'The Two Bills': Brilliant, infuriating portrait of Parcells, Belichick

“The Two Bills,” a sublime, infuriating new “30 for 30” documentary, sits you down in a room with Bill Belichick and Bill Parcells for two hours of highlights and history. The awkward silences, the embarrassed chuckles, the emotions wrestled to the ground long before they can reach the surface … it’s uncomfortable, it’s cringeworthy, and it’s a brilliant technique.

A joint creation of ESPN’s “30 for 30” series and NFL Films that premieres Thursday night, “The Two Bills” tracks the pro careers of the two most notable coaches of the past three decades: Parcells, the two-time Super Bowl-winning coach of the Giants, Patriots, Jets, and Cowboys; and Belichick, who began his career as an apprentice to Parcells and went on to win five (and counting) Super Bowls with the Patriots.

The documentary sets the tone early with a devilish, simple sequence: showing both men arriving at Giants Stadium. The implication is clear: this documentary — and, based on this, their lives in total —is about football and nothing but football. Family, vacations, Parcells’ heart troubles — all get only cursory mentions, all coming across in the eyes of these men as nothing but mild, momentary diversions from game prep.

Bill Belichick and Bill Parcells opened up about football in a documentary. (Screenshot)
Bill Belichick and Bill Parcells opened up about football in a documentary. (Screenshot)

What’s fascinating about “The Two Bills” is the way it presents images of Parcells and Belichick completely at odds with their public perceptions. We think of Parcells as the arrogant, win-at-all-costs blowhard, best embodied in the infamous 1997 news conference, shown here, where he lambasted Patriots owner Robert Kraft for expecting him to “cook the dinner” but not “shop for some of the groceries” — i.e. not giving him any input on personnel. It was just one of many such Parcells explosions on the sideline, in the front office and before the media.

“My impression of Bill Parcells was that, ‘Hey, he’s a good coach, but God, this guy could be an [posterior body part],” Giants Hall of Famer Lawrence Taylor says. “Just rolled me every day, every day, every day, every day.”

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But the Parcells here is softened by age, the corners of his intense blue eyes gently wilting downward, his voice a hoarse rasp. He’s more willing to forgive, to let past injustices slide … well, that is, until the film’s final scene, which we won’t spoil here. But he still knows how to needle, and one team in particular is still in his crosshairs.

Belichick, by contrast, stands tall these days as the Dark Lord of the NFL, the emperor whose shadow has loomed over the league for the past 17 years. Anyone who’s not terrified of what Belichick could scheme up against their team isn’t paying close enough attention.

That ominous, threatening image makes the Belichick in this documentary — the Belichick of old footage — seem almost comical, a quiet, intense man whose perpetually gloomy demeanor led his own players to dub him “Doom.” (The shots of a dour Belichick in the background of ‘70s-era Colts, Lions, and Broncos games are a gem.)

Belichick didn’t have the respect of the Giants when he joined Parcells’ staff — he hadn’t played football, he was a tiny, floppy-haired mope — and the Belichick that emerges from those early days is so socially awkward as to make you cringe.

“He didn’t look like a football player,” says former Giants linebacker Harry Carson. “You sort of disregarded him, because he’s not one of us. He’s a coach, but he’s not one of us.”

Parcells thundered through the league in the ‘80s and ‘90s, remaking team after team in his own image and bringing along a coterie of coaches — Belichick, Al Groh, Romeo Crennel — to carry out his vision.

“He’s a very exciting person to work with,” Belichick said of Parcells, which for Belichick qualifies as gushing praise.

But there’s only so big a coach can get before he starts clashing with the guy who signs his checks, and Parcells hit that point. He spun off into his own orbit, and along the way, Belichick and others couldn’t — or wouldn’t — match his erratic trajectory through the league.

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Belichick didn’t possess Parcells’ ability to focus on his own path, damn the consequences, and that led Belichick into more than one career crisis. He flirted with, but turned down, the Vikings for one coaching position. Most memorably, he was, as Belichick confidant/Falcons assistant GM Scott Pioli put it, “the two-time coach of the Jets, who never coached a game” — both a victim of and a contributor to front-office clusters in New York.

The Jets debacle, in which Parcells installed Belichick as head coach, only to have Belichick walk away from the job after two days, led to the sour feelings between the men that persisted for decades. “The Two Bills” in some way seems to heal that rift; the two longtime friends-from-work go from an awkward handshake at the documentary’s beginning to something approaching collegiality at the end.

Bottom line: “The Two Bills” is must-watch for football fans interested in the intricacies of the part of the game that reaches from the sideline to the front office. The documentary puts Parcells and Belichick, cranky and surly, right where they belong: at the top of the NFL mountain. What it cost them to get there remains just outside the camera’s eye.

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Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Contact him at jay.busbee@yahoo.com or find him on Twitter or on Facebook.