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Parcells winning in Dallas -- but uncomfortably

IRVING, Texas -- At age 62, the coach of the Dallas Cowboys is where he wants to be. He is on edge. He is uncomfortable. Therefore he is alive.

For Bill Parcells, life without a team is not a life at all. He has tried to live that way three times and failed each time. He tried to leave the game alone after a lonely year without success as coach at the Air Force Academy in 1978, when he was still a young man and open to change. A career change didn't last, and he was resurrected the following season by then-New York Giants coach Ray Perkins, a debt Parcells never has forgotten.

He tried to leave it again after winning two Super Bowls with the Giants, at the cost of a heart condition. That retirement was a failure despite a successful stint in television. He tried stopping a third time for two years after leaving the New York Jets. That time he ended up depressed and divorced after 39 years of marriage, growling more when there was no pressure than he had when he was prowling the sidelines of three NFL teams and pushing them to heights they had no idea they could reach.

That is why he is back when many men his age are on the golf course. It is why he is living in an apartment in Las Colinas, a few miles from the Cowboys' training complex, rising before dawn to follow his obsession. It is why he recently was in his office at five minutes to 4 the morning after his team beat the Washington Redskins despite a dreadful performance to lift its record halfway through its season to a remarkable 6-2.

His office is his home for all intents and purposes, especially now that he lives in a state that is a foreign country to a Jersey guy who thrives on diners and smart alecks. But it is more than that. The complex, the team, the sidelines, are his discomfort zone -- and that is the place Parcells feels most alive. There, tottering on the edge of failure every Sunday and staring it down. Or not.

"Do you feel comfortable?" Parcells said last week, repeating a question that had been asked about someone on his current roster. "I love that question. I never feel comfortable about anything. I really don't. Sometimes I feel less comfortable."

Parcells is back in the game that gave him five heart bypass surgeries, three Super Bowl appearances, two world championship rings, one divorce, much discomfort, and a life that has been turned into a legend because he has no other choice. He is where he wants to be, preparing to face the Patriots at Gillette Stadium Sunday night, because this is where he needs to be -- living a life in which he is publicly tested each week. That could make a man of his age and accomplishment feel uncomfortable, but it makes Parcells feel alive at a time when he knows he is closer to the wrong side of the ground than to his youth.

"Bill brings a lot of things to a team," Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said last week. "He's really skilled with people in terms of communicating what he wants them to do. He's got a tremendous reservoir of knowledge and information. He's a great teacher. And lastly, he has intensity.

"Before I hired him, I wanted to satisfy in my mind that the fire was still boiling in his belly. After we talked, I could see how driven he is. I identify with what I believe to be his inspiration. It's showing 'em. With some people who have been successful the way Bill has, their success has quenched their thirst. But when I asked him why he wanted to do this he told me, `The Cowboys are the big show in Las Vegas. They're not the lounge act.' I could relate to that.

"My wife and my family always tell me, `Jerry, you just won't let it get comfortable. You're always uncomfortable.' Bill is the same way. He wanted to come here and get uncomfortable. He has a lot at stake here. The easy route is to rest on your laurels. We don't want to do that here at the Cowboys and Bill didn't want to do that. Between us we have five Super Bowls but we just want one. The next one. It's a good partnership."

So far it has been much more than that. Parcells has taken a team that won only five games each of the last three seasons and beat that total in eight weeks. After yesterday's 10-6 win over the Buffalo Bills, the team is 7-2. He has pushed and pulled and cajoled and coerced and chapped the asses of his players so often since he first arrived at Valley Ranch that they already have far exceeded themselves. Yet they have won nothing, and Parcells knows this.

So he keeps pushing. Keeps demanding. Keeps reminding them they haven't done a thing yet. He tells them over and over, in as many ways as he can, that partial victory is not victory at all. They must turn their backs on satisfaction. They must become comfortable with being uncomfortable. That is how they will win.

