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Career Arc: Bill Parcells

How a free-agent coach mastered the NFL.

Over the past few decades of football, there were two groups of people who felt Bill Parcells was screwing with them. The first was Bill Parcells’s players. Brad Benson, the left tackle on the ’86 New York Giants Super Bowl team, liked to tell the story of the player’s wife who criticized Parcells during games. “Right in the middle of a meeting, Bill told this guy to tell his wife to keep her frigging mouth shut,” Benson said. “Or he would make things easy for her in that she wouldn’t have to worry about what was going on.” Parcells didn’t stop there. “I think that was after he called her,” Benson said. “He would do that. He would call your wife. Nothing was off-limits if it was going to affect what was happening on the team.”1


This article relies on Parcells: A Biography by Bill Gutman, The Education of a Coach by David Halberstam, as well as the three memoirs written by Parcells himself.

The second group that felt Parcells was screwing with them consisted of sportswriters, football fans, anxious general managers, owners, and the NFL commissioner. In other words, anyone who wondered what the hell Parcells was doing with his career. Parcells would often quit a job. Then he’d say, “I’ve coached my last football game. You can write that on your little chalkboard. This is it. It’s over.” Or: “I hope that convinces everybody that I’m not coming back. Because I’m not. This is it. I’m staying retired.” Maybe he’d even write a book called The Final Season: My Last Year as Head Coach in the NFL. A few months later, everyone would look up and Parcells was the head coach of the Dallas Cowboys.

The players have mostly forgiven Parcells. It’s the second group that’s still wounded. In 19 seasons, Parcells won two Super Bowls, lost another, and took four franchises to the playoffs. But last year, the football writers denied him a spot in the Hall of Fame. ESPN’s Rich Cimini reported that “dissenters on the committee were bothered by his itinerant career path.” The writers relented in February, but the message had been sent.

The question to ask about Parcells is pretty basic: Why was he messing with us? Why’d he leave job after job after after performing miracles on the field, like the football version of Larry Brown? As it turns out, Parcells’s career arc was a lot more rational that it looked. For early on, Parcells experienced a traumatic event that changed his whole approach to coaching. Let’s begin right there, with the moment that created the Big Tuna as we knew him.

Team I: The Giants

December 1983. Parcells was finishing his first season as an NFL head coach. The Giants were god-awful. Phil Simms had gotten hurt. Even before that, Parcells had tried starting Scott Brunner, who would end his career with a 56.3 career QB rating. On December 4, the Giants lost to the Cardinals at the Meadowlands, falling to 3-10-1. It was around that time — accounts vary — that the betrayal happened. General manager George Young went on a secret trip to see Howard Schnellenberger, the coach of the University of Miami. Young wanted to talk to Schnellenberger about replacing Parcells.

Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder broke the news on The NFL Today. Parcells was enraged. “His personality seemed to change after that,” David Halberstam wrote. “He became … harder-edged, more cynical about it all, less trusting of anyone and everything.” Parcells no longer saw a football coach as a lifer who trudges forward until ownership opens the trapdoor — a.k.a., the Tom Landry/Paul Brown model. Parcells saw a football coach as a cold-eyed businessman whose power games didn’t end with his players. Young had set the tone. Parcells never let himself get close to being fired again.

Parcells was a New Jersey guy, born in Englewood. He listened to the ’58 Giants-Colts game on his car radio. Before reaching New York, Parcells coached at Wichita State, Army, the Air Force, and Texas Tech. I called him a couple of years ago for a story and told him I was from Fort Worth, Texas. (When Parcells meets a stranger, he won’t answer questions until he gets the kind of basic information you put on a passport application.) “Fort Worth?” he said. Then he began to rattle off the names of all the Fort Worth high schools he recruited for Tech. He remembered every one.

The Giants that Parcells inherited in ’83 — from Ray Perkins, who decided he’d rather coach the University of Alabama — were a mess. They’d won one playoff game in two decades. Parcells had schematic preferences — like the 3-4 defense — but his greater gift was his emotional intelligence. Parcells made himself into a blustering insult comic who kept his assistants and players on edge.

