May 26, 2006
For Sporting News
Andre Tippett felt he had earned it. He was, after all, a 34-year-old 11-year veteran. As the Patriots' 1993 training camp wore on -- and the heat, contact and boredom asserted themselves -- Tippett craved a day off.
He floated the idea to new coach Bill Parcells. "I thought it was my time," Tippett says. It was his time, all right -- time to learn about Parcells.
"He said, 'I'm not going to give you a day off, but if you think you need it, take it,' " Tippett says. "That left me on the spot. I thought, 'I better show up for practice.' "
Tippett showed up, but he had given Parcells some ammunition. For the next few practices, Parcells kept asking whether Tippett "had enough left in the tank" to play a full season. "He said, 'If you're so tired, take a couple days off. Go ahead and do that,' " Tippett recalls. All of a sudden, Tippett wasn't a five-time Pro Bowl player. He was a rookie again.
"I went back to my room and questioned myself," Tippett says. "I started running an extra lap at the end of practice. I lifted a little more and ate a little less. I committed myself to having my best year."
Tippett finished the '93 season -- his last in the NFL -- with 8.5 sacks and four fumble recoveries. And he played in all 16 games. Not bad for a tired old man. He credits Parcells with inspiring him to find that reserve supply of fuel and use every drop. And he serves as one of dozens of testimonials to the power of the Tuna, the NFL's master psychologist.
"He will try to find out what your weaknesses and strengths are," Tippett says. "He will go after your pride. He'll find out how motivated you are."
This summer, Parcells will probe the mystifying mind of Terrell Owens in what could constitute his biggest challenge. In T.O., who signed a three-year, $25 million deal with the Cowboys, Parcells confronts a shrink's dream. Equal parts dramatically petulant and supremely gifted, the wide receiver has mixed mayhem and genius in San Francisco and Philadelphia. He has criticized teammates and coaches, divided locker rooms and done everything to attract attention short of holding his breath until turning blue.
Now, he's wearing Cowboys blue, and everybody wants to know how Parcells will transform the selfish star into the team player. That has been Parcells' hallmark since the autocratic coach took over the Giants in 1983.
For the most part, Parcells' former players and coaches think Owens won't be any different from Lawrence Taylor, Bryan Cox, Terry Glenn, Keyshawn Johnson or the many other hard cases who were transformed into "Parcells guys."
"I don't think he'll have any problems with T.O.," says Browns offensive coordinator Maurice Carthon, who played for and coached with Parcells for 15 years. "I know what I've heard about T.O. I know what type of player he is. I don't think his problem is not doing what he's supposed to do; it's more about being the highest-paid (receiver).
"Bryan Cox was one of the most hated players in the NFL when he came to us in New York. If he can coach Cox, T.O. will be easy."
Maybe. Cox was tough, but he was never sent home midway through a season, as Owens was last year with the Eagles. L.T. was a madman off the field but the consummate big-game performer on it. Even Johnson quieted his hyperactive mouth long enough to mature into a better all-around player under Parcells.
The question is not whether Parcells can deal with Owens; it's whether T.O. can handle Parcells' constant quest for perfection, his single-minded approach to team and the stream of sarcasm he uses to break weak-hearted players.
Neither of Owens' previous coaches -- the 49ers' Steve Mariucci and the Eagles' Andy Reid -- is anything like Parcells, who keeps pushing until he's certain players can be trusted in the most stressful on-field circumstances. Mariucci was too nice. Reid tried to let his players defuse problems, and that didn't work. Parcells simply won't tolerate any behavior that compromises his team. Never has and -- at a cantankerous 64 -- probably never will.
"It's still up in the air," says Darren Woodson, a five-time Pro Bowl safety who played one season (2003) for Parcells. "I'm sure T.O. has been babied and pampered. But he can have 13 catches, 185 yards and two touchdowns in a game and he'll still be doing something wrong. He'll miss a block, jog off the line or run the wrong route, and Parcells will be in his face. I know it will happen.
"How well will T.O. handle it? Will he say, 'There's room for me to get better?' Or will he tank it?"
When he sat down for his news conference before the Cowboys' May minicamp, Parcells had to expect an onslaught of inquiries about his new wideout. But 35 consecutive questions about how he would handle T.O.? Nearly halfway through the examination, Parcells laid it out.
"I told him what I expected of him," Parcells said. "Sometimes, when a player's new and he doesn't know you, you're going to have to reinforce that as you go. But as I say, I'm not approaching this with the idea that it's going to be adversarial or that I'm going to be mandating every little thing that this player does. I don't do that with any player.
"I tell him, 'Be on time, pay attention, be in condition and play hard in the games.' That's the rule. And stay out of trouble in terms of issues that are in the community or with women or strip clubs. I tell them all that."
There it is, the Parcells Manifesto. Seems pretty straightforward, until you read a little more closely. The part about how he might have to "reinforce that as you go?" It's a euphemism for I'm going to ride your ass until you do it my way -- every time.
Ask Adrian Murrell. He played for Parcells with the Jets in 1997. He rushed 40 times for 156 yards in a 31-14 win over the Bengals and was feeling pretty good about it until Parcells delivered a hefty downer. "You left yards on the field," he snapped. Murrell admits he missed a couple of reads that could have brought more yards. "He gets on you, win or lose," says Murrell, who played three games with the Cowboys in 2003. "He doesn't care who you are."
