Tuna Legacy In Hands Of Belichick

Bob George
January 30, 2002 at 8:15 pm ET

NEW ORLEANS – He’s not here, and then again, he is.

Since his Patriot coaching swan song in this fair city five Januarys ago, Bill Parcells has never really left the Patriots. In some way, everything that has happened to the Patriots since January 26, 1997 has some connection to the Big Tuna. Parcells permeated the Patriot organization during his four-year tenure much like a virus does to a hard drive. Everything that has happened since his departure, as well as all the events that led to his leaving the Patriots, has reflected on Bob Kraft and the fateful decision he made to cause Parcells to flee to Exit 16-W.

How things have changed in five years. On Sunday, Kraft held aloft his second Lamar Hunt Trophy. This time, he extended praise and thanks to Dan Rooney instead of Wayne Weaver. Kraft looked like he had been there before, but you could see the pride and happiness written all over his face.

But the most special part of this moment was when CBS’s Jim Nantz asked him about his hiring of Bill Belichick, which happened to be exactly two years ago Sunday. Kraft called it a “steal…the cheapest deal I ever made!” Belichick stood next to his owner on the stand, beaming with perhaps the biggest smile he has ever cracked in his life. You just knew that Kraft perhaps didn’t say everything he wanted to say to Belichick.

If he had, it might have gone something like this: I’d like to thank Bill Belichick for permanently expunging the worst decision I’ve ever made as a businessman or an NFL owner. Or, maybe this: I’d like to thank Bill Belichick for restoring this franchise back to elite status in the NFL, a status that I was afraid was lost for a long, long time.

But if Kraft studied NFL history, and gave it careful thought, he might actually say this: I’d like to thank Bill Belichick for vindicating my decision to cut Bill Parcells loose, because now we really have the best head coach in the NFL. We thought we did in 1997, but we were wrong. Bill Belichick is the best coach in the league right now, and we wouldn’t be standing here celebrating another conference championship if we didn’t spend a first round draft pick to get him.

Yeah. That sounds about right.

There is no way possible to understate the magnificence of watching the Patriots ascend back to the pinnacle of the conference so soon. Parcells’ departure, combined with Bobby Grier’s lousy drafts and Pete Carroll’s soft coaching ruined this franchise. One NFL expert predicted that Belichick would be fired after three years because the cleanup job from Grier’s mess would be so great, Kraft would lose patience with Belichick, and his successor would reap all the benefits of Belichick’s cleanup.

And yet, here they are again, just five years later, in another Super Bowl.

This conference title is all Belichick. He had help from Scott Pioli in getting the players and Andy Wasynczuk in managing the money, but this Super Bowl trip is definitely thanks to The Man Formerly Known As Little Bill. Given all that has gone wrong with the team this year, and given that the Patriots are built on mid-level talent players versus top level, what Belichick has done this year ranks as one of the best coaching jobs ever.

Somehow those “experts” who vote for Coach Of The Year thought more of Chicago’s Dick Jauron. Jauron and his supposedly rough and tough Bear team (who were also seeded second in their conference) will watch the Patriots this Sunday at home after losing a stinker at home to Philadelphia. Belichick not being voted this honor only adds to the disrespect the Patriots have been using as motivation as this banner season nears its inevitable conclusion.

But a bigger issue looms on the horizon. And as always, if it’s the Patriots, it somehow finds its way back to The Big Tuna.

Parcells may be a great motivator, and a good leader of men. His winning record is undeniable. His philosophies on coaching are good parables for anyone involved in leadership to follow.

But was he as good a head coach as we have always thought he was? The answer to that question may take a hit this Sunday, as well as his overall reputation and legacy.

Parcells’ legacy took a hit of a different kind back in the Wild Card round. He duped the Tampa Bay Buccaneers into thinking he’d be their next head coach if they fired Tony Dungy. Tampa Bay was knocked off in the first round by Philadelphia, and Dungy was canned the next day. Today, Dungy is now the head coach of Indianapolis, the Buccaneers still don’t have a head coach, and football fans and experts nationwide are viewing Parcells a little differently.

With the big snow job Parcells laid on Tampa Bay, the dark side of Parcells is being talked about more than his coaching prowess. The Hall Of Fame, which Parcells “claims” he wishes he’d be a member of, is cool to admitting him now because of the “probability” that he may return to coach again someday. Another reason may be his unscrupulous dealings with his teams, especially when he decides he wants to bolt from teams he’s under contract with. And if you include Tampa Bay in the equation, his unscrupulousness extends itself to teams he has no ties to.

