Meal Ticket Trapping Davis

IRVING, Texas - Keith Davis, born in 1978, probably has no idea Catch 22 is more than some cliche.

Probably has no idea this novel was written by Joseph Heller in 1961 or that it was turned into a film by the same name in 1970.

Probably has no idea the book dealt with the absurdity that can be the military.

Still, the 26-year-old safety no doubt feels caught in this classic "no-win situation," almost as if he has entered into a revolving door with no exit. 'Round and 'round he goes.

See, here is the deal. When Cowboys head coach Bill Parcells gave Davis a second chance to make this roster in 2004 after he had banished him from team prior to the start of the 2003 training camp following a shooting incident outside what the head coach would term a "sex club," the second-year safety had to be willing to do whatever to make the team.

Play a little safety, sure. Play special teams, you bet. Trail Julius Jones with a backup cup of ice water just in case during practice, no problem. Hey, whatever. Davis just knew he needed to make some sort of impression on Parcells to earn a spot on the final 53-man roster.

Davis did. He became a special teams demon, covering kicks with the best of 'em. In fact, he finished second on the team with 21 special teams tackles and led those units with 11 solo tackles. It was something to watch Davis knifing down on kick coverage, routinely it seemed side-swiping a return man with no regard for his 5-10, 198-pound frame.

But while Davis excelled on special teams, and seemed to have this knack for finding the ball, even in the collage of mayhem on kick coverage, Parcells never gave him a shot at playing safety - and safety was a sore subject for the Cowboys once it became obvious Darren Woodson would never, ever play during the 2004 season. Tony Dixon tried. Lynn Scott tried. And while Parcells said he'd like to look at Davis before the season was out, he never looked.

Fast-forward to Tuesday, June 7, 2005, just 51 days before the start of training camp in Oxnard, Calif. Free safety for the Cowboys still is a sore subject, although they applied some salve this past Friday by signing veteran free agent Izell Reese, who, if nothing else, has at least started 33 games at free safety in the NFL the past three seasons. That beats anything the Cowboys have to offer.

But with the starting job at free safety still somewhat open heading into training camp, and Parcells continuing to insist he wants to take a look at Davis at free safety, Davis finds himself caught in a classic conundrum:

The very reason he made his way back into the NFL, excelling on special teams, might be the very reason he doesn't get a legitimate chance to earn a starting job and possibly bigger-time money as he heads toward restricted free agency in 2006.

Yep, Catch 22.

Let Parcells explain. When asked on the final day of the team's past three-day mini-camp if he had seen anything at free safety, he had this to say:

"I don't know that yet. I think Keith's played pretty good in this camp. I'm a little torn there because he's my best special teams player. You know, I don't know whether . . . if he's the best player he's going to play, but I'm a little torn there, because if he's going to start we're going to lose a lot on special teams."

What, you kidding me? Suddenly Davis, a classic bubble guy heading into training camp last summer, is so good on special teams that he's irreplaceable, that he will get aced out of a chance to possibly start in the NFL?

Wouldn't you rather have the best guy, if indeed Davis proves to be the best guy, starting at safety instead of playing special teams?

Seems like a no-brainer to me.

Not to Parcells, though, a real stickler for special teams play.

"Well you

know when you're great at something, or better than good at something and average at something else, I'd rather have the better than good," Parcells rationalized.

(Sub-titles: Parcells is saying he knows Davis is good on special teams but has no idea if he's anything but average at safety at this point. OK, continue.)

"Now we'll see. Maybe he'll improve because he does have a knack for the ball. The ball does come to that kid, and you want those players on defense for you. That's the way Lester Hayes was, the ball did come to him."

(Sub-titles: Parcells is saying if Davis proves to be better than average playing safety and becomes the best starting candidate, then maybe he can qualify sacrificing some special teams plays for the betterment of the entire defense.)

Ah-ha, there's the out in the vicious cycle for Davis. Parcells does recognize the kid's knack for showing up where the ball does. That really was the case in 2002, his first year with the Cowboys, and no matter if he was playing special teams over that that eight-game audition or getting the chance to play safety there for two games at mid-season. Just a continuation of training camp.

And although his transgression - basically being in the wrong spot at the wrong time - cost him that 2003 season, Davis again proved himself in NFL Europe during the spring of 2004, earning All-NFLE honors by finishing second with four interceptions. And although he probably was drained from that 10-game season, the desperate kid from Italy, Texas, turned right around in less than two months to again prove himself worthy to the Cowboys.

But don't think Davis will come into this training camp with any sort of chip on his shoulder if he doesn't get a legitimate chance to start. Hey, you make just more than 100 grand one year and nothing the next as Davis did between 2002 and 2003, and then $230,000 last year, you don't stray too far from that I'll-do-what-I got-to-do attitude.

"If I get an opportunity, I'll show what I can do," Davis says. "I know I played well on special teams, and I'll do what I can to help this team, but if I get the opportunity, I'll want to make the best of it."

What more can a coach ask? Plus, he should not allow the signing of Reese discourage him one bit. Seems as though Davis' apparent strength at safety - being aggressive and having a knack for the ball - is the very reason Reese was benched the final seven games in Buffalo for the rookie Rashad Baker.

Word is, Reese began playing much too tentatively back there (oh no, not that), almost robotically, and that he lacked instincts for making plays on the ball. Sounds like the safety antithesis to Davis. I mean, in the nine games Reese started, he had one interception and only ONE pass defensed. Heck, even Dixon had four knock downs.

If Davis has a fault - and let's not hoist inexperience as Exhibit A just yet - it's that he might be too aggressive. Remember last year when Parcells said something like Davis sometimes does some things you can't figure out why he did them?

"Coach Parcells knows I'm very aggressive and I'll continue to be aggressive," Davis says, "but I know that you just got to be smart about it - know when to be aggressive and when not to be aggressive."

This should be fun to watch this summer - Davis taking on the seven-year veteran Reese and last year's final seven-game starter Scott, along with whatever challenge rookie Justin Beriault or NFLE graduate Woody Dantzler might mount. But unfortunately for Davis, special teams, his meal ticket into the league, just might cloud this decision.

See, Davis can't push at safety. He can't be as good as Reese or Scott or Beriault. He has to be measurably better for Parcells to qualify relieving him of some of his special teams duties. That's what happens when you are "better than good" at one phase of the game and an unknown at another.

"I'll just do what I do, and do what I've done in the past to get this opportunity," Davis said with one of his trademark great, big smiles.

Now he hopes what he has done in the past doesn't overwhelm what he might can do in the future. Continue reading: Page 1 Page 3

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