Joey Galloway should have known better. With the ball tumbling out of the Texas sky and a pack of Carolina Panthers closing in on him, he fielded a punt at the Dallas two-yard line -- instead of letting it bounce into the end zone -- took a few steps and was dropped.
Glaring at him from the Cowboy sideline was Coach Bill Parcells, arms crossed, lips pulled tight like a snarling dog's, ice-blue eyes cold and unblinking -- a look Dallas players have come to call "the stare."
"Oh, yeah, I've gotten that stare before," defensive tackle Daleroy Stewart said. "You look down there, and he's looking dead at you. You're like, 'I've got to go now.' That stare is serious. It's like your father looking at you. You already know what's going through his head."
After Galloway's gaffe Sunday, he steered clear of Parcells for two series. La'Roi Glover, a Pro Bowl defensive tackle, finds that look so unnerving that at times he has felt like finding a spot on the opposing team's sideline.
"You just kind of duck your head, and you feel about this big," Glover said, pinching about two inches of air. "When I jump offsides, I ain't going near the coach."
Of all the things Parcells has brought to the Cowboys -- more structure, better preparation, renewed confidence and a climate of winning -- one of the most powerful is pure, unfiltered fear. Players confess that they are deathly afraid of letting him down.
"That's probably one of my biggest motivations ... [not] failing," Glover said. "I'm afraid of not being successful, being the guy that gives it up for your team. That drives you pretty good."
Clearly. The Cowboys (8-3), who play host to Miami today, find themselves sharing the best record in the NFC with St. Louis, Carolina and Philadelphia -- a far cry from where they were the last few years, when they strung together three 5-11 seasons. They have the league's No. 1 defense, an on-again, off-again offense that relocated the end zone in a 24-20 victory over Carolina on Sunday, and a new coach whose popularity in Texas is growing to Tom Landry-sized proportions.
"You know, they've been getting beat down around here for a little while," Parcells said. "Well, the worst is over. Could we lose all five of these games we've got left? Absolutely. That could happen to us.... But it's just exciting to be playing in games that are really important."
The entire state seems to hang on Parcells' every word. There are about twice as many reporters at his Monday news conferences as at those of other NFL coaches. This week, he spent the first five minutes answering questions about whether he got teary in the locker room after beating Carolina, as some players said he had.
"I'm not sure, I might have," he said after much prodding. "I wasn't crying or anything. It was just a little emotional. I'm not ashamed of it."
There's no shame in the Cowboys' turnaround. Not only did the victory over Carolina guarantee them their first non-losing season since 1999, when they finished 8-8, but it set them up for a dramatic stretch run in which they could wind up with home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. After they play Miami, they play at Philadelphia, at Washington, at home against the New York Giants and at New Orleans.
Parcells said he stopped savoring Sunday's victory about when the security guard raised the gate at Texas Stadium so he could drive away.
His players, meanwhile, are adjusting to being in the national spotlight. In the locker room Monday were reporters from the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Washington Post and Sports Illustrated.
"That's what happens when you win football games," receiver Randal Williams said. "At the beginning of the year, and the last couple of years, no one really gave us a chance. Now we bring in a coach that knows what he's doing, and all of a sudden we're winning. People are starting to catch on."
For safety Darren Woodson, one of the few holdovers from the Cowboys' Super Bowl teams of the early to mid-1990s, it has been a long wait.
"We've been called losers for a long time around here," said Woodson, a second-round draft pick in 1992. "For [Parcells] to come in and turn this whole thing around, a team that's been 5-11 and had this losing culture for the last three to four years, I think he's finally seeing that we believe in him."
The feeling might be mutual, but Parcells isn't quick to compliment his players. He's forever fretting about their losing focus. And, although they wear stars on their helmets, he has made sure they don't have a star system in the locker room.
"He'll call out [the big-name players] first," Glover said. "He's called out Woody [Woodson]. Called me out. Called out Larry Allen. He's always calling out the quarterbacks. If you're a Dallas Cowboy, you're getting called out at one time or another."
If that makes things temporarily uncomfortable, so be it. There are worse feelings. Like taking the field for all those Thanksgiving Day games that didn't really mean a thing.
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Miami (6-4) is one of only six teams to hold a winning record against Dallas:
* San Francisco...(16-13-1)