By: Bob George/BosSports.net
January 11, 2006

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Second in a four-part series on the legacy of Bill Parcells.

It was a winnable game, and then again, it wasn't

It has been stated time and time again that the Patriots of today have the best ace in the hole in the NFL, and that is Belichick. He represents the best chance to win any game the Patriots are involved in. The flip side of this was also true in Super Bowl XXXI. Parcells' dislike for Kraft and the organization affected the way the 1996 season ended.

The Packers were huge favorites in the Super Bowl, but this may have been a result of the same disrespect paid the Patriots back then as it is at times today. If you look closely at the two teams, the Packers weren't that far ahead of the Patriots on paper.

Quarterback "" Two men, Bledsoe and Brett Favre, with a great deal of similarities. Both had great arms, both had a swashbuckling mentality, both had a penchant for trying to make plays and instead throw dumb picks. The difference is that Favre was a better scrambler. Edge "" Packers.

Running backs "" You take Dorsey Levens. I'll take Curtis Martin. Edge "" Patriots.

Receivers "" Wideouts are a push, Glenn and Shawn Jefferson versus Antonio Freeman and Andre Rison. The difference is Ben Coates at tight end. Edge "" Patriots.

Offensive line "" This is the key difference on paper. The Patriots had a decided weakness at right tackle (Max Lane) and rotated two ex-Giants at left guard (William Roberts, Bob Kratch). Edge "" Packers.

Defensive line "" Santana Dotson, Reggie White, and the massive Gilbert Brown were a tough bunch to deal with. Quick, how do you spell Sagapolutele? Edge "" Packers.

Linebackers "" This is why the Patriots didn't need to be outstanding down low. Willie McGinest played down, and was able to thanks to a nice unit featuring Chris Slade, Todd Collins, Ted Johnson and rookie Tedy Bruschi. Edge "" Patriots.

Secondary "" Yes, the Packer squad had Eugene Robinson and Doug Evans. But the Patriots had four solid guys in Ty Law, rookie Lawyer Milloy, Otis Smith and Willie Clay. Edge "" Patriots.

Special teams "" This is before we knew what Vinatieri (a rookie in 1996) was really capable of. Kickers were a push, Tom Tupa was a little bit better a punter than Craig Hentrich, but Desmond Howard was a huge upgrade over Dave Meggett in kick returns. Edge "" Packers.

Coaching "" Should have been the Patriots in a slamdunk, with no disrespect to Mike Holmgren. The very instant that McDonough broke his story, edge Packers.

This gives the Packers a 5-4 edge in edges. Given this close call, it could mean that a smart game plan from Parcells and Belichick (who was also assistant head coach back then as well as secondary coach) might be enough to get the Patriots by in this game. Belichick was the Giant defensive coordinator when they shut down the Bills in Super Bowl XXV. In this game, Al Groh was defensive coordinator, but Belichick was in the fold to help out with any slick and sly way to throw Favre off track and bring a championship to New England.

But the game turned out exactly as the oddsmakers thought. Green Bay won, 35-21, and bookmakers nationwide who win bets outright on pushes (ties in point spreads) celebrated in grand style. Upon close analysis of this game, it reveals that the Patriots had a real chance to win this game, if Parcells truly had his heart into it.

The biggest problem with this game was that, despite the presence of 2-time league MVP Favre who had a 107.9 passer rating for the game (which included touchdown bombs of 54 yards to Rison and 81 yards to Freeman), the Super Bowl MVP was Howard, the first time in Super Bowl history that a kick returner won this honor. Howard had six punt returns for 90 yards, and four kickoff returns for 154 yards and a touchdown. One of his kickoff returns went for a Super Bowl record 99 yards, a third quarter romp which completed the scoring and prevented the Patriots from getting back into the game in the second half.

It was evident right from the start that the Patriots needed to kick away from the former Heisman Trophy winner from Michigan. After their opening drive which went 15 yards in five plays, Tupa punted to Howard. He took it at the Packer 13 and scooted 32 yards up the left sideline. Favre took the Packers to the house in just two plays to go up 7-0 early. But it should have been crystal clear right from the outset to keep kicks away from Howard, like teams today do when faced with Dante Hall or Bethel Johnson.