Harry Carson, the Hall of Fame linebacker, recalled that Parcells came up to him one day and whispered Carson’s childhood nickname into his ear. Carson had no idea how Parcells had learned it. He worried the coach would tell the rest of the Giants. The now-traditional Gatorade bath was born as a tool of revenge against Parcells. Parcells had told defensive tackle Jim Burt that he was going to get manhandled by a Redskins guard, Jeff Bostic. Parcells kept saying it whenever Burt was in earshot. Finally, as the Giants were finishing off the Skins, Burt said, “That cocksucker, I really want to get him,” and went for the bucket.

Parcells was not a distant tyrant. He was a tyrant whose breath you could feel on your neck. His players had nicknames. Linebacker Steve DeOssie was “Beach Ball.” (“He’s round and multicolored. He has blond hair and a red face. He’s purple in some spots and he has a wide body. That’s a beach ball.”) Years later, Curtis Martin was “Boy Wonder.” Terrell Owens was “The Player” — a nickname Parcells used, unsuccessfully, to mute his personality.

Parcells treated his coaches the same way. He was endlessly sarcastic, and they always feared he was mad at them. Bill Belichick became defensive coordinator in Parcells’s third year with the Giants. He told Halberstam that Parcells would constantly remind him how many good players he’d provided for him: Lawrence Taylor, Carl Banks, Carson, Pepper Johnson, Leonard Marshall. At the same time, Belichick and the other assistants were forbidden to talk to the media. Like a hostage, Parcells kept you both gagged and in a constant state of panic.

The Giants’ form of “Neanderthal football” was the perfect counter to Bill Walsh’s 49ers. In the 1986 playoffs, New York beat the Niners, 49-3. (“We were simply shattered,” Walsh said. “We were dealt with.”) The Super Bowl against Denver was almost as bad. We remember Parcells as a conservative coach. But down 10-9 in the third quarter, he let backup quarterback Jeff Rutledge execute a fake punt. Two possessions later, the Giants called a flea-flicker that got the ball to the 1. The Giants won, 39-20.

Now unfireable, it was just a matter of time before Parcells got his revenge on Young. The Atlanta Falcons needed a coach, so Parcells’s agent, Robert Fraley, called and the two sides started negotiating. The Falcons offered to make Parcells their coach and their general manager and nearly triple his salary. Within five days of the Super Bowl, the news was in the papers.

Parcells — and here’s where we come back to the manipulation — denied everything. “I don’t want to see my name in the paper in connection with this,” he told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “It’s a bunch of bull.” It wasn’t bull. When the Giants refused to let the Falcons talk to Parcells, Parcells’s agent took the matter directly to Pete Rozelle. Rozelle ruled that Parcells couldn’t be poached. “Hell, it might have gone down to the wire with the Falcons, like that Jeff Rutledge sneak in the Super Bowl,” Parcells later admitted. “I would have had to decide whether to duck my head and run with the ball, or punt it away at the last second.”

Parcells stayed four more years, but he had his eyes on the exits. Just months after winning his second Super Bowl, Parcells stood in the press box and quit. “This is the ’90s,” he said. “I was in the ’80s.” Players and the media were confused. Yes, Simms and Taylor were getting old. Yes, Parcells was gassed. Yes, he had health problems. (He’d have heart bypass surgery a year later.)

But New York Times columnist Dave Anderson — a Parcells pal — got closer to the answer than anyone. Anderson noted that Young and Giants owners Bob Tisch and Wellington Mara had dallied in renegotiating Parcells’s contract. Parcells felt a little like he did in ’83. He was exposed. As he told a friend, “They’re treating me like a player.”

Team II: The Patriots

Parcells didn’t go straight to New England. He teased a few teams first. In 1992, he flirted with a Tampa Bay job that went to Sam Wyche and turned down the Green Bay job that later went to Mike Holmgren. He spent the season as an NBC announcer before settling on a Patriots team that went 2-14 in ’92. As the Sports Guy has written, Pats fans couldn’t figure out why he did this. But after Parcells subsequently took over the Jets (1-15) and Cowboys (5-11), it became clear that he needed crappy teams. Parcells liked to build. He also liked the idea of starting without any established stars who would get in the way of his personality.

