February 11, 2010

1997: Bill Parcells Becomes Head Coach of New York Jets

On February 11, 1997 the New York Jets finally were able to sign the head coach they wanted, Bill Parcells. It was not an easily done deal for the franchise that had gone 4-28 in two seasons under Rich Kotite and had not been over .500 in any of the previous eight years.

Bill Parcells had established himself as a winning NFL coach with New York’s other team, the Giants, where he led the club to two championships and five postseason berths from 1983 through ’90. After retreating to the broadcast booth for two years, he had turned around a New England Patriots team that had been in a prolonged slump and reached the playoffs twice more, including a Super Bowl appearance following the 1996 season.

However, before the Patriots faced Green Bay in the Super Bowl there was already speculation that Parcells wanted to leave. He clashed with owner Robert Kraft and was dissatisfied with his level of input into player personnel decisions. Following the 35-21 loss to the Packers, Parcells left the Patriots.

Parcells wasn’t ready to step away from the sideline and sought to fill the Jets opening. Kraft made clear that Parcells had to abide by the terms of his contract, which meant he couldn’t coach any team but the Patriots in 1997. The Jets therefore announced that they would hire Parcells as a consultant to the team, and his chief assistant coach, Bill Belichick, would become head coach.

Kraft was not about to accept such an arrangement, and Commissioner Paul Tagliabue was forced to intervene. The commissioner agreed with Kraft that the consulting arrangement was unacceptable, and brokered an agreement between the teams that freed Parcells to become coach of the Jets at the expense of four draft picks, including a first round choice in 1999.

The Jets finally had Parcells as head coach; Belichick settled for assistant head coach (he would, of course, eventually make his way back to the Patriots with significant results). The new coach set about changing the makeup and attitude of the team. Following the 1-15 record of 1996, the ’97 Jets went 9-7 and nearly made the postseason. RB Adrian Murrell had a second straight thousand-yard rushing season (1086). The youthful receiving corps made progress, led by brash second-year WR Keyshawn Johnson (70 catches for 963 yards). The linebacking corps that included Marvin Jones and Mo Lewis, as well as aging ex-Giant Pepper Johnson, and CB Aaron Glenn highlighted the defense.

Quarterback was a problem area, where veteran Neil O’Donnell ran afoul of Parcells and was replaced by the gunslinging Glenn Foley until Foley fell to a knee injury. The offensive and defensive lines were ordinary at best, and the same could be said of the secondary aside from Glenn. Still, the club gave up far fewer points in ’97 (287) as opposed to the disastrous 1996 season (454)

The Jets took a major plunge into the free agent market for 1998 and it paid off with key acquisitions in QB Vinny Testaverde, RB Curtis Martin (who had played for Parcells in New England), C Kevin Mawae, and LB Bryan Cox. All excelled – in particular Testaverde – and the team surged to 12-4, making it all the way to the AFC Championship game before falling to the Denver Broncos.

The Jets dropped to 8-8 in 1999, the last season with Parcells at the helm. While he failed to make the Super Bowl with the Jets, as he had with the Giants and Patriots, his overall record was 29-19 in the regular season, 1-1 in the playoffs. It was a significant turnaround for the franchise, and the team put together winning records in the next three seasons following Parcells’ departure. The price for landing the coach known as “the Big Tuna” had been high, but he had brought much-needed respectability.