Instead, Parcells allowed Howard to keep returning over and over again. The results speak for themselves. It has been said that had Troy Brown been healthy for the game and played on kick coverage, he would have stopped Howard on his 99-yard gallop. Instead, Hasan Graham was the man in Brown's slot who failed to stop Howard at midfield. This is all a moot point if Vinatieri kicks away from Howard.

This is a simple coaching adjustment that was not made, an adjustment which should have been an easy no-brainer. Howard was killing the Patriots in returns all game long. Yet as late as 11:33 into the third quarter, the Patriots were still kicking to Howard. How Parcells could have missed this call is hard to fathom. The 99-yard return was the fatal blow to the Patriots, and responsibility rests solely with Parcells.

Another area where the Patriots suffered was in offensive play selection. Parcells said many times in his Patriot career was that he would try and stay away from making Bledsoe win games all by himself. Making perhaps the best value draft pick of his Patriot career, Parcells plucked Pittsburgh running back Martin in the third round of the 1995 draft. Martin was then in the midst of his second straight 1,000-yard campaign; an injury-plagued 2005 campaign saw him not top the 1,000-yard barrier for the only time in his career.

Martin gouged the Steelers for 166 yards in the fog three weeks prior. Jacksonville held him to 59 yards in as many carries as he had against Pittsburgh (19). But in the Super Bowl, Parcells decided to win via Bledsoe and the passing game. As evidenced early on, Parcells rode two screen passes for 52 combined yards and a 44-yard bomb to Glenn for a 14-10 first quarter lead.

But the Packers predictably made the proper adjustments, and Bledsoe was never a factor again in the contest. By the second quarter, the Packers stopped biting on all of Bledsoe's playfakes. Martin wound up getting only 11 carries for 42 yards, but did score on an 18-yard run in the third quarter to bring the Patriots to within 27-21, just prior to Howard going on his 99-yard dash. Bledsoe would throw four picks in the game and wind up with a passer rating of 46.6.

Again, if you examine the game more closely, you wonder what Parcells was thinking when he came up with his game plans. It may be a by-product of how the entire season went, but the Super Bowl game itself was by and large mismanaged on offense.

In 1996, Martin had the second lowest rushing yardage total of his great career, rushing for 1,152 yards. For comparison, in 1997, his final season as a Patriot under head coach Pete Carroll, he had eight more yards on 42 fewer carries and missed three games to injury. Going into the 1996 postseason, Bledsoe, despite having had a passer rating of 83.6 for the regular season, went ice cold after the first quarter of the Pittsburgh Fog Bowl. His passer ratings for the three 1996 playoff games were 58.3, 62.4, and 46.6. Yet it was Bledsoe who was featured in the Super Bowl and not Martin.

This takes on much greater import given how well Martin has done with the Jets since he joined them in 1998. Martin was basically underused all during the 1996 season, and in the Super Bowl he was grossly underused. Nowhere was he more exposed as underused than in the decisive third quarter.

Down 27-14, the Patriots embarked on a 53-yard touchdown drive. 30 of the 53 yards were on Martin runs, the last 18 of which were for a touchdown. Following Howard's long kickoff return for a score, Parcells ran only once more for the rest of the game. The drive following Howard's return sealed the game, where Bledsoe tried three passes and was sacked twice by White. The Patriots had plenty of time to run their entire offense (3:10 left in the third quarter and down two touchdowns), but Parcells instead made Bledsoe do it all by himself, the very thing he promised early on in his Patriot tenure that he would stay away from.

Going further, if you examine the previous two playoff games, more questions arise. Take away Martin's two long touchdown runs against Pittsburgh and you get 17 carries for 65 yards. Martin rushed for only 59 yards against Jacksonville a week later. If Jacksonville hadn't handed the Patriots 17 points thanks to turnovers and special teams mistakes, the Jaguars win 6-3 and advance to the Super Bowl. Martin was underused basically all season long (he averaged just under 20 carries per game in the 1996 regular season). After a rookie campaign of just under 1,500 yards, one has to wonder why Martin didn't at least approach this number in 1996.

