- Ian O'Connor, ESPN Senior Writer
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Once upon a time, Bill Parcells was the larger-than-life figure who saved the New York Jets from themselves, driving a hoax of a franchise to the brink of the Super Bowl. So maybe it was fitting that Parcells gave the Jets one last gift.
Maybe it was fitting that he notarized a candidate named Rex Ryan.
"I was very impressed with Rex when I met with him," Parcells said Tuesday night by phone. "I could just sense that, 'Hey, this guy's going to have a chance.'"
This was three years ago, when Parcells was the executive vice president of football operations for the Miami Dolphins and a man in dire need of a head coach. He sat down with Ryan and discovered a kindred spirit, a football lifer born in Oklahoma but one projecting that Parcellsian Jersey Guy vibe.
If Parcells hadn't shared a strong working relationship with his former aide in Dallas, Tony Sparano, he likely would have hired Ryan on the spot.
"Yes, that's correct," Parcells said.
He went with Sparano, breaking Ryan's heart if not his resolve. A year later, after Eric Mangini went poof in the night, Jets general manager Mike Tannenbaum solicited his mentor's official scouting report on the Baltimore defensive coordinator with a big plan and a bigger mouth.
Parcells told his protégé he liked Rex and his pedigree, as in a lot, and Tannenbaum took it to the bank. On Jan. 21, 2009, the Jets made Ryan one of the franchise's Mount Rushmore hires, right there with Weeb Ewbank, Joe Namath and Bill Parcells.
"I had a fierce rivalry with Rex's father when I was coaching the Giants," Parcells said, "but I held Buddy in high regard. What made Buddy a dangerous adversary was that he knew what he was looking for personnel-wise, and Rex is the same way. That's a pretty good head start for Rex because there are quite a few coaches in this league who don't know what they're looking for."
No, Parcells didn't believe he was staring in the mirror when he met Ryan, a candidate who counted his prospective employer among his coaching idols. During Rex's two stunning years in New York, he's often been cast as a cross between his father and Parcells.
Like Parcells, Ryan arrived as an imposing presence who believed in himself and his ability to elevate a downtrodden team with the force of his will.
"But when I interviewed him it wasn't so much Rex that struck me as [it was] guys like Rex," Parcells said. "Guys who grew up in football like Bill Belichick, guys whose fathers were coaches. ... Those guys are just different. They get it. They have a great understanding of things that a lot of people who haven't been in football their whole lives don't have, and Rex was one of those guys.
"Rex is quite straightforward, and he has a passion for the game, but I think in some other ways he's entirely different from me. He's his own guy, and there are all sorts of different personalities that have won in this league. All that matters is he tries to give his players a good design, and that's really what coaching is. Give your players a chance with a good design and get them to execute it and play hard, and that's what Rex has done very well."
Parcells did all of that for the Jets, needing two seasons to turn Rich Kotite's 1-15 into a 12-4. Including a playoff victory over Tom Coughlin's Jaguars, the 1998 Jets had won 11 of 12 heading into the conference championship game in Denver, their lone defeat a one-point loss at Indianapolis.
Long before Rex Ryan was a glimmer in anyone's eye, Parcells had dramatically altered the Jets' culture. He allowed their weary fan base to believe that Super Bowl III didn't have to be their one-and-done day in the sun.
The Jets had the Broncos down 10-0 in the third quarter, and Vinny Testaverde was outdueling John Elway as clearly as Mark Sanchez outdueled Tom Brady in Foxborough, Mass. But other Jets kept dropping the ball, the winds picked up, and suddenly Elway became Elway again, leaving Parcells a ghostly shade of pale as he stood outside the losers' Mile High locker room, hunched and beaten and begging the writers to temper their interrogation.
"You're talking about my saddest day in professional football," Parcells recalled a dozen years later. "If I had to make a list, that loss would be No. 1, and Tony Romo fumbling that snap in Seattle would be No. 2."
Over the phone, when reminded that his Jets surely would've beaten Atlanta in the Super Bowl, a team they had blown out in the regular season, Parcells lowered his voice to a whisper. He sounded as though he were back on the losing side at Mile High, reminding everyone of how many things would have to go right for the Jets to return to the final four the following year.
"It was such a devastating loss, it's hard to explain how I felt," Parcells said. "I'm sure it's how Bill Belichick felt last Sunday. I'm sure every coach gets to a place where you think you can go to the next spot, and you don't get to go. It takes a lot of blood to get back there, and those windows can close fast.
"We were winning but they don't pay off halfway through the race. They pay off at the finish line, and we didn't finish."
Testaverde popped his Achilles' in the 1999 opener, and that was that. A lifetime later, with their team booked for Pittsburgh and a shot at Super Bowl XLV, Jets fans want to know if Rex Ryan can finish the job.
Parcells can't offer a Joe Willie guarantee; he swears he's no prophet. At 69, Parcells is merely a former Miami consultant who still gets enough of a rush out of pro football to keep the possibility of one last coaching comeback alive, if barely.
"I've coached my last game," he said. "But I've said that before."
For now, Parcells will assume the role of the anxious fan who can't wait for Sunday's kickoff. He's intrigued by the psychology of Jets-Steelers because, he said, "there's a positive psychology on both sides.
"The Jets know they can win in Pittsburgh because they've already done that this year. But the Steelers know they have to be at their best because they've already lost to the Jets at home. It's like Ali-Frazier the second time, when Ali knew Frazier was capable of beating him."
Parcells will not be openly pulling for the Jets. As a father confessor to dozens of coaches around the league, Parcells has friends on both sides of the aisle.
Only there's no denying his link to Ryan. Parcells wants it known that he takes no credit for Rex's development, or even for Tannenbaum's decision to hire him.
But when Ryan was struggling in the middle of last season, he ignored AFC East protocol and called a certain Dolphins executive for help. In effect, Parcells advised the man he nearly hired to expand his voice on the offensive side of the ball and to become more of a head coach.
Rex Ryan has become more of a head coach than anyone could've guessed, not to mention the embodiment of Bill Parcells' last great call for the Jets.
2dEric D. Williams