Last Dec. 4 at Foxboro Stadium, with two minutes left in the
first half of a game against the New York Jets, New England
Patriot coach Bill Parcells found himself facing one of those
decisions that can make or break a season. The Patriots were
scrambling to qualify for the playoffs. Leading 10-7, they faced
second-and-eight on their 10-yard line. Their defense had been
smothering the Jets in the first half, and the logical thing,
Parcells said to himself, was to run out the clock and take his
chances that the defense would hang tough in the second half.
During a timeout, however, his 22-year-old wunderkind
quarterback, Drew Bledsoe, wanted to go for points, and Parcells
decided to show some faith in the kid. He sent Bledsoe back to
the field with this admonition: "If we can get something
started, let's go. But be careful." Bing! Two Bledsoe passes and
a run brought New England to its 31.
Then, on second-and-10 Bledsoe looked and looked for an open
receiver, and when he could not find one, instead of throwing
the ball into the first row of stands, he lofted a pass into
coverage near midfield. Wideout Michael Timpson lunged in vain
for the ball, and cornerback James Hasty made the interception.
End of drive and end of lead: The Jets drove for a field goal to
tie the score at 10-10 just before intermission.
Bledsoe headed for the sideline with his head down. He knew that
Mount Parcells was about to blow. "Where the ---- were you
looking?" Parcells exploded.
"I thought I saw..." Bledsoe began.
"Don't think! Forget what you thought you saw! It was a stupid
play! I go and show faith in you, give you a chance to show how
you can lead this team, and you screw it up! Get away from me!"
The Patriots went on to win 24-13, and a cooler Parcells pulled
Bledsoe aside afterward. It was time to stitch the wound.
"Listen," Parcells said. "When I show confidence in you and
allow you the latitude to execute these things, you have to
cover for me. You can't make mistakes like that. I tried to show
the rest of the team that I've gained enough confidence in you
to let you try something against my better judgment, and you
have to back that up."
They are one of pro football's odd couples, a coach with a Vince
Lombardi root system mentoring a decidedly laid-back young man
who just happens to be the best young quarterback of the '90s.
Parcells, 54, is East Coast tough, a New Jersey guy steeped in
basic football. Bledsoe, 23, is West Coast cool, and coming out
of high school he spurned football factories like Miami and
Washington so that he could get lost on a smaller campus,
Washington State. Parcells has two Super Bowl championship rings
from his days as coach of the New York Giants. Bledsoe has a
Copper Bowl ring. Parcells prefers '50s tunes; Bledsoe leans
toward Hootie & the Blowfish and Seattle grunge. For
relaxation, Parcells frequents minor league baseball parks in
Portland, Maine, and Trenton, N.J. Bledsoe likes to camp at
Coeur d'Alene Lake in Idaho. Parcells had caring parents who
leaned hard on him through his teens. Bledsoe had caring parents
who, by the time he was 16, allowed him to tell them when he was
coming home at night. Parcells keeps a fastidiously clean
office. Bledsoe's house is as cluttered as a college dorm room.
Parcells confronts his young charge. Bledsoe takes it. Parcells
needles him. Bledsoe takes it. Parcells berates. Bledsoe
breathes deeply, and he takes it. "Sometimes," Parcells says,
"he still does dumb things. Remember, the kid's still in his
infancy in the NFL.''
"Sometimes," Bledsoe says, "I just want to scream at him, 'Shut
You've seen those set-tos on the late-night highlight shows:
Parcells jawing at Bledsoe after some rookie-type mistake;
Bledsoe recoiling a few inches; Parcells waving Bledsoe away
like an annoying fly. If there were sound, the diatribes would
be rated R. In two years Parcells has dished out more venom at
Drew Bledsoe than Jim McMahon got in seven seasons from Chicago
Bear coach Mike Ditka. And it's all in the name of keeping the
kid grounded and attentive to detail.