Parcells has always been about himself. His ego always comes out as paramount. He is 95 percent of the reason anyone on the planet has to use the word “disingenuous”.

Of course, all this doesn’t matter. You can slam Parcells all you want, but you’ll never take away his brilliant coaching record.

Or can you?

This weekend may prove to be the true unraveling of the Parcells mystique. With Belichick and fellow former Parcells protégés Charlie Weis and Romeo Crennel at the helm of the Patriots, Parcells ought to be beaming with pride. Instead, Parcells is probably seething with contempt, and might be frightened that the football world may suddenly come to the realization that the Parcells mystique is really the Belichick mystique.

It is a tribute to a head coach to have a slew of assistants become head coaches in their own right some day. You have disciples of Vince Lombardi, Tom Landry and Bill Walsh, just to name a few. But instead of looking at the top trio of the Patriots and think “Yeah, those are my guys!”, Parcells may be thinking just the opposite.

Sometimes, a thinking reporter will bring up Parcells’ coaching record with Belichick versus without Belichick. Parcells went three years without Belichick, and had a 21-27 record. The two went head to head four times, each man winning two games. But the biggest of the four games went to Belichick, a 20-13 playoff win by Cleveland against the Patriots in 1994. In that game, Belichick effectively shut the Patriots down, and Parcells would later admit that he gave Drew Bledsoe a bad game plan which resulted in a sub-.500 completion percentage and four picks.

Belichick’s exodus from Cleveland helped label him as a coach who will be nothing more than a defensive coordinator. In reality, the Browns’ impending move to Baltimore killed the 1995 season. Thanks to his personal assistant, Berj Najarian, Belichick cleaned up his people skills and is now more the complete package.

And with Weis running the offense, and Crennel helping the defense to better understand Belichick’s complicated schemes, the Patriots have the smartest coaching trio in the league. If the Patriots have anything going for them heading into Super Bowl XXXVI against the high-flying Rams, it’s the coaching staff. You have to figure that if brains will win this Super Bowl, the Patriots will have the edge.

If Belichick indeed comes out victorious Sunday, Parcells’ legacy will take the biggest hit of all. Patriot Nation won’t immediately be thinking about this during any ensuing celebrations, but it is worth keeping in the back of your mind. The best thing of all is that regardless of a win or a loss, the Patriots have now officially become better since Parcells left the team.

This is why Kraft may have had to show some restraint on Sunday in his praise of Belichick. Inside, Kraft has to be giddy with happiness and excitement. What had been the biggest blunder in franchise history has now become its biggest coup. For what Kraft had to surrender to the Jets to pry Belichick loose from his contract, the returns have been well worth the price.

There’s also one more thing that will benefit the Patriots this Sunday. Unlike Super Bowl XXXI, you get a head coach that actually wants to win this game. Belichick won’t do something like kick repeatedly to Desmond Howard. Belichick wants to win for Kraft, not the opposite. And Belichick is focused completely on the St. Louis Rams, and not the New York Jets. The Patriots are bathed in prosperity and comfort, and not in dissension or unease thanks to their head coach’s impending departure.

Root for the Patriots Sunday because you want them to win. The joy you all will feel if you see Kraft, Belichick and either Bledsoe or Tom Brady hoist a Vince over their heads is something you’ll remember all your life. And as John Madden will probably say because it’s what he said in 1997, “A Super Bowl win is forever, and no one can ever take it away from you!”

But if you still feel stung from 1997 and the stinky events that followed, root for Belichick to knock Parcells off his lofty perch in the pantheon of top head coaches in league history. Make everyone realize that it was Belichick that made The Tuna great, and not The Tuna himself.

Brady or Bledsoe may become the new glamour guy of the NFL. If so, bring it on.

But this Super Bowl is Belichick’s moment. It is the biggest stage of his professional life, and the biggest showcase for his talents that he has ever had. If the Patriots win, Belichick will have taken his “genius” moniker to real genius level, and it will have been a coaching job for the ages.

And Parcells may become the Jacob Marley of NFL head coaches. With every sleazy move he makes, he further forges the chains he will wear in the afterlife. Perhaps Parcells cares little about his legacy, and lives only for the present. Fans of the New York Giants, the New England Patriots, the New York Jets and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers look at Parcells and think, “We got screwed!” versus “Wow, what a great head coach he was!” And of course, Tampa Bay fans cannot even make the second statement at all.

Maybe after Sunday, you can remove the Patriots from that list. They have Belichick, and nobody who remembers 1997 feels screwed any longer.

Or will care what Parcells feels, as the Tuna mystique crumbles, piece by piece.

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