The Situation: The unfortunate guy on the spot is Tom Hodson, a fourth-year quarterback from Louisiana State. He is taking the New England Patriots' offense into the huddle, with the ball at the one-yard line, and suddenly this is a test. The test is in full public view.
"Come on, Hodson," Bill Parcells shouts. "What lineup are you going to call?"
There are two seconds, maybe three seconds of grace. The other players on the field—all of the 80 candidates for the team's final 47-man roster, gathered at Bryant College in Smithfield, R.I.—listen and cringe. The spectators beyond the yellow ropes also cringe. What is the quarterback going to say?
"Come on," Parcells shouts. "We went over this yesterday."
August 1, 1993
"Goal line," Hodson blurts out as his answer.
Goal line? There is a look of incredulity on Parcells's face. Goal line? He came back to coaching to hear this? How can he go over something one day and have it forgotten the next day? Isn't this professional football? Aren't these men being paid money to think as well as to act? Goal line?
"Get out of there, Hodson," Parcells grumps. "Next quarterback. Scott Secules? What are you going to call?"
"Two tight ends," Secules says.
One thousand one. One thousand two. Two tight ends?
"Run it," Parcells says.
The Situation: He is back. More than two years have passed since he walked away from the Super Bowl champion New York Giants due to medical worries. He has had three heart procedures, then a bypass operation, and now he feels healthy again. Rejuvenated. Even his hair, once gray, is now a sun-bleached blond. His weight is not exactly what he wants it to be, but he looks good. He used to smoke one cigarette after another, but he has stopped. He has also stopped sitting next to a big tub of peanut butter in the cafeteria. His life-style has been subtly changed, but his life is back to what it used to be.
He is no longer explaining football to the curious who have landed upon an NBC channel. He has a team, his own team, bedraggled as it may have been in recent history. There is the feeling that Bill Parcells is again doing exactly what he was meant to do. The team has now been on the practice field since July 16. He is back with his familiar single-minded determination.
"You can't teach the football he knows," one of his assistants, Johnny Parker, the strength coach, says. "He has a real way of finding out about how people can be motivated, about what they need. I've never seen anyone else who knows more about how to treat people, to make them work at their best."
The romantic quality to the challenge that the 51-year-old Parcells has chosen for himself is obvious. He is traveling from the first to the worst in an interrupted bound. What operation in all of professional sports has more troubles than the Patriots? He is inheriting an outfit that finished 2-14 last season, next to last in the NFL in total offense, 19th in defense, 27th in that important category of takeaway-giveaway, dead last in yards penalized. He has left the pleasant confines of NBC to deal with this multihorned monster. Is there any team that has had a more convoluted recent history than the Pats, ranging from total ineptitude on the field to near bankruptcy off it? Is there any organization with a more uncertain future, with caretaker owner James Orthwein suggesting that he might move the team to St. Louis or sell it to someone who would move it to Hartford, even as various proposals are made to build a multipurpose dome in Boston? This is the challenge of NFL challenges.
"He called me to see if I wanted to come with him," Parker says. "I asked him one question: 'Do you really want to do this thing?' He said, 'As much as I ever wanted to do anything in my life.' That was enough for me."
Parcells has brought with him eight former assistants, most of whom helped build two Super Bowl champions in eight years. The plan is the same as it was in New York, where Parcells finished 3-12-1 in his first year. He will find the people who want to play and can play under his system. He will build from there. He is following his instincts and his heart. That is why, healthy again after his surgery, he signed a five-year, $6 million contract to do what he does best. Coach football.
Parker, who has coached with him for seven years, says, "I remember what he always said: that the greatest feeling in the world was coming onto the field at RFK Stadium, playing against the Redskins. All those people yelling at you, all that noise. Play the game. Win the game. Leave the field with everybody quiet. How could you beat that?"
Has he changed?
"Thank goodness, no," Parker says. "If he had, I wouldn't be building the house I am right now in Foxboro."
The Situation: The Parcells plan is to make a practice resemble a game. He walks across the field, a whistle clenched in one fist, totally in control. What will his team do in a certain situation? He wants the entire team to think with his football mind. He shouts out imaginary situations. He expects everyone to respond. We went over this yesterday, Hodson.
"He's funny," rookie nosetackle Kevin Johnson says. "The things he says are really funny. Except when he talks about you. Then it's still funny, except there is something that he is saying to you. Everybody laughs, but you are thinking."
Johnson, a fourth-round draft choice from Texas Southern, weighs 306 pounds. He is only 6'1". Parcells took a look at those dimensions and told Johnson, "I'm going to be on you like a dog on a bone. You're going to be my soupbone." This is Johnson's new nickname. Soupbone. He never had a nickname in his entire life, but now his teammates call him Soup or Bone. Parcells calls him Soupbone. The word is heard often on the practice field.
"He's just trying to make you do better," Johnson says. "He's not prejudiced. He gets on everyone."