Parcells asked a lot of his owners. For instance, he wanted control over personnel. He said later, “They want you to cook the dinner. At least they ought to let you shop for some of the groceries.” He had shopping privileges in New England, at least at first. In 1993, he took Drew Bledsoe no. 1 overall in the draft and Troy Brown in the eighth round. Bledsoe didn’t turn out to be Dan Marino, but picking him was a lot better than taking Rick Mirer. The next year brought Willie McGinest and a lot of misses. This is when new Patriots owner Bob Kraft, a paper magnate, began to get concerned. In 1995, Kraft named Bobby Grier, an old backfield coach, as director of player personnel. Parcells’s Spidey sense began to tingle. But in 1995, Parcells had what was perhaps his best draft ever, taking Ty Law, Ted Johnson, and Curtis Martin with his first three picks.

The New England job fell apart over Terry Glenn. In 1996, Kraft wanted to take Glenn, a wide receiver, with the seventh overall pick. Parcells wanted a defensive player. Kraft won out. As Glenn put it later, “I never thought it was anything personal. Coach Parcells just wanted a defensive guy.” Unfortunately, Parcells wasn’t nearly as Zen. He started calling Glenn “she.”

Was Parcells a good drafter? The answer is yes, with caveats. Parcells tended to favor defensive players over offensive players, linemen over skill guys, sure things over guys who could be home runs. In 2005, when he was with Dallas, Parcells wanted to draft space-eating defensive end Marcus Spears over DeMarcus Ware. Jerry Jones intervened, and the Cowboys got both players. Spears was a JAG — “just another guy,” in Parcellese — whereas Ware will probably be in the Hall of Fame.

Glenn caught 90 balls his rookie year, proving Kraft right. But the whole Parcells method relied on being an unimpeachable authority. As Parcells assistant Al Groh said later, “Bill called us all together [after the draft] and told us that this was done to publicly humiliate him and that he would never forget it.”

The 1996 season was like a Middle East peace negotiation. Kraft and Parcells played the heads of two warring states. The Boston Globe’s Will McDonough was the American president trying to bring them to the negotiating table. McDonough would later reveal that he booked a meeting between the two on the day of the AFC Championship Game. The men were about to shake hands across Parcells’s desk. Parcells then began to outline his terms: He’d finish the ’96 season, say nice things about Kraft, and then be let out of his contract without having to give the Patriots compensation. When Kraft heard the last part, McDonough wrote, he “withdrew his hand like a piston.”

The Patriots won the AFC Championship Game, elevating Parcells-Kraft into a full-blown national crisis. “Parcells to Leave,” a Globe piece by McDonough announced days before the Super Bowl. Parcells’s statements about his career were always passive-aggressive and often patently false. But at his Super Bowl press conference, they reached their full flower. Parcells said: “It’s not an issue here … I’m not going to talk about this … My agent didn’t talk about it. This is old news. That’s the last question on the subject … Nothing’s changed. Just because there’s another report out doesn’t make it different … This is old news.” And finally: “It’s America. You can say what you want.”

In the game, the Patriots were two-touchdown underdogs to the Packers. On the opening drive, the Pats gave up a 54-yard touchdown to Andre Rison. Parcells later wrote about the play in one of his books. He’d told safety Willie Clay that when Brett Favre called an audible, Clay would change the defense. Favre audibled. Clay didn’t change the defense, leaving the Pats in man-to-man.

When the Pats pulled ahead 14-10, their secondary made another mistake. Antonio Freeman got behind safety Lawyer Milloy for an 81-yard bomb. Here, again, Parcells wrote that he had the right defense called. Milloy was supposed to bump Freeman at the line of scrimmage. Milloy backed off and barely grazed Freeman.

There’s one interesting thing about Parcells’s observations (shared, as it happened, in a book co-written by McDonough): Parcells couldn’t bring himself to stay another year and see if they got it right the second time. After the Super Bowl, he flew home on a separate plane.

He came up with an ingenious plan to get out of his contract. He and Belichick would move to the New York Jets. Belichick would be head coach and Parcells would merely be his “adviser,” his Bobby Heenan — thus technically not in violation of his existing deal. The next year, Parcells could become Jets coach. The NFL office, for the second time, stopped him from implementing his plan. The Patriots wound up getting first-, second-, third-, and fourth-round picks for Parcells. The trade set back his team-building, but it must have assuaged his ego. That one year with Parcells was worth half a team’s draft.

