HAWKINS ON COWBOYS: Few expected fast start

Updated: October 21, 2003, 6:46 PM ET

IRVING, Texas -- Not even the most optimistic fan, or owner or coach, could have predicted before the season that the Dallas Cowboys would be this good this fast under Bill Parcells.

Not if they were being realistic. Or being honest.

Sure, Parcells was expected to turn around the Cowboys.

Just not this fast, and this way.

With Quincy Carter at quarterback. With unproven Troy Hambrick replacing NFL career rushing leader Emmitt Smith. With many of the same players former coach Dave Campo had last season.

In impressive fashion over teams like the New York Giants and Philadelphia, which troubled them in the past. And winning 38-7 Sunday at Detroit in a game that seemed a perfect trap to derail their progress.

The Cowboys took just six games under Parcells to do what they did in 16 each of the last three seasons: win five. And they're back at the top of the NFC East for the first time since 1999.

Even owner Jerry Jones didn't see this coming.

"We are at five wins quicker than I thought we would be when we went to training camp," he said Tuesday.

Parcells has a proven track record, taking all three of his previous teams from losing records to the playoffs in his second season.

But the first year has always been spent determining what he had. That was usually followed by widespread changes between seasons one and two.

The Cowboys seem intent on breaking that pattern.

Dallas is 5-1 for the first time since 1995, the last of the team's three Super Bowls in a four-year span.

Only three other teams have started this good for Parcells. The last was the 1990 New York Giants, who were 6-0 and went on to give the coach his second Super Bowl championship.

So did Parcells imagine getting off to such a quick start in Dallas?

"I don't know," he said Monday. "That would have been conceding that we were losing one game, so I would never do that."

Sure, what else was he supposed to say? That he thought the Cowboys would be lucky to have two wins by now? (Four of the first six opponents were in the playoffs last season, and defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay is next).

But it seems unlikely that Parcells, who is fond of horse racing, would have been willing during the summer to bet much of his multimillion-dollar salary on a 5-1 start. Imagine the long-shot odds he would have gotten -- and the payoff now.

And, remember, the Cowboys lost their season opener 27-13 to an Atlanta team that hasn't won since.

They avoided 0-2 even after the Giants went ahead with 11 seconds left at New York. Dallas started at the 40 when the ensuing kickoff went out of bounds and Carter threw a 26-yard pass. Billy Cundiff tied the game with a 52-yard field goal, and his record seventh field goal came in overtime.

That started a five-game winning streak, the longest in the same season since 1994. Dallas has won three road games, one more than the past two seasons combined.

The Cowboys even beat Philadelphia, the division rival that had won six in a row against them by an average margin of 23 points.

They avoided another loss at Detroit with a rout Sunday. Even after the Lions -- who got two of their five wins the last two seasons against Dallas -- returned a fumble for a touchdown for the first score and almost recovered another one.

Parcells, as expected, downplays the accomplishments so far.

"I'm realistic. That's the key word here," he said. "I was not trying to be arrogant or condescending or anything of that nature. I have a realistic perception, OK? A lot of people don't."

But here's a reality dose. All 15 Dallas teams that started 5-1 or better made the playoffs. And the three earlier Parcells teams in that situation, all Giants, won at least 12 regular-season games.

Parcells won't even mention the word playoffs yet. But despite his continued public pessimism, it's clear he realizes how good a position his team is in.

"I know we're going to have to some crisis here during the season," he said. "You know we could lose four or five in a row here. That could happen, and we still wouldn't be out of the race."

And he's not talking about a horse race.

This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index