"I don't like it," Bledsoe's mom, Barbara, says. "That's not
going to help Drew perform better."
"Tell her not to watch the games," Parcells says tersely when
told of the remark.
Coaches used to be able to use military discipline on all their
players, even the stars. Over the years, however, that has
changed, and not just in football. High-profile players have at
times determined who runs their team. Magic Johnson got Los
Angeles Laker coach Paul Westhead fired, Chris Webber helped
force out Don Nelson as the coach of the Golden State Warriors,
and three years ago quarterback John Elway all but ran Bronco
coach Dan Reeves out of Denver. That will not happen in New
England. Bledsoe may be one of the hottest marketing vehicles
the NFL has, and in July he signed a seven-year, $42 million
contract that made him the highest-paid player in the history of
the league, but Parcells insists that--for the good of the team
and for the good of the player--Bledsoe remain just another guy.
Entering the third year of their relationship, player and coach
are getting along just fine, thank you. To understand why, you
have to understand where each man comes from and, especially,
where he wants to go.
The family doctor, Jim Cobb, delivered Mac and Barbara Bledsoe's
first child on Valentine's Day 1972 in a country hospital in
central Washington. "I want you to remember something," Cobb
said to Mac, handing Drew to his father for the first time.
"This child is not yours. Never has been, never will be. He's on
loan to you for 18 years."
Mac and Barbara remember those words to this day. They raised
Drew and his brother, Adam, now a high school senior, with the
idea that you don't teach responsibility by monopolizing it; you
teach it by giving it away. Drew was downhill skiing at age two.
By the time he was a sixth-grader in Walla Walla, Wash., his
maturity had begun to show. Adam, who's six years younger than
Drew, would sometimes be a handful for Barbara, and Drew would
come home from school and say, "Mom, let me take care of Adam.
You go take it easy."
All over the Bledsoe home in Yakima, Wash., are tributes to the
boys and warm, loving poems about child-rearing. Mac, a high
school English and speech teacher and assistant football coach,
who lectures nationally on family relationships and children's
self-esteem, spoke this spring on the subject "parenting with
dignity." On the wall behind the family dinner table is a plaque
One hundred years from now it will not matter
What kind of car I drove
What kind of house I lived in
How much money I had in my bank account.
Nor what my clothes looked like.
But the world may be a little better
Because I was important in the life of a child.
"By about the eighth grade," Mac is saying, sitting at the
dinner table, "there were probably two or three better
quarterbacks than Drew in school around here. He was maybe 6'3",
125 pounds. He looked like a praying mantis. He hadn't filled
out yet. When he got to high school, there were still more
physically talented players. But Drew had a picture of where he
was going. He knew exactly what he wanted to do. So it was an
unfair playing field. If he'd lived up to my expectations, he'd
have been a tight end at Montana. But again, he knew what he
"Mac talks to hundreds and hundreds of people every year on
parenting and self-esteem for children," says Barbara. "Not
everyone buys into his philosophy. Drew bought it totally. It
got to the point where I'd be doing laundry when Drew was in
high school, and I'd find little notes in his pants pockets.
They'd say things like, 'I hustle on every play,' and 'I make
extra effort on every play,' and 'I live by team rules,' and
'The team always comes first,' and 'I'm the first on the field
and the last to leave.'"
"I believe," says Mac, "that in coaching and in teaching, kids
have to find their own way. Kids win. Coaches don't. I'm not
positive about this statistic, but in the 10 NCAA championship
games coached by [UCLA's] John Wooden, he called timeout late in
a game only once. His wizardry was during the week. Then he let
his kids play. That's how Drew was raised. Players play, and
players decide who wins."
At Walla Walla High, Drew played for a loud-mouthed
disciplinarian named Gary Mires. Mac was an offensive assistant.
