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The Jets have finally arrived. A franchise that won one measly game two seasons ago has been reborn. It may have taken 30 years, but the Jets have been crowned division champs once again. And as January approaches, they have become a legitimate championship threat. The Jets' 1998 campaign has received an endless amount of ink, most of it focused on quarterback Vinny Testaverde and his offense. Though that attention is richly deserved, this club's ability to rise to first-division status rests in the head of Bill Belichick and the limbs of his defense.
As successful as coach Bill Parcells has been, he has never been to a Super Bowl without the schemes of Belichick, his defensive coordinator. The two men have spent 13 years together on the sidelines of the New York Giants, New England Patriots, and now the Jets 13 years that have made them the most productive Xs-and-Os tandem in the game.
"There's sort of an ideal partnership, if you will," says Carl Banks, who played for both men for nine years and is currently the Jets' director of player development. "Bill Parcells is a unique communicator/motivator. Bill Belichick is a unique teacher/motivator. Between the two of them they have an exceptional knowledge of football in people terms."
Essential to their success is an ability to adapt that is often overshadowed by their gruff exteriors. Parcells would sooner have coached arena football than have Phil Simms throw the ball 60 times in a game when both were leading the Giants to a pair of Super Bowl titles in 1986 and 1990. Yet three weeks ago, Parcells's current signal-caller, Testaverde, did that in the Jets' 32-31, referee-aided victory over Seattle. This is the same Testaverde who threw more than 40 times in a game only three times in three years when he played in Cleveland under then head coach Belichick. Although espousing a run-first, -second, and -always philosophy, the Jets have thrown the ball 42 more times than they have put the ball in the hands of their running backs, which serves as a testament to the coaching versatility each has displayed.
Indeed, Parcells and Belichick have been able to quickly turn around the fortunes of the teams they co-coach because they design game plans around the strengths of their players and eschew trying to force players into their "system." If you have a pair of 1000-yard receivers in Keyshawn Johnson and Wayne Chrebet, doesn't it make sense to get the ball to them?
Or take Belichick's current defense. A year prior to his arrival, the Jets gave up a league-high 28 points per game. With some minor personnel changes and some major tinkering, New York's defense led the AFC East a year later, surrendering less than 18 points per outing. "He's aware of the league and what's successful around the league," says George Young, general manager of the Giants when both Bills were there and currently senior vice president of football operations for the NFL. Nowhere is that more apparent than on the sideline each week, where Belichick cajoles, pleads with, and adjusts his defense not just game-to-game, but drive-to-drive. After Seahawks wide receiver Joey Galloway burned the Jets and their Pro Bowl cornerback Aaron Glenn for 70-yard and 57-yard touchdown passes on consecutive offensive series, Belichick made a simple move, adding a second defender to cover Galloway. He didn't catch another ball all afternoon.
During Buffalo's visit to the Meadowlands in November, linebacker James Farrior's assignment was to shadow the movements of the elusive Doug Flutie, who had brought the Bills into town on a five-game winning streak. Flutie completed only 12 of 30 passes and was intercepted twice in a game the NFL's newest folk hero characterized as the worst beating he had suffered in five years. "Bill [Belichick] works with the nuts and bolts of things," says Young. "He's a student of the game."
But to graduate to almost perennial first-place finishes, as Belichick and Parcells have, means preparing something both men do to exhaustion. Banks credits their success to not leaving any stone unturned in studying an opponent. "They will cover every phase of the game," says Banks. "[Before a game] Parcells will tell you about every person on the opposition and what he will do in the game. He spells out situations this will happen if you do this. On Monday morning, you'll believe he's a prophet."
Making Parcells's prophecies realities is Belichick, who has half-jokingly said that he works 24 hours a day during the season. Hired by Ray Perkins in 1979 to run the Giants' special teams, Belichick soon expanded the purview of his job by helping another Giants assistant coach at the time Parcells call defensive plays during games. "The thing that is noticeable about Bill Belichick," says Young, "is that he's exceedingly hard-working and ambitious, and he's willing to pay the price for his ambition."
The cost of that sort of dedication, though, is a sense of humanity. The Jets are a Parcells dictatorship, plain and simple. Media access to players is limited and assistant coaches are completely off limits (as a result, Belichick declined to speak with the Voice). Assignments are not to be questioned and injuries are often eyed with suspicion. Parcells did not misspeak when the then New England head coach referred to Patriots wide receiver Terry Glenn as "she" after being asked how the player was recovering from a hamstring injury. Take a peek toward the sideline the next time a Jets player fumbles the ball into a defense's hands and you'll understand why Parcells and Indiana University basketball coach Bobby Knight are such good friends.
Though considered the more cerebral of the pair, Belichick engaged in anything but Socratic dialogue in a five-year hitch as the Cleveland Browns' head coach. Belichick was embroiled in a verbal Cold War with the Cleveland press almost from the minute he took over the Browns. Countless written attacks engendered tight-lipped responses and an almost robotic demeanor that further fueled the ire of the local media and, after correctly releasing hometown hero Bernie Kosar, the fans. Though being out of the spotlight has softened Belichick's perception, even Parcells has claimed the Jets' head-coach-in-waiting is not very charismatic.
But charisma doesn't win football games and dictatorships are generally efficient. Parcells has a 139-97-1 record as a head coach. With Belichick coordinating his defense, Parcells has won more than 62 percent of the games. "Today it's more important in winning football games to communicate with your players first rather than being nice to the press," says Banks. "Owners don't have the patience and the game is evolving too much to worry about the press. You have to be on one page with the players." Linebacker Bryan Cox was brought up to speed just prior to the Jets' trip to Miami when Parcells subtly hinted that Cox was running out of gas; he placed a half-filled fuel can next to the former Dolphin's locker. Message received: Cox sacked Marino once and had four tackles in a 21-16 New York victory.
Cohesion among players starts with cohesion among coaches, a task made much easier when you've worked side by side for more than a decade. Although deeply involved in preparing the team's game plan each week, Parcells becomes more of a manager on game day, leaving Belichick to direct the defense from play to play. And having had the experience of being a head coach in Cleveland, Belichick seems to have become almost as important as Parcells in the Jets hierarchy.
When Parcells suddenly left New England to return to the swamps of Jersey in 1997, he was initially prevented from accepting the coaching reins by an angry Patriots front office. The Jets filled the leadership void with Belichick, who took over as interim head coach, and revamped the club's front office from the pro personnel director to Parcells's secretary. When Parcells was eventually installed, Belichick stepped aside and into a position as assistant head coach and the unofficial successor to Parcells when he retires from the sideline.
The result has been a team that finally "gets it," a team that finally believes in itself, and a team that might finally be heading back to the Super Bowl. The symbiotic relationship between the two Bills has created that team it's doubtful either one alone could have brought the Jets to such lofty heights so soon.