at quarterback, Dallas was 51-of-95 (54 percent) for 708 yards with two touchdowns and three interceptions. They had also run 101 times.

This season, the Cowboys are 67-of-116 (58 percent) for 907 yards with four touchdowns and three interceptions. They have run only 70 times.

"Obviously you should figure out that I have more confidence in the throwing game this year than I had last year," Parcells said. "I'm not saying anything about who was here or who was playing quarterback, but we have more weapons in the passing game than we had last year. And it seems like our protection is quite a bit better.

"Those two things combined allow you to do things more efficiently. It's not perfect, but it also allows us to get our best players on the field."

The new approach has helped Dallas control its last two games.

Perhaps aided by those interesting early pass plays, Testaverde led the Cowboys to a touchdown on one of their first two drives in both games, taking a 7-0 lead. Dallas never trailed or was even tied.

Who knows how the opener against Minnesota would have gone if the Cowboys had been as efficient then. Their first two drives reached the 9- and 6-yard lines, but they got only one field goal, botching the hold on another try, and wound up losing 35-17.

Bottom line: In the air or on the ground, Parcells doesn't care. He just wants to get the ball into the end zone.

"I saw a team win the Super Bowl last year with no running game at all, pretty much," Parcells said. "It helps, but I don't know that it's a requirement. . . .

"Right now, we're three games into the season. I would say that this is still very much a work in progress."