That's because Parcells is an avowed enemy of complacency. A great single-game performance means nothing. "I don't know how many times I heard him say (sarcastically) to a player after a good game, 'You've arrived. You don't have to get any better,' " Woodson says. Players who succeed under Parcells don't take the verbal shots personally; instead, they use them to forge ahead.
"When he's got guys he can beat up on, prod along and get them going, he'll take a team that isn't a great team and make it great and put it in position to win games," says former nose tackle Jim Burt, who played for Parcells with the Giants from 1983-88 and remains close to the coach.
When Parcells told reporters he didn't anticipate an "adversarial" relationship with Owens, it was bull. It's going to be adversarial -- all the time. Parcells wants his players to work so hard that he won't have to say anything -- which never happens, by the way.
Joe Morris knows that. He played for Parcells with the Giants from 1983-89 and was a key member of the '86 Super Bowl championship team. He rushed for 1,516 yards and 14 touchdowns. But in a late-season game against the 49ers, Morris carried 13 times for a mere 14 yards. "They said, 'We're going to take Joe Morris away and let Phil Simms beat us,' " Morris says. And Simms did, throwing for 388 yards and two touchdowns, including one to Morris. Before the two teams met again in the playoffs, Parcells didn't care that the 49ers had stacked their defense against the run in the earlier game.
"All week, he kept saying, 'I've got a running back who ran for 1,500 yards, and all he got against San Francisco was 14 yards. Hey, Joe, are you going to get 14 yards this week?' " Morris says. "I was thinking, 'Bill, how about the fact that I caught a touchdown pass in that game?' He didn't care."
The upshot? Morris rushed for 159 yards and two touchdowns in a 49-3 rout. "He can challenge your manhood and put your pride to the test," Morris says.
Then there's that part about "not mandating every little thing that this player does." Ted Johnson laughs at that. The former Patriots linebacker played two years for Parcells and recalls a special teams drill during training camp in 1995, his rookie season.
"I was fourth-string right end on field-goal protection," Johnson says. Because he wasn't exactly a vital part of the process, Johnson decided to see the sights. "I'm over there checking out the girls when all of a sudden I hear, 'Where's Johnson?' Parcells is over there yelling at me, 'He's too good. He doesn't need to work on special teams.' " The message for T.O.? He had better keep a close eye on all of his responsibilities because Parcells will be paying attention.
Some might say Parcells' demand that players control themselves off the field is open to interpretation. That's because Taylor often was a mess away from football. "He's a different story," says former defensive tackle Ray Agnew, who played two seasons ('93-94) for Parcells in New England. "He's one of the greatest players in the history of the league." Though many former Parcells acolytes insist the coach is egalitarian in his abuse, Taylor received special treatment. "We knew everybody wasn't treated the same," Morris says.
The difference with L.T. was that he always delivered on the field. Still, Parcells wouldn't spare the linebacker all the time. "We played Tampa Bay, and we knew we should beat them. But there was Bill telling L.T., 'Taylor, they have (linebacker) Hugh Green over there; he's a better player than you,' " Morris says.
The results would be the same almost every time. Taylor would dominate the game, the Giants would win it, and Parcells would keep carping. Those who could take it and then deliver every Sunday became his "guys." Parcells always has rewarded loyalty with loyalty. And if he did push too hard -- even he could realize it -- he would throttle back in private, asking about a player's family or financial situation.
"The game to him is personal," Woodson says. "It's almost like that fight you get into with your buddies. There's always one buddy who will be there through thick and thin -- jumping in whether you're winning or losing. That's Parcells. He's got a lot of fight in him. He works hard every week on offense, defense and special teams. You know he's done his homework. You don't get that from every coach in the league. A lot of them manage.
At one point in the Parcells press conference, someone asked what he'll do if Owens attacks Cowboys quarterback Drew Bledsoe, as he did Jeff Garcia in San Francisco and Donovan McNabb in Philadelphia.
"Now we're talking about hypotheticals," Parcells shot back. But Bledsoe doesn't mind what-ifs. And he sounds optimistic when asked how he'll handle Owens' volatile nature. "It's not all that different from situations I've dealt with in the past, when receivers didn't get to touch the ball as many times as they wanted and got upset," he says.
Bledsoe has been through it with Glenn and Keyshawn Johnson. He refers to last year's game in Philadelphia, when Glenn was the target of double-teams throughout the first three-plus quarters. "I told him, 'They've decided this is the guy (Glenn) that we're going to take away,' " Bledsoe says. "I said, 'Let's be patient.' "
In the fourth quarter, with the Cowboys trailing, 20-7, Bledsoe engineered a 72-yard drive that ended with a 20-yard scoring pass to Glenn. "At the end, they took a gamble and covered him one-on-one, and he ended up catching a big touchdown pass," Bledsoe says. The Cowboys went on to win, 21-20.
Bledsoe will try to anticipate how Owens will be covered and try to prepare his teammate for what might happen. It's not always going to be a 10-catch, 150-yard day. Parcells was similarly pre-emptive when he said, "In this offense, you're not going to catch 100 balls. It's just not going to happen, so you have to be ready for that." That was a "shot across the bow," according to Murrell.
"He's being proactive, not only with T.O. but with the media and everybody else in terms of changing the expectations people may have," Bledsoe says. "It's not an offense where you can get 100 catches and set records. We have too many weapons. It's also not the style of football we're going to play."
You know what style the Cowboys are going to play: Parcells' style. He's the captain, and this is his ship.
T.O. would be wise to get on board.