Great Patriots Debate: Was Bill Parcells more of a savior or traitor?

Tom E. Curran
NBC Sports Boston

To really, truly appreciate the state of the pre-Parcells Patriots, please read this story from the November 2, 1992 issue of Sports Illustrated. Written by Leigh Montville, one of the great writers in Boston sports history and a man who was there for the good, bad and the ugly of the Patriots first 32 years, the three-page article is an avalanche of bleak.

The Patriots won 14 games under three coaches over four seasons (1989-1992). The NFL took control of the team at one point and, when they gave control back, they gave it to new owner, James Busch Orthwein, whose main goal was getting an NFL franchise back to St. Louis. Orthwein was caretaking but the threat of him moving the Patriots to St. Louis was very real.

Since their inception, short-lived glory days - the early 60s, late 70s and mid 80s - always were followed by a descent into self-inflicted chaos and dysfunction.

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By 1992, it had gotten to a point where simple dysfunction would have been welcomed. The Patriots were nearing euthanasia and the 21,000-plus season-ticket holders (for a 60,000-seat stadium) and diehard fans who loved them in spite of it all were not going to be enough to keep the needle away. 

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Then, barely two months after Montville's article, Orthwein hired Bill Parcells. His impact at the box office was instant.

Passing over Mike Ditka and Buddy Ryan, Orthwein was the one who brought the elusive Tuna on board. And he gave him control.

"We had discussions on how (Orthwein) said I envisioned bringing a competitive team to New England," Parcells said after his hiring. "I told him I wasn't interested in being a competitive team. I wanted a championship team. That's the only goal a guy like me can have. I'm not interested in making a team competitive from week to week."

Control was discussed.

"I think I have the most experience at this table in picking talent," said Parcells.

Orthwein said: "As far as who's going to pick whom, we haven't gone to the expense of picking Bill Parcells not to use his expertise."

Parcells presided for four seasons and in the final one, he took the Patriots to the Super Bowl.

Parcells' regular-season record as Patriots head coach was 32-32. The team went 5-11 in 1993 (Drew Bledsoe's rookie year), 10-6 in 1994 (losing to Bill Belichick and the Browns in the Wild Card round), 6-10 in 1995 and 11-5 in his final year. It was after that 6-10 season that owner Robert Kraft - who came aboard one year after Parcells was hired - overstepped in personnel matters in the 1996 draft. That soured beyond repair the relationship between the mercurial head coach and the aggressive neophyte owner. 

But it's not hyperbole to say that Parcells may have been the only man who could have saved the Patriots from leaving Massachusetts.

Beyond the simple fact of his hiring, though, there was legitimizing he had to do. And it came beginning in December of 1993 when the 1-11 Patriots went on a four-game rampage (for them) capped by a January 2, 1994 overtime win at a snow-encrusted Foxboro that we were told might be the final game the team played in New England.

That finish and the 10-6 season in 1994 was thanks in part to a stable of Parcells draftees - Bledsoe, linebacker Chris Slade, guard Todd Rucci, wide receiver Vincent Brisby, defensive back Corwin Brown and eighth-round pick Troy Brown in 1993 and Willie McGinest in 1994.

In 1995, Parcells drafted Ty Law, Ted Johnson, Curtis Martin and center Dave Wohlabaugh. In 1996, the team drafted Terry Glenn, Tedy Bruschi and Lawyer Milloy.

Parcells shed the ball-control offensive style he embraced with the Giants and allowed Bledsoe to play to his strength as a gunslinging feel player and the presence of Glenn, Ben Coates and Martin along with a capable offensive line gave the offense a dangerous amount of firepower. Defensively, the 1993-1996 Patriots were disciplined and disruptive.

The hiring of Bill Parcells saved the Patriots for the moment. But his coaching, drafting and leadership poured a solid foundation for the franchise to live upon.

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And then, from the moment he quit - and arguably before - until January of 2001 he did his best to undermine the Patriots as head coach and director of football operations with the Jets.

He fled to the Jets because he didn't want to work for Kraft anymore. He hauled a few Patriots players and coaches with him (including Belichick) for the 1997 season then swooped in and spirited Martin away before the 1998 season.

He was doing what he had to do for his new employer, of course, and all's fair in the shiv-happy world of professional sports (or business), but if one looks objectively at the period of time from January 1997 when Parcells was hired until January 2001 when he retired from coaching (for a couple years), Parcells spent almost as much time chip-chip-chipping away at the Patriots as he did building them.

If one wants to get in the weeds and point out that, if not for Parcells, Kraft never would have been introduced to Belichick, fine. You're right.

But that wasn't some benevolent act on Parcells' part.

And how do you weigh that against the machinations of both Parcells and the league office to get Tuna to New York in the first place and Parcells' manipulations to try and keep Belichick from going back to New England?

Parcells is retired, Belichick keeps going, the Patriots have a half-dozen Lombardis stacked in the trophy case and most people believe that Parcells deserves to be in the Patriots Hall of Fame ASAP. He went into Canton in 2013.

But just because hatchets are buried and things worked out in a way no one could have foreseen, should 1997 to 2001 be swept away?

It's a close call, I know, but the question is simple: Was Bill Parcells more traitor than savior?

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Great Patriots Debate: Was Bill Parcells more of a savior or traitor? originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

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