When the crusty Bill Parcells gets effusive in praise, you know things are going well. And for brief moments during the stretch run of the NFL season, the Cowboys coach has been just that. Take, for instance, Parcells breaking his stoic mold to kiss Cowboys safety Keith Davis on the head in October. Or his kiss-and-makeup relationship with Terrell Owens. Or the moments when the giddy schoolgirl inside Parcells crept out and went on display for a few moments after newly acquired kicker Martin Gramatica secured a Cowboys win over division foe New York.
What really has Parcells smiling? It's his new quarterback, Tony Romo. This after Parcells shoveled the first load of dirt onto the coffin of veteran quarterback Drew Bledsoe's career when he benched one of his favorite quarterbacks in favor of a player who up until 2006 had never thrown a regular-season pass. But where Bledsoe left Parcells possibly thinking about retirement, Romo's play has the Dallas coach talking about championships.
"You can't look at it like, 'Well, gee whiz, we're near the end of the line.'" said Parcells, who admitted he had been talking to his team about what it takes to win a Super Bowl. "We're trying to improve as we go here and play our best football, which I think we are right this minute."
Perhaps like no other league, NFL clubs love to copy each other. When Bill Walsh installed the West Coast offense in San Francisco in the 1980s, teams lined up to implement the short passing attack. When Tampa Bay and Baltimore won Super Bowls with cautious quarterbacks of limited ability, other teams followed suit. So could Parcells' gambit to replace Bledsoe with Romo not only provide a boost for Dallas but also set a trend for the rest of the NFL?
The answer to that question might depend not just on Romo, but also four other young quarterbacks who have been thrown into the action this season. Here's a look at all five:
Tony Romo, Dallas: before 3-3, after 5-1 (replaced Drew Bledsoe)
Prior to Romo's ascendance, the Cowboys were falling out of the playoff hunt. Now, they're fighting for a first-round playoff bye. Along the way, Romo has become the NFL's top-rated passer and led Cowboys to wins over the previously undefeated Indianapolis Colts and the division rival New York Giants.
Jay Cutler, Denver: before 7-4, after 0-1 (replaced Jake Plummer)
Denver coach Mike Shanahan turned to Cutler, the team's first-round pick, after veteran Jake Plummer led the team to a pair of losses. Cutler hasn't had a lot of time in the starter's job, but the Broncos need him to perform immediately: Denver has high aspirations in the competitive AFC.
Vince Young, Tennessee: before 0-3, after 5-4 (replaced Kerry Collins)
Everyone figured it would just be a matter of time until Kerry Collins played his way out of the starting quarterback job in Tennessee. But few figured it would be this quickly, especially since most saw Young, a rookie, as more of a long-term project. But after losing his first two starts, Young has led the Titans to victory in five of the next seven games, including comeback victories over New York and Indianapolis.
Matt Leinart, Arizona: before 1-3, after 2-6 (replaced Kurt Warner)
Kurt Warner's new role in the NFL might be as the warm-up act for first-round-draft-pick quarterbacks. In New York, Warner played until Eli Manning was ready. In Arizona, Warner played just four games before making way for Leinart. At times, the rookie quarterback has looked like a commanding presence. Other times he has not. But one thing remains constant for the Cardinals-they lose.
Jason Campbell, Washington: before 3-6, after 1-2 (replaced Mark Brunell)
Floundering with a veteran quarterback, perhaps Joe Gibbs thought changing to the inexperienced Campbell would give his team a Romo-like shot of life. But the Redskins are too far back to mount a serious playoff challenge and Campbell's rough start hasn't helped matters.
BASEBALL: Newest example of baseball's largesse? No, not Chris Carpenter's new five-year, $65-million contract to re-sign with World Series Champion St. Louis. Rather it was the three-year, $24.5 million deal between Philadelphia and Adam Eaton-a pitcher with a history of injuries and a 5.12 ERA in 2006.
NASCAR: Facing local political pressure, it looks like NASCAR won't be going to Staten Island. The car-racing circuit had planned on building a state-of-the-art track in New York City, but local political leaders like city council minority leader James S. Oddo opposed the plans, saying traffic and environmental concerns trumped whatever benefit NASCAR would bring. "For months, many a Staten Islander thought this project was a 'done deal,'" Oddo said. "In the end, the interests of Staten Islanders as expressed in an earnest and unwavering fashion . . . prevailed."
FOOTBALL: There won't be any rematch after all. Faced with the possibility of putting Ohio State up against Michigan for the second time in a season, Harris Poll and the USA Today Coaches Poll voters both elevated Florida over the Wolverines, setting the stage for an Ohio State vs. Florida national championship game on Jan. 8. Michigan's only defeat came in a wild three-point loss to Ohio State in Columbus.