Team III: The Jets

Parcells, standing before Jets rookies in 1999:

OK, fellas, I’m Bill Parcells. I’d like to welcome you to the New York Jets. …

We’re not interested in players who have problems. We want you to put all the problems you have behind you. I don’t need guys who have pregnant girlfriends that are calling them on the phone and all that shit. …

I don’t like guys that think they’re important. I don’t like guys hanging out in the bars with New York Jets shit on, walking around like you did something. You haven’t done anything yet …

Tomorrow will be your first exposure to the media. I don’t want to hear anything about how you’re going to do, about how great you are, or who you’re gonna beat out … The New York press is very difficult and I’m going to say this a couple of times: Don’t think they’re trying to be friends with you … Be suspicious.

If you’re sensitive, you’re gonna have a hard time around here. I have a bad temper. I swear, I yell, I do a lot of things. If you’re sensitive, you’re gonna have a hard time. If you’re not sensitive, you’ll get along fine. …

See you in the morning.

Parcells had never been happier. All the negotiations and power plays had finally paid off. When he got to New York, Parcells had an owner he adored in Leon Hess; he had unchecked power; and besides Keyshawn Johnson, he had few headaches. “I didn’t have a lot of jerks to deal with,” he wrote.

By this point, a Parcells team consisted of reliable stock characters. With the Giants, the role of Used-up, Out-of-Nowhere Guy was played by Ottis Anderson. With the Jets, it went to Vinny Testaverde.2 The Lawrence Taylor Worthwhile Headcase Guy? That was Johnson.3 The Guy Who Can’t Get Enough Punishment and Follows Coach Anywhere? Curtis Martin. Wayne Chrebet played Phil McConkey, except better.


Honorable mention to linebacker Bryan Cox.


Honorable mention, again, to Bryan Cox.

In 1998, Parcells took the Jets to the AFC Championship Game, where he was undefeated. But like the Patriots’ Super Bowl, the game got away from him in the second half and the Jets lost to the Broncos, 23-10. The next year, Testaverde blew out his ACL Achilles in the opener. In a screw-it year, Parcells got eight wins out of Mirer and Ray Lucas. It was a testament to Parcells’s longevity that he’d coached both the star QB from the ’93 draft and the bust he’d passed on.

What he fluffed was the transition. Parcells always fluffed the transitions. When his former teams tried to hire a Parcells acolyte, they somehow wound up with Ray Handley and Groh. When they decided the franchise needed a sweet-natured player’s coach, they wound up with Pete Carroll and Wade Phillips. Belichick, who’d been fired from his one head coaching job in Cleveland, was supposed to be the guy in New York. Then there was the Sunday when Belichick and Parcells disagreed on what defense to call. Belichick was proven right. According to Halberstam, Parcells let loose on the headset: “Yeah, you’re a genius, everyone knows it, a goddamn genius, but that’s why you failed as a head coach — that’s why you’ll never be a head coach … some genius.” It may have been his misanthropy, or B.S. calculated to arouse, or perhaps there had ceased to be a meaningful distinction. But the pupil was crushed. Put it this way: It took Bill Parcells to show us the humanity in Bill Belichick.

Belichick had taken a $1 million bonus from Hess in 1999 on the understanding he’d stick around and take the New York job. When the time came, Belichick walked. He became coach of the Patriots. “I’m still not happy with Belichick,” Parcells wrote in The Last Season. “I don’t know how you can take a million dollars to stay another year to become the head coach and then walk out on the job. Nothing he has said since about why it happened makes any sense to me.”

It reminds you of the old antidrug commercial, where the kid looks at his dad and says, “I learned it by watching you!”

Team IV: The Cowboys

I’m a Cowboys fan, and Parcells came onto my radar on September 15, 2003. He almost didn’t make it. The year before, Parcells had nearly taken the Tampa job again. “This was the last job I will ever consider,” he told Peter King after he turned it down. Twelve months later, Parcells was sitting next to Jones, vowing they could work together.

The idea of Parcells returning to Giants Stadium on Monday Night Football was too good to pass up, so my friend Matt and I bought our way into the game. Just as we got to our seats, Quincy Carter threw a pick-six. It seemed like it was going to be that kind of night. When the Giants kicked a field goal to go up 32-29 with 11 seconds left, Matt and I left. I’m not sure why. Maybe we didn’t appreciate how a team with Parcells as its lama could perform miracles. We got to the parking lot and noticed other fans had gathered around portable TVs. The Giants’ kickoff had gone out of bounds. Carter completed a pass — a miracle in itself — to Antonio Bryant. Billy Cundiff kicked a field goal and sent the game into OT.

