Sports Outside the Beltway

What Keeps Bill Parcells Awake at Night

Michael Lewis has an in-depth profile of Dallas Cowboys head coach Bill Parcells in the NYT Sunday Magazine entitled “What Keeps Bill Parcells Awake at Night.”

Some excerpts:

Bill Parcells is the only coach in N.F.L. history to take four different teams to the playoffs, but that only begins to set him apart. In 1983, in his first N.F.L. head coaching job, he took over a New York Giants team that had one winning season over the previous decade, turned it around on a dime and led it to Super Bowl titles in the 1986 and 1990 seasons. In 1993, he became head coach of the New England Patriots a year after they finished 2-14. Two seasons later they were 10-6 and in the playoffs for the first time in eight years; another two seasons later, they were in the Super Bowl. From there Parcells went to the Jets, who were coming off a 1-15 season, and coached them to a 9-7 record in his first year and a 12-4 record in his second. The Cowboys had finished 5-11 three seasons in a row before Parcells arrived in 2003. His first year they were 10-6 and reached the playoffs. No N.F.L. coach has ever proven himself so clearly to be a device for turning a losing team into a winning one. And yet, even now, as he begins his 16th season as a head coach in the N.F.L., he lives the psychological equivalent of a hand-to-mouth existence.


He still returns in his mind to a question his wife often asked him: why do you do what you do? Coaching football doesn’t make him obviously happy. Even in the beginning, in the late 1960’s, when he was an assistant coach at West Point, he would come home after games so evidently displeased that his eldest daughter would sit on the sofa next to him, silently, and put on a long face. She was 5 years old and had no idea what had happened; she just picked it up from his expression that postgame wasn’t happy time. “When my wife asked me that question,” he says, “I never had a good answer. There was no answer. There is no answer.”


When watching video, Parcells doesn’t usually waste a lot of time studying his quarterback. That’s one player he can see pretty well during the game. But this morning has been different. Against the Jaguars, Drew Bledsoe missed throws he once made in his sleep. He was indecisive and slow to see open receivers. As a result, he held the ball far too long. Last season Bledsoe was sacked 49 times and smacked in the act of throwing 82 times, a league high. He has been showing the symptoms of a quarterback who is looking at the rush instead of his receivers — which is to say a quarterback who should no longer be playing in the N.F.L. Parcells studied the video to determine if Bledsoe had indeed lost his nerve. The video didn’t say. But the video did reveal that the Cowboys’ cornerbacks were soft and that his left tackle’s inability to handle the pass rush had the potential to ruin the Cowboys’ season.


What has him troubled — what has him waking up choking on his bile — isn’t what you might expect. It’s not concern that the Redskins’ coaching staff could spring something on the Cowboys for which they are entirely unprepared. And it’s not his team’s raw ability. It’s a thing that’s harder to put into words, and impervious to strategy. Even as he is trying to study his next opponent, he can’t shake what happened on Sunday. How his team, the moment the Jaguars pushed back, collapsed. How, the moment the players felt the pressure, they began to commit penalties and the sort of small but critical mental errors that only a coach watching video can perceive. In their performance he smells the sort of failure he defines himself against.


It’s heresy in the N.F.L. to suggest there should be free time, or that there is such a thing as diminishing returns to work. But the truth is that there are some days when there is more to do than others, and on Saturday there is next to nothing to do. All strategic decisions have been made, all plays practiced, everyone who needs to be yelled at has been yelled at, at least twice. When I ask Parcells how he spends Saturday, he says, “Worrying about the game.” One sign of how little actual work needs to be done is that he sets aside the morning for the photographers to take this season’s official team photograph.

By the time the players — 63 of them — have arranged themselves on the scaffolding, there are, in addition, 32 coaches, trainers and other support staff. The number of jobs on the playing field has remained steady for decades, but the number of ancillary jobs has boomed. (This is one of the two notable differences when you compare current team photos with those from the early 1960’s that decorate the Cowboys’ hallways. The other is the increasing numbers of black players.) In 1961, the Dallas team photo had just 6 men out of uniform; as late as 1980 it had a mere 13. The turning point came in 1990, when the team photographer could no longer cram all the nonplayers into a single row and began to stick two at both ends of the rows. As the price of the asset — the N.F.L. player — has skyrocketed, so has the value of those, however peripheral, who can extract a bit more value from it. As the game becomes more complex, it requires more people to understand it, and as more people are brought in to parse it, it becomes more complex. By about 2030, the Cowboys’ team photo will be a handful of players nestled among hundreds of trainers and coaches and God knows what else. Competitive forces break people’s nerves. They also reshape football teams.

Parcells is a complex man doing an incredibly tough job.

One thing that is clear from this piece–and I commend the whole thing to you–is that he knew from the outset, or at least after the first game of the year, that Drew Bledsoe no longer had what it takes to lead a team to the Super Bowl. It wouldn’t surprise me if he knew that last season. One wonders, then, why the Cowboys didn’t either pick up Drew Brees in the off-season or take a quarterback in the first round. If he legitimately thought Tony Romo was the answer, he would have started Game 1. He didn’t.

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