The family believes that Drew benefited by going to Washington
State because he could more easily be his usual, private self at
the remote, rural school. And he could be in control of his
football destiny at the same time, playing a big-time schedule
without many of the big-time distractions. Drew became the first
true freshman to start at quarterback for the Cougars since
1960, and his coach, Mike Price, made him a confident player
from the start by giving him almost unlimited freedom to call
audibles. "If I'm going to give him the power to win," Price
said at the time, "I'm going to give him the power to lose, too.
He can handle it."
Drew declared himself eligible for the NFL draft after his
junior season--in which he was named a second-team All
America--and by the time he got to New England in the summer of
1993, he had been exposed to the gentle, confidence-building
coaching of his father, the abrasive and vocal coaching of Mires
and the easygoing coaching of Price, who handed him the playbook
and told him to use his head and find a way to win. As it turns
out, these three men might have been the perfect pre-Patriot
combination for Bledsoe.
At his home in suburban Bridgewater, Mass., Bledsoe takes a
photograph off his refrigerator. The picture shows a skinny kid
in white headband, sunglasses, white T-shirt and jeans, boogying
in front of a bunch of other kids in white T-shirts. "That's
me," he says. "I'm in ninth grade in Walla Walla, playing Jim
McMahon in the Bears' Super Bowl Shuffle video. Can you believe
Indeed, that was less than 10 years ago. You are instantly
reminded of how young this accomplished athlete still is, and
how daunting it must seem to him, at times, to be taking the
field alongside his childhood heroes. Bledsoe nods. "Tell me
about it. I was in fifth grade when Elway and Marino were
drafted," he says.
Back in the '80s, followers of the Giants became accustomed to
seeing a white-haired fellow standing close to Parcells. Mickey
Corcoran, a longtime New Jersey high school coach, was
Parcells's regular companion on the sidelines at training camp,
walking with him through the bowels of Giants Stadium after
practice, drinking coffee with him in hotels during road trips
at 5:30 a.m. because Parcells couldn't sleep. "I couldn't have
had a better mentor, a better guy to teach me the ropes in
coaching," Parcells says.
In 1986, when the Giants were flying back to New Jersey after a
crushing playoff loss to the Bears, Corcoran, seated next to
Parcells on the charter, leaned over to him and said, "You--not
management, not the players--have to find a way to beat these
guys. Find a way to win."
In 1939, at St. Cecilia High in Englewood, N.J., 26-year-old
Vince Lombardi coached football and basketball, and taught
chemistry and Latin. One of his students and basketball players
was a highly impressionable sponge named Mickey Corcoran. In the
late '50s Corcoran, by then the varsity basketball coach at
nearby River Dell High, had a forward named Bill Parcells.
"The thing about Lombardi," Corcoran says, "is that he didn't
know a great deal about basketball, but he was a great
basketball coach. I think Bill possesses many of the traits
Vince had. They're disciplinarians. They're committed to
excellence and totally dedicated to coaching. And they both
placed a priority on the coach-player relationship, which I
think is the most overlooked aspect of coaching. Whether it's
the '30s, the '60s or the '90s, human nature doesn't change.
Players look for help, look for direction, look for a way to
win, and they'll follow the coaches like Lombardi and Parcells
who can lead them."
Corcoran taught Parcells the same tough lessons he had learned
from Lombardi. River Dell had a 17-point lead over Park Ridge in
Parcells's sophomore season when a Park Ridge player convinced
an official that the ball had gone out of bounds off a River
Dell player. "What are you listening to him for?" Parcells
screamed. The official whistled Parcells for a technical foul.
Corcoran berated Parcells, and then benched him for the rest of
the game. "No one player is bigger than the team," Corcoran
said. River Dell lost. When Parcells showed up for practice the
next day, Corcoran kicked him out of the gym. Not until Parcells
had apologized to the team did Corcoran let him return. Lesson
Find a way to win. No one player is bigger than the team. One
man's cliches are another man's dogma. Lombardi's teachings
became Corcoran's, and those lessons live today in Parcells. He
has been a run-oriented offensive tactician at each of his three
head-coaching stops--the Air Force Academy, the Giants and the
Patriots. But he's not inflexible. Burdened with mediocre
running backs in 1984 while with New York, Parcells directed
Phil Simms to a 4,044-yard passing performance over a 9-7
regular season. The Giants then added a win in the wild-card
round of the playoffs. The year before, they had been 3-12-1.