With that, Matt and I turned around and ran back toward Giants Stadium. The guard told us we couldn’t reenter, sorry, it didn’t matter how good the game was. So Matt and I looked at each other and then blew by the guy, running through the concourse and back to our seats. The Cowboys went on to win, 35-32. It’s one of the top-10 games I’ve ever attended.

Let me give you the starting offense Parcells put on the field that year:

QB: Quincy Carter
RB: Troy Hambrick
FB: Richie Anderson
WR: Terry Glenn
WR: Joey Galloway
TE: Dan Campbell
LT: Flozell Adams
LG: Larry Allen
C: Matt Lehr
RG: Andre Gurode
RT: Ryan Young

That team went 10-6 and made the playoffs.

Parcells was 62 when he took the Dallas job. But he was freshly divorced, and the whole thing had the whiff of a midlife crisis. Parcells was dying his hair blond. He was pulling his shorts up high so they covered his gut. Dallas sportswriters didn’t like him at all. They sensed, correctly, that Parcells had no reverence for The Job That Landry Built. When Michael Lewis visited Parcells for a Play magazine profile, he noted that the personal items in Parcells’s office consisted of a binder with football materials, a binder with a copy of his divorce settlement, and three elephant figures, which he regarded as lucky charms. It had gotten easier than ever to quit.

By this point, the Parcells Method had been so thoroughly discussed (by him), written about (ditto), and imitated (by Belichick, Tom Coughlin, and others) that it felt strangely postmodern. You could sing along with the insults. On portly safety Roy Williams: “He’s just a biscuit away from being a linebacker.” To Glenn … who’d miraculously forgiven Parcells and come to Dallas in a trade: “My little honeybunch got a little bursitis on her knee!” (Her?!)

What the local media didn’t get was that Parcells was the perfect coach for the Cowboys. He was the first giant talent Jones had hired since Jimmy Johnson. Moreover, the Jones-Johnson creative tension was back. Parcells lived for the unglamorous part of roster-building, like finding tackle Marc Colombo and bringing back Drew Bledsoe. Jones lived for the signings that got Ed Werder out of bed, like Terrell Owens. Here’s the lineup Parcells had in his last season:

QB: Tony Romo
RB: Julius Jones (plus Marion Barber)
WR: Terrell Owens
WR: Terry Glenn
WR: Patrick Crayton (plus Miles Austin)
TE: Jason Witten
LT: Flozell Adams
LG: Kyle Kosier
C: Andre Gurode
LG: Marco Rivera
RT: Marc Colombo

“You can’t call them losers anymore,” Parcells declared at one point. I think he almost got choked up.

Parcells took the ’06 Romo team to the playoffs and lost on a fumbled snap. After that, he only had one year left on his contract. Who could guess what would happen next? This time, Parcells quit via e-mail. Wade Phillips replaced him and won 13 games the next season.

Parcells didn’t leave football. He teased the Falcons one more time, then became executive vice-president of football operations for the Dolphins. During his first year, another crappy team, led by Chad Pennington, improved by 10 wins and won the AFC East. His hires in Miami didn’t work out: Jeff Ireland, Tony Sparano (the new Al Groh). At age 70, there was one tease left. After Sean Payton was suspended for Bountygate, Payton asked Parcells to serve as interim coach of the Saints. But Parcells said no. “I’ve been out quite a while now,” he explained. He’d been out less than two seasons.

I never dug Parcells’s bullying, his insults, though I acknowledge they got results. But I’ll defend Parcells’s career arc to the death. Parcells made decisions based on two factors: (1) his own minute-to-minute spiritual happiness, and (2) the money. Both factors are extremely valid, no matter what any sportswriter says. We fans tend to think of loyalty only as something a coach should give to an owner and the fans. Thanks to George Young, Parcells learned early on that this is nonsense.

Parcells allows us to imagine a hypothetical career arc, too. Imagine the ’91 Parcells Falcons, the ’02 Parcells Bucs … the ’12 Saints with a real coach, a defensive guru to fill the void left by Gregg Williams, and a little of the Parcells magic. It’s no wonder Payton thought he was perfect. Bill Parcells was an absolutely genius coach and he would have had no inclination to keep the job.