Parcells has delivered this message to his players almost daily since his arrival Jan. 2. In March, as he stood around the weight room watching, listening, and learning about his new team, he decided to ask a veteran offensive lineman what he weighed. Before he got the answer he knew what it would be. It would be a lie. That is human nature at work. It seeks the easy out. It is the enemy of victory.

"How much do you weigh?" Parcells asked.

"About 340," the to-this-day still anonymous offensive lineman responded.

"Let's go to the scale and see," Parcells snapped.

When that player got on the scale the arrow didn't stop until it hit 367.

"You sure gained a lot of weight on the walk over here," Parcells said. "If you fell over, you could rock yourself to sleep."

Then he walked away, the look of disgust a familiar one to anyone who played for him with the Giants, Patriots, or Jets. By the opening of the Cowboys' first minicamp May 19, that same player weighed 345 pounds. He was finally about 340. Right where the coach wanted him to be.

A new experience

None of them knew what to expect except for the few who already had experienced it, like former Jets fullback Richie Anderson. For the rest of the Cowboys, they had no idea what it meant to play for Parcells. Except that it meant you win.

"You always hear stories about him, but until you experience playing for him you can't understand what it's like," rookie tight end Jason Witten said. "You hear how he's tough and hard-nosed and how he gets on everybody, but you learn little things from him and they always turn out to be big things.

"All he wants is to make you a better player. He does it by making practice so hard that by the time the game comes around it has to be easier."

That is the same philosophy followed by Parcells's great friend Bob Knight, the legendary basketball coach at Army, Indiana, and now Texas Tech. They became close when they were young coaches at Army, sharing many nights talking about what makes victory possible. In the end, they concluded it is attention to detail, effort, discipline, conditioning, and learning to handle pressure. It is about not making mistakes. It is about making sure that if you lose you were beaten by your opponent and not your own hand.

"My philosophy, if you've got to call it that, is don't do things that cause you to lose," Parcells has said many times. "Do the things that allow you to win. Don't do things that help you lose. It's not rocket science. I only have three rules. Be on time. Pay attention. Practice and play hard."

Well, not exactly three.

Less than two months after Parcells signed on to run what he said (again) is his final team, a memo was posted on the bulletin board in the locker room. It read:

"To: Players.

"Subject: 2003 Rules and Regulations.

"Players parking lot: Each car will be towed if not parked properly.

"All cellphones must be turned off when entering the locker room area. No outsiders in the locker room area at any time. Update your address and telephone number (must be able to be contacted -- 24 hours). NO FOOD in the locker room, meeting rooms, training room, weight room."

What's that got to do with beating the Eagles? The answer is it will take discipline to beat a team that has reached the NFC Championship Game the last two seasons. Discipline begins with little things. Like staying between the yellow lines and making sure your car is in the spot it's supposed to be in.

Parcells claims he never mentioned the banning of dominos as well, a game that seems to dominate a lot of NFL locker rooms. Maybe not, but the game no longer is played in Dallas. He says he's bewildered as to why that is.

Sure he is.

Wielding the needle

Drew Bledsoe knows what Quincy Carter is going through. He knows what it means to be a young quarterback in charge of Parcells's offense.

"Bill loves to stand behind the quarterbacks in practice," Bledsoe recalled last week. "You're dropping back to pass, trying to read the defense, and he's standing right behind you yelling, `Throw it! Throw it! Throw it!' I couldn't wait until Sunday to get some peace and quiet." Like everyone else on a Parcells team, the quarterback must deal with many things. Mostly he must deal with being made uncomfortable. He is not immune to anything, including the needle, which Parcells wields like a gum-chewing wiseguy on a Jersey street corner.

Once, during Bledsoe's rookie season, he was in shotgun formation in practice and realized the defense had a blitz on. He knew he needed to audible out of the play to avoid disaster, so he began to speak as his mind raced. It was something that the rookie even realized the problem, but that wasn't enough for Parcells. Bledsoe heard his coach's whistle scream.

"Bledsoe!" the QB recalled Parcells saying. "You don't have time to stand back there and order dinner. You don't have time to order lobster thermidor for dinner."