There is one other area where Parcells might be called into question regarding his bad gameplanning in the Super Bowl, but it is a bit of a reach. Favre burned the Patriots for two long touchdown bombs, one to Rison and one to Freeman. Smith simply defended Rison poorly on the first one, and putting Law on Freeman made sense. But on the Freeman score, Milloy was covering Freeman and not Law. This smacked of the Muhsin Muhammad 85-yard touchdown in Super Bowl XXXVIII, except that Eugene Wilson covered Muhammad deep. In Super Bowl XXXI, why wasn't Clay there to help out? Why was it instead Milloy, who is a terrific run stopper but not nearly as good a pass defender?

As we said, this is a reach. If the Patriots were playing cover-two, Clay may have merely been on the other side of the field. But Law let Freeman go in zone coverage, only to have Freeman zip right by Milloy for a score. The only thing that stinks on this play is why Milloy was the safety valve and not Clay. Would things have been different if, say Law had Rison and Smith had Freeman? Not likely, but it is something to at least think about.

The Patriots sheepishly walked off the field in the end while the Packers celebrated. Fox's Pam Oliver interviewed Parcells after the game, and he was perfectly cordial until she asked him "Why do you want to leave the Patriots?" The show was then thrown back suddenly to James Brown, who promptly said "And just for the record, Parcells went on say that he had no comment on his leaving the Patriots!" Loosely translated, Parcells probably said too many naughty words for a primetime television audience. The Bill Parcells era in Foxborough was over. For Parcells himself, it could not have come quick enough.

This game was a farce for the Patriots right from the start. McDonough breaks the bad news on Monday, guaranteeing a bad week for the Patriot players. On Media Day on Wednesday, Kraft and Parcells staged a ludicrous stroll across the Superdome for all the world to see, an insult of everyone's intelligence under the pretense of making everyone think that things were hunky-dory between Parcells and Kraft. The game was well played by the Packers, but at the same time poorly coached by Parcells. For someone who aspired to become the first NFL head coach to win two Super Bowls with two different teams, it was an absolute coaching stinker for Parcells.

This lends credence to the theory that Parcells tanked the Super Bowl. He tanked it because his dislike, perhaps even hatred, for Kraft outweighed his chance at great personal glory. Parcells did not want Kraft to taste Super Bowl victory. He perhaps figured that he could head to the Jets and achieve that same honor in just under four years, he was that good a coach.

During the Super Bowl XXXVI postgame show, Fox's Cris Collinsworth (who was with NBC in 1996) had some interesting insights on the situation. He told the audience that the Kraft/Parcells relationship "had totally deteriorated"they weren't even speaking to each other!" during Super Bowl XXXI. He emphasized that Belichick was a coach who Kraft "personally likes"wants to spend time with!" This was a Packer team that the Patriots could have beaten, but Parcells would not allow that to happen because of his adverse feelings towards Kraft.

The genesis of this theory goes back to the fact that Kraft did not hire Parcells, and that Parcells' record as Patriot head coach was basically disappointing going into the 1996 season. Parcells went on to win an AFC title that truly belonged to Denver. But the bottom line is that Kraft had good reason to strip personnel power away from Parcells, and nobody could have foreseen the Patriots playing in that year's Super Bowl. Parcells was adamant in not wanting personnel power taken away from him, and when it was, it created an enmity for Parcells towards Kraft which was impossible to make go away, even if a Super Bowl win was within reach.

Five days after losing Super Bowl XXXI, Parcells resigned as Patriot head coach. On February 3, 1997, San Francisco defensive coordinator and former Jet head coach Carroll succeeded Parcells as Patriot field boss. Patriot Nation was shattered, jilted by a superstar coach who no longer wanted to be a Patriot and who was trying to subvert league policies in becoming Jet head coach. It was just over ten years ago when the Red Sox came within an eyelash of winning the World Series against the Mets. This whole Parcells mess perhaps hurt a lot worse.

Next installment: On to the New York Jets


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