Wednesday, August 7, 2013

The Parcells Polemic

By Bob Ekstrom

This year's Hall of Fame weekend offered football junkies an extra treat. In addition to getting our usual first fix of live game action, we had one more chance to hold the coattails of Bill Parcells on his procession down the hallowed halls of Canton. It was a love fest deifying a celebrity, yet ignorant of the insufficiency of his bottom-line accomplishments that preclude him from ever joining the dozen or so true elites in pro football's coaching annuls.

Parcells is a motivator and leader of men, and a flashy one at that. If you like cutting repartee with the press, clever manipulations intended to extract the most from his 53-man rosters, and the heroics of molding the downtrodden into winners, the man they call the Tuna surely had it all.

To many, Parcells was more than just a charismatic coach and shrewd grocery shopper. He was messianic, the only mortal capable of converting Giants fans into Cowboys fans, or Patriots into Jets. People followed him anywhere. But cut away the General Patton fa├žade and the iconic sound bites and you're left with a coach that averaged a pedestrian 9-7 record each year. Of the 30 others who've coached 200 or more NFL games, 16 have better winning percentages. That comes with the turf when you take on rebuilding projects, but he also exited before his quick fixes ran their course, so it goes both ways.

He's won two championships. So have 14 others. Another 10 have won three or more. Sure, he is one of only five coaches to lead two different teams to the Super Bowl, but he quit on the second of those teams when he was most needed and that makes him unique among the pantheon of multiple-champion coaches. The other often-overlooked commonality in this accomplishment were Bill Belichick's defenses, without which Parcells may not have made it to any of his three Super Bowls.

He is also the only coach in league history to lead four different teams into the postseason, a factor owing as much to his wanderlust as his football acumen. Is there much doubt that George Halas or Chuck Noll could have done the same if they had bopped around a little more than, say, never?

With Parcells, it's always been more about superlatives and style points than commitments and championships. He'd just paratroop in, take out the big targets, and call in backup as soon as expectations began to build. Or folks started counting upon him.

Not that he wasn't effective in his initial wave of ground support. He did pull four struggling franchises from the darkness of anonymity into the limelight of relevance. The teams he inherited won three games on average in the season before he came to town. By his second year, they averaged nine wins. And he did take all four to the promised land, making him a regular Gridiron Moses.

Parcells could always buy low and sell high. And while that may make him a great stockbroker, we've been too quick to presume it made him a great coach.

Monikered as Not For Long, the NFL has always been a market that seeks equilibrium. It won't let you stay up too long, and it won't keep you down. Where else could a Giants team mired in mediocrity but quarterbacked by Phil Simms and stocked with a newly-drafted Lawrence Taylor have gone but up, regardless of Ray Perkins' successor? How about a 1-win Jets team or a 2-win Patriots team once they rid themselves of Rich Kotite and Dick MacPherson, respectively? With nothing but high draft positions and upside, Parcells bought in. Then so did we.

By understanding the natural predisposition to equilibrium, he was less a stockbroker and more an arbitrager who capitalized on market inefficiencies. That built him a reputation larger than the bricks and mortar his stat sheet would warrant. It made him a hero, and we love our heroes.

America formulates opinion based on personal likes and dislikes. JFK was young and handsome, Ronald Reagan a movie star, and Bill Clinton a smooth talker, so theirs became the seminal presidencies of the last 50 years despite our introduction to budget deficits, trickle-down tax breaks for the rich, and new uses for cigars. Alex Rodriguez is a stark, impersonal PED user so he should be suspended for 211 games, but Manny Ramirez was an affable PED user with great dreadlocks, and it was bad for baseball when he had to sit out 50 games.

Football is a microcosm of that culture. Belichick is cold, impassionate, and arrogant, and that helps in discounting his three championships with an illegal seven-minute film clip taken in the first week of an entirely different season. On the other hand, the Tuna is warm, humanistic, and witty, the greatest coach in modern football.

Parcells took Camelot out of Washington and spread it coast-to-coast.

And our opinions are hard to change, even in the face of empirical evidence to the contrary. If we hate you, we're going to keep up the hate despite a lifetime of good. If we do come to like you, it will only be when you're gone. Yet our love is unconditional through all your faults, your bad calls from the sidelines, your failure to keep trained backups at key positions. Through all your lack of loyalty and commitment to our team, to our city, to our cause.

So hold those Parcellian coattails high, football fans. And while you're at it, better hoist up your own trousers, too. You've got to step through a lot when you follow an icon like the beloved Tuna.

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