"Lobster thermidor?" said Bledsoe. "I still remember that 11 years later. He drove you crazy.

"I don't know anyone who would say they enjoyed playing for him at the time. It wasn't fun-and-games at practice. But he got you prepared. He is one of the greatest coaches of all time. Looking back on it, it was a very beneficial time in my career. I appreciate and respect the guy. If we had the chance to work together again, I'd look forward to it."

Now's the time

"He never talked to us about rebuilding," said Cowboys defensive end Greg Ellis of Parcells. "He said, `I didn't come here to wait until next year. I came here to win.' "

Every coach does, but few turn around moribund franchises as rapidly as Parcells. He first did it with the Giants, although he nearly got fired after going 3-12-1 in his first season in 1983, a consequence he now believes of not coaching the way he wanted to coach but rather the way others thought he should coach. It was a mistake he never repeated.

He changed his approach and the Giants were on their way to two Super Bowl victories and double-digit wins in five of the next seven seasons before he left. When Parcells came to New England two years later, he inherited one of the sorriest franchises in pro football history. In four years they were in the Super Bowl, losing to the Packers in a game the players knew was likely Parcells's last. It was, but not for long.

By the following spring he was back in Jersey, roaming the sidelines as the Jets' coach after a dispute with Patriots owner Bob Kraft over who owned his services netted New England four draft choices. The way things turned out it wasn't worth the price for New England, because Parcells led New York to the AFC Championship Game in 1998, while the Patriots drifted back to mediocrity until the arrival of a Parcells disciple, Bill Belichick, four years ago after he walked out on his mentor less than one day after replacing him.

Part of the reason Belichick left was that Parcells would be present in the Jets front office. Belichick didn't want to be in his long and cold shadow anymore.

Parcells then left the Jets, but when he took the Cowboys job, because of circumstances and contracts, he didn't take with him the usual complement of long-time loyal assistants. This time only Maurice Carthon is by his side, which meant Parcells had to adjust to a staff he barely knew. This, too, caused him discomfort, but not him alone. Chief among those assistants is defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, who not only had no previous experience with Parcells but also teaches a defensive style his boss would not have chosen if left to his own devices. However, because Dallas did not have the kind of players Parcells favors -- big and fast at linebacker and bigger and wider on the defensive line -- he did what people who know how to win do. He adjusted, for now.

But he didn't adjust his approach. Not to his players and not to his staff. They adjusted to him.

"It's very hard for me to sleep after a game," Parcells said. "Very difficult. When I can't sleep at night, Zimmer's not sleeping either. I like that."

As he said that, a sly but menacing smile crossed Parcells's pale face. Without saying a word one understood, as Zimmer does, that it is considerably more important to Parcells that he be happy than that you be happy.

"Look, when you're starting to put something together, you want the pudding to come out good," Parcells said last week. "You're trying to put the right ingredients in.

"I thought I was about to send Zimmer over the edge there for a while. I really did. I was on him about this and that. But I think our communication now . . . at least in my mind . . . well, he's more relaxed. I have a better understanding of what he's trying to do as well. He's a good young coach. He doesn't leave many stones unturned.

"All I need to do is remind him of things now and then. I don't think it's unhealthy at all to have differences of opinion. Argue them. Shouting matches. Whatever you've got to have sometimes to get something done."

What Parcells wants is for everyone to feel mighty uncomfortable until all the games have been played and all the winning that should be done has been done. The 6-2 record at the season's midpoint may have exceeded expectations, but that is unimportant now. What's important is that they play up to his expectations for the next two months because it's now showtime.

If they do, he will accept what comes. If they don't . . . well, you don't want to think about that if you work at Valley Ranch.

When you have not won a playoff game since 1996, that is the way it is. At least it is if Parcells signs on to resurrect you.

Don't be afraid

He asks them the question each Monday.

"Who scares you?" he barks.

