IRVING, Texas (AP) -Bill Parcells sure picked a strange time to leave the Dallas Cowboys.
Four years after taking over a broken franchise, Parcells did such a great recovery job that folks were disappointed by a 9-7 record and a wild-card berth last season. More was expected then - and a lot more is expected now considering they have almost the same lineup.
Dallas returns 10 offensive starters from the unit that scored the third-most points in the NFL last season. The only change is an upgrade at right guard - unless you count a new, happy attitude from Terrell Owens. On defense, the personnel hasn't changed much, but the scheme has, going with a formula that's been a big hit everywhere else it's been used.
Oh, yeah. There is that one big switch, in head coaches.
Wade Phillips is the architect of the defense and the new mood-setter. His life-is-good approach has allowed optimism to flourish.
``I think we have every right to think that we will be a better team than we were last year,'' said team owner Jerry Jones, who has sworn off bold preseason prognostications since some wild misses in the pre-Parcells era.
Phillips brings impeccable credentials as a coordinator and a winning record as a head coach. He's even got deep roots in the Lone Star State. The only thing his resume lacks is the one thing the Cowboys need most: playoff success.
Dallas hasn't won a postseason game since 1996. Phillips has never won a playoff game in five years as a head coach. In fact, the new coach and his club could compare psychological scars to see who had the most painful postseason loss: Phillips' Bills on the ``Music City Miracle'' in 1999, or the Cowboys in Seattle a few months ago when Tony Romo botched the hold on a short go-ahead field goal in the final minutes.
Romo has bounced back just fine from his teary locker-room mea culpa. Playing in the Pro Bowl, judging the Miss Universe pageant and teeing off in a celebrity golf tournament would speed anyone's recovery.
It also helps that Romo came back as the unquestioned starter. (And, he's no longer the holder; new backup Brad Johnson has the job.)
Dallas could have drafted Brady Quinn, and maybe even should have, considering the expected top 10 pick was available at No. 22. With Romo still unproven - he started 5-1, then finished 1-4 - and his contract up this year, the Cowboys would've been hedging their bets with the Notre Dame product.
Instead, Jones sent the pick to Cleveland for a 2008 first-rounder and came away with linebacker Anthony Spencer, who'll start opposite DeMarcus Ware in place of the injured Greg Ellis.
``I just think we have a lot of pieces in place for us to have a good season,'' Romo said. ``I mean, really, that's where the excitement starts, feeling that we have a chance to be successful.''
Romo's prime target will be Owens, who led the NFL in touchdown catches last year with 13, the most for Dallas since Bob Hayes in 1966. However, T.O. also led the league in drops and melodramas.
Owens has toned down his act so far, perhaps because he won the this-locker-room-ain't-big-enough-for-the-both-of-us battle with Parcells. Or maybe it's just because he likes Phillips and new offensive coordinator Jason Garrett.
``Everyone thinks I did OK for myself last year. I know I can do better,'' Owens said. ``I'm looking for bigger, better things for myself.''
Garrett is only three years removed from his playing days, but he's been preparing for this job since he was backing up Troy Aikman on the Cowboys' Super Bowl champion teams in the 1990s.
Garrett's staff includes Tony Sparano, the play-caller last year. Now in charge of the offensive line, Sparano can help Garrett juggle carries for Julius Jones and Marion Barber. Jones is coming off a 1,000-yard season and Barber led the NFC in rushing touchdowns.
On defense, the Cowboys are switching from the 3-4 installed by Parcells to the ``Phillips 3-4.'' It's the difference between grade-schoolers walking quietly to the library and running all over the place during recess.
Phillips firmly believes good things come from pressuring the quarterback, so Ware, Spencer and safety Roy Williams will be unleashed.
But, injuries are nibbling away at the plan. Ellis' return is unknown, robbing Dallas of a proven QB hunter, and cornerback Terence Newman, the team's best man-to-man defender, has a tear in the tissue at the bottom of his foot. Newman could miss the opener and fears the problem will bother him all season.
Still, the August outlook hasn't been this good since 1999, the final year Aikman, Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin played together.
``We've been a good team, but 9-7 just don't cut it,'' Witten said. ``We're up for that challenge.''
Said Jones: ``With the Dallas Cowboys, you are always going to have a critique unless you are sitting there in the Super Bowl.''

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