Recalls Simms, "Bill said to me before the opening game, against
Philadelphia, 'All right, Simms, take some chances. Throw it
deep. Attack them.' I'm thinking, Wow, does he mean this?" He
did. Simms threw for 409 yards and four touchdowns that day.
Over the next few years New York built a mashing, run-blocking
line, earning Parcells his reputation for presiding over boring,
grind-it-out teams. "We'd be up 14-3 in the second quarter,"
Simms says, "and he'd give me the kill-the-clock sign. He'd
point his index finger like a gun at his watch. I'd run the
45-second clock down to one and just milk the game away."
Last year in New England, Parcells again found himself with a
dreadful running game. He adjusted, and Bledsoe wound up setting
a single-season record by throwing the ball 691 times. "The
object of the game is to win," says Parcells, "and I've never
been concerned with exactly how we do that. There are certain
basic ways I coach that I won't compromise on, but I believe
inflexibility is one of the worst human failings. You have to
look at your team, decide what you do best and win with what you
Parcells motivated and cajoled and angered his Giant teams. "One
day at practice--I think it was '88--the defense is bouncing me
around," Simms recalls. "The line's playing sloppy, and it's
causing me to take some shots. Bill explodes. 'You ---- linemen
stink!' he says. Then he turns to me and says, 'Simms, it's your
damn fault. If you weren't so chummy with those guys, they'd
have more respect for you, and they'd fear you, and they'd never
let you get hit. You're an idiot!' I think Bill's full of it.
Then I'm driving home, and I start to think, god, he's right. My
linemen aren't scared that I'll get ticked at them. I needed to
be more of a jackass to them. It sounds cold, but it's true."
Simms, who retired after the 1993 season, continues: "I look
back, and I realize something that Drew may take four or five
years to realize. Bill Parcells is the best thing that ever
happened to my career. I had to be tough. The strong survive.
It's war out there. And Bill got us ready for war.''
Mac Bledsoe does not seem to be the kind of guy who would
subscribe to that "football is war" stuff. However, he likes
what Parcells is doing with his son. "I'm behind Bill," Mac
says. "It's obvious he's a great coach, or he never would have
had the success he's had. I've heard more than one TV guy or
newspaper writer talk about Bill yelling at Drew on the
sidelines as if that's their whole relationship. But tell me
what happens all week long--not just for the three hours that the
camera's on them on Sunday. Then you can judge their
On a mild evening in June, Parcells is sitting in an empty radio
booth on the press level at Trenton's Waterfront Park, watching
the Double A Thunder play the Canton-Akron Indians. His annual
three-week vacation at the Jersey Shore is proceeding just fine.
Lots of beach. Lots of golf. Some minor league baseball. There
is no TV and no phone in the room at the guest house where he
and his wife, Judy, stay every year.
Between pitches, he talks about coaching football in the '90s.
"Players have the same hopes and dreams they've always had," he
says. "I really like football. It can be something very special
when it's at its best, with an integrity that comes from setting
goals, then working to accomplish them. The thing that gets
tough today is the integration of so many people who have no
respect for the game--the agents, the marketers, the
opportunists--with my players. These other people look at
football not as a sport but as an economic venture. I hear all
the time, 'Let the players do what they want.' If self-promotion
is the Number 1 objective of a player, then we'll have problems."
Asked to point out the most formidable obstacle standing between
Bledsoe and long-term success, Parcells says, "One word:
attention. There are so many pulls on his life now, and how he
handles those pulls will determine what kind of career he has."