"You know exactly where you stand with him," says rookie quarterback Drew Bledsoe, the first pick in the entire draft, who signed for an estimated $14.5 million for six years. "His rules are simple. Do what he says. The things he asks aren't simple—he might want you to be at a certain weight, or he might want you to learn a certain number of things in a short period of time—but you had better do them. Because he will check."
One of Parcells's first decisions was to restrict media access to the practices. A tent was erected on one side of the practice field to contain the reporters, who used to be able to roam the sidelines. The idea was that they would not hear his caustic comments during practice and print them in the newspapers. The idea has not worked. His voice is too loud.
"Come on, snappers, centers!" he shouts as one snap after another floats past the Patriot punters during a kicking situation. "These punters don't play in the NBA, you know."
"Fall down again, Lockwood!" he shouts at running back Scott Lockwood, lying on the ground after a failed attempt to convert a second-and-six situation, "then it'll be an even dozen for the week."
"Soupbone!" he shouts. "Where were you supposed to be?"
"In professional sports, you are what you are," Parcells says. "Whatever you finish, that's what you are. If you're 1-15, you're a 1-15 team. If you're 2-14, you're 2-14. No better, no worse. You can look in the brochure and see that the team is 5-9, but it only lost six games by a total of nine points. You follow me? The reason the team is 5-9 is because it wasn't any good in close games. With all these sports p.r. guys, the implication is that the team just ran into some bad luck, really should have finished 9-5. That isn't the way it is in my mind. If you're 2-14, you're 2-14."
How do you change 2-14? He demands that there be no mistakes. Penalties are mistakes. There should be no penalties. He shouts out his situations. Third-and-long. Second-and-six. Fourth-and-one, 30 seconds left, no timeouts. What'll it be?
A fifth-year defensive end named Chris Gannon suddenly jumps offside. The entire practice field becomes quiet. Parcells blows his whistle.
"That's the worst penalty you can have on defense!" Parcells shouts. "It's all because you're not watching the ball, Gannon." Gannon looks as if he wants to dig a hole at the 50-yard line and crawl into the ground. Next?
The Situation: Parcells took the job on Jan. 21 amid understandable hoopla, explaining at a press conference why he took this offer after rejecting at least two others. He was healthy. He missed football. Simple as that. He smiled for all of the cameras, shook all of the proper hands, then he disappeared. From that first day until July 16, the first day of practice, he appeared at only a handful of press conferences. The rest of the time he was working in the Foxboro offices, making plans for change.
Why should he talk and report? He had nothing to talk about, nothing to report. He "asked" his players to come to Foxboro Stadium for "voluntary" weight training. If they didn't? Well, running back John Stephens didn't want to make the trip from Lauderhill, Fla. Stephens now is a Green Bay Packer. And if the weight training wasn't followed? Well, incumbent offensive lineman Reggie Redding reported to camp overweight and out of shape. Redding is now a free agent. The Parcells rule was that he only knew what he could see with his own eyes. If he didn't like what he saw, changes would be made.
That still is the rule.
"You'll hear me say that a lot," Parcells says, "that I can only go on what I see. In New York the question was whether or not Phil Simms would be the starter at quarterback. My answer always was, 'Well, yes, if he beats out the other quarterbacks.' I don't believe in incumbents anywhere."
His days and nights are measured to the minute. Lose 20 minutes during a morning and where will you be? Running behind all day. His practices aren't excessively tough on the body, no different from most NFL practices, but they are constant challenges to the mind. Situations. Situations. Situations. He explains himself to the media every day, between 11:30 and noon. The rest of the time he talks with his people.
"It's pretty much what I thought it would be, coming back," he says. "The only difference is that when you're away, you have a tendency to think about the good things, the camaraderie, the fun. You forget about the bad—the holdouts, the controversies. You remember fast enough when you come back."
He is sitting at the daily press conference, a banner with the new Patriot logo behind him. New logo. New leader. The face on the logo has been compared with the profile of Elvis Presley. The face on the leader is almost as familiar. Will the presence of such a certified winner be enough to turn around this worst team in all of football? Will it bring stability to a franchise that, of late, has had little? The immediate challenge is simply putting a team on the field, getting ready for the Sept. 5 opener in Buffalo.
"Do you think this will be a good team?" a local TV reporter asks.
Parcells says he does not know. He says he still has much to learn about his players. How do they respond to pressure? Some people thrive on it. Some are destroyed by it. He talks a bit about Bob Costas and how he responded to pressure at the anchor desk. Everything would seem to fall apart, but Costas would make it all right when he went on the air. How did he do that? Who knows? He did. The trick is to plan, to practice, then to be ready to deal with the pressure that comes along at important moments.
"It's like you," Parcells says to the TV reporter. "What if your reporters haven't rounded up the news of the day? What if they haven't gotten the interviews? What if you haven't read the box scores of the day and you're not sure what your lead story is, and now you're going on the air in 10 seconds. That's pressure, right? What are you going to do? Do you know how you're going to act?"
The reporter looks at Parcells. This is a situation.
"You saw last night's show, huh?" the reporter says.
One thousand one. One thousand two. Parcells laughs. Back on the job. Feeling good. Feeling as good as he has ever felt.