What he means is, what team are the Cowboys afraid of? Who is so dominating they cannot see a way to beat them? The answer is, "Nobody."

This does not mean Parcells is overrating his young team. He knows it has holes and problems and mountains to climb before he gets it to where he wants it to be on the day he leaves football for the last time. But to Parcells, the way the NFL is today, no one should scare you if you're worth a damn, and a Parcells-coached team is always at least that, even in the infancy of its resurrection. "Last year was a shocker," Jones said of his team's 5-11 record for the third straight season. "Last year, I knew I'd run out of benefit of the doubt and I got scared."That motivated me to make a significant change. Not just a coaching change. A philosophical change. When you come right down to it, hiring Bill represented a change in philosophy for me. I was showing I was willing to work with a man with a strong personality. It was the first time I'd hired a head coach with NFL experience. If it had been some other time in my life I might not have been as interested in this, but Bill is 62. I'm 60. With age comes an adjusting of your priorities." When the marriage was announced, divorce was predicted as well as redemption. Two successful men with strong personalities. One paying the other $17.1 million over the next four years to coach a team whose personnel department the owner ran.

Wasn't that the problem Parcells cited for leaving New England? Wasn't he the guy who stood up at his departure and explained his leaving by saying if they want you to cook the meal they ought to let you buy the groceries?

Now here was the same guy in Dallas, working for one of the most hands-on owners in sports, who also is the general manager. How could that work?

The two got on the same page, and, said Jones, "After we were done we had each other read back how things would go if we were successful. Who gets the credit. Everything. There have been no surprises. None. None at all." Except maybe that 7-2 record.

Another happy return?

Parcells knows what's coming this Sunday. He lived through all the Tuna Bowls between the Patriots and Jets after his abrupt departure from New England and he's already survived returns to New York to beat both of his other former employers with the Cowboys.

He is coming to New England to be booed and cheered in a nationally televised game Sunday night that was supposed to be big only because of his return. No one would have guessed the game would have playoff implications. Yet Parcells will downplay it all. He will say there are few players or coaches left from when he departed. He will say the game is not between him and Belichick. He will insist there's nothing personal. Not with Belichick, who some say turned on his mentor when he quit the Jets cold, and not with Kraft, with whom Parcells had such a bitter ending.

He'll say it's just about football. But with Parcells there is always an edge. Always a feeling that somebody's going to be made uncomfortable and it's probably you.

As Parcells was leaving his daily press briefing in Irving last week, he stopped to talk with an acquaintance from New England. During the conversation, someone brought up Belichick's decision to take a safety in a Monday night victory in Denver to give his team better field position with which to overtake the Broncos.

"You remember the Cincinnati game?" Parcells growled. "First year in New England. We did the same thing. Snapped the ball over [punter Mike] Saxon's head and out of the end zone. Remember?"

Indeed Parcells had. It was Dec. 12, 1993. His new team was just learning how to win after months of losing close games but now it was on a roll, winning its final four games by finally playing smart as well as hard. The Cincinnati one was a 7-2 victory in which Parcells ordered an intentional safety by snapping the ball out of the end zone on a punt with 19 seconds to play. That meant the Bengals would have poor field position from which to try a Hail Mary pass that failed.

Parcells didn't mention Belichick or his decision. All he did was point out the facts. He didn't say he'd done it first. He let you figure that out. But the message was clear: Don't forget he knows what he's doing, too. Knows better than any coach in football.

What he also knows is this time is different. At 62, there are few tomorrows left for him on the sidelines. Like Jerry Jones, Bill Parcells is a lion in winter. He may have bleached blond hair, but that doesn't change the fact that this time is probably the last time and this team is probably the final team. The opportunity to feel uncomfortably alive is not coming around again.

As he told The Sporting News this summer, "I'm running out of daylight."

Maybe he is, but he's standing in the sunshine right now. As former Bills coach Marv Levy used to ask his players before every game, "Where would you rather be? What would you rather be doing?"

For Bill Parcells the answers are still the same.

Nowhere and nothing.

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