An old friend of Parcells's, Sammy Ellis, walks into the box to
say hello. A former pitcher for the Cincinnati Reds, the
California Angels and the Chicago White Sox, Ellis is a roving
minor league pitching instructor for the Boston Red Sox. Ellis
asks Parcells how much longer he plans to coach. "You never
know," replies Parcells.
"Aww, they'll have to carry you out,'' Ellis says.
"No way," says Parcells, who had bypass surgery in June 1992.
"Just watch me."
Parcells will probably coach for two more years before buying a
minor league baseball club. He will not coach forever. The
future, for the Parcells--and--Bledsoe-led Patriots, is right now.
When the Patriots were thinking of drafting Bledsoe, they
invited him to Foxboro for a visit. Former New England executive
Patrick Forte kept telling Bledsoe's agent, Leigh Steinberg,
that Parcells loved Bledsoe. So Bledsoe and Steinberg flew east.
"Bill was arrogant, challenging, insulting," says Steinberg. "I
wish I could convey to you the tone of his voice, the tone of
disinterest. It was almost like: Why are you here?"
"It wasn't my job to impress him," Parcells says curtly. "It was
his job to impress me."
On that same trip Parcells told Bledsoe, "You know, most people
in the league think that Rick Mirer is better than you."
If Parcells, like Mac Bledsoe, had words to live by on the wall
next to his dining room table, they might read: Never make the
player feel too comfortable. Keep the player on edge. Make the
player conform to the personality of the coach.
The mind games began early. In his first season Bledsoe was
treated like the last guy on the roster. Parcells made the
rookie fetch cups of Gatorade for him. He rode him for the
"It was great for Drew," says Mac of the hazing. "By Parcells
being all over him, it allowed Drew to be one of the guys, to
fit into the chemistry of the team and to be accepted by guys
who might have resented him because of his salary."
Early on, the other players might not have resented him as much
for his salary as for his play. With four games left in his
first season, he was a sub-.500 passer with only seven touchdown
passes and 13 interceptions. Parcells was all over him. The
young man didn't work hard enough, Parcells thought. He was not
acting like a leader. He didn't come through in the clutch. And
he chafed under Parcells's wrath, particularly during practice.
Parcells has always used Friday practices to fine-tune his game
plan, and he is at his most obnoxious on those days, standing
behind the huddle and badgering his players--especially the
quarterback. His criticisms are no more sophisticated than
telling a player, "You stink." Simms called these Parcells's
"It's not mysterious," says Parcells. "I'm trying to create an
environment. I'm creating a distraction the players have to deal
"So many days," Bledsoe says, "I wanted to turn around and say,
'Screw you!' Then I'd realize he was turning up the stress level
in practice, just as it would happen in games."
There was no practicing for what happened against the Pittsburgh
Steelers on Dec. 5, 1993. Bledsoe fumbled four center snaps. He
threw five interceptions. On the last play of the game, the
Patriots were on the Steeler one-foot line with a chance to win,
but Bledsoe was turned back on a quarterback sneak.
Afterward, Parcells railed at Bledsoe. "You're the fair-haired
boy in the NFL right now," Parcells told him. "But next year
there will be another fair-haired boy coming out of college. His
name is Heath Shuler. And the year after that, there will be
another one. And you'll be the guy who's forgotten, unless you
wake up and turn yourself around."
"That game in Pittsburgh was one of the best things that could
have happened to me," Bledsoe says. "From my junior year in
college on, there was this love affair with me. No negatives.
Suddenly, I realized I might be a bust. That's pretty humbling."
Almost immediately, he showed progress. The Patriots won their
last four games, including an overtime shootout in the season
finale that kept the Miami Dolphins out of the playoffs. The
road would not be entirely smooth, however. In November the
Patriots were 3-6 and trailing the Minnesota Vikings 20-3 at
halftime. Parcells was distraught, with his quarterback and his
team. He and offensive coordinator Ray Perkins had been giving
Bledsoe more freedom to change plays. But in the first 29
minutes of the game, Bledsoe had piloted New England to one
first down, and he had 24 yards passing.
At halftime, Parcells addressed his players: "What's it going to
take for you guys to wake up? How long are you going to let
every team in this league push you around before you fight back?"
The Patriots tied the game and sent it into overtime. New
England won the toss and started the fifth period on its 33-yard
line. Bledsoe completed five passes to bring his team to the
Viking 25. Three more plays gained only 11 yards, and the
Patriots looked like a team hoping just to get within field goal
Then Parcells challenged his quarterback. "0 strong close F fly
ride 130 F swing," he called into Bledsoe's helmet speaker--a
play-action fake. From across the line of scrimmage, Minnesota
defensive tackle John Randle shook his finger at Bledsoe, as if
to say, "You're going down, kid." Bledsoe waved back at him, as
if to say, "Bring it on."
From the Viking 14, fullback Kevin Turner snuck out of the
backfield and Bledsoe lobbed the ball right into his arms in the
corner of the end zone. The kid wasn't a kid anymore. He had won
a war with a season on the brink, something 22-year-old West
Coast pups aren't supposed to do. Unless it's the Rose Bowl.
In the locker room, when it came time for Parcells to speak, he
couldn't. "You've given me hope," he said, choking up. "That was
valiant." There was a long pause because there was more he
wanted to say, about Bledsoe and about the rest of the team. But
he put his hands to his eyes and walked away.
When he was in second grade, Bledsoe lived with his family in
the rural Washington community of Waterville. At the end of his
street was a field, and one day Drew and a buddy were playing
with matches in it. The next thing they knew the field was ablaze.
After the fire trucks left, Mac Bledsoe winked at the sheriff
and told him to take the kids down to the sheriff's office in
the cruiser. Drew and his pal were terrified as they sat across
the desk from the sheriff. "I'm going to let you guys off this
time," the sheriff told them. "But next time you won't be so
While driving back to his vacation guest house on the Jersey
Shore, Parcells is told this story. "Unbelievable," he says.
"Let me tell you a story. My brother Don was six or seven years
old, and I was just a kid, and one day he set a fire that the
fire trucks had to come and put out. My father knew a judge in
town, and he arranged for a kind of trial for my brother. I
remember we both had to put on suits to go to court. So we go in
there, and the judge speaks up: 'Is Don Parcells in the
courtroom?' And the judge tells him what a bad thing he'd done,
but he was going to let him off and he didn't want to see him in
this court again. So later, my dad says to Don: 'Boy, you got
off easy this time.' It shook us both up."
As he prepares for his third season under Parcells, Bledsoe
considers their relationship. "We're different," he says. "I
don't believe he's going to make me play any better by yelling
at me the way he does, but that's his way, and he's won that
way. The reason we can coexist is that we have the same goal in
mind. And I think we both respect each other."
Parcells respects Bledsoe's ability enough to rethink his
offensive strategy. Parcells says he would be stupid not to.
Bledsoe could be a consistent 4,000-yard passer if he cuts down
on his mistakes (he threw 27 interceptions last year) and
continues playing well in the two-minute offense. In any case,
he will have a stormy but workable relationship with his coach
for as long as Parcells stays in New England.
Last year Bledsoe became the youngest player in league history
to throw for 7,000 yards, the youngest to throw 40 touchdown
passes--and the youngest to zing Bill Parcells. One day he saw a
billboard across from Foxboro Stadium that had a picture of
Parcells modeling some official Patriot clothing. So Bledsoe got
a bunch of players to start calling the coach Bill Board. "My
first meager attempt to fire back at him," says Bledsoe.
Without admitting it, Parcells was as pleased as he could be by
Bledsoe's ribbing. You see, in his world, you don't zing someone
unless you like him--and respect him--quite a lot.
on my team. I hate celebrity quarterbacks. You understand?''
--Bill Parcells to Drew Bledsoe, training camp, July 1994