Commentary

Atlanta was hot on Parcells' trail in '87

Bill Parcells, whom the Falcons may be close to landing, was pursued by the team 20 years ago, too, Len Pasquarelli writes.

Originally Published: December 18, 2007
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

ATLANTA -- Twenty years ago, under different ownership but similarly dire circumstances for the franchise, the Falcons pursued Bill Parcells but failed to reel in The Tuna when then-NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle ordered both sides to cease negotiations.

Since that original flirtation in 1987, there have been other times during the Falcons' mostly miserable history that Parcells' name was floated as a possible remedy to the team's problems. But never had the overtures been as strong as the one owner Arthur Blank made to the two-time Super Bowl champion head coach this week. And never had the Falcons had such a viable shot at finally luring Parcells here to essentially oversee the entire football operation.

[+] EnlargeBill Parcells
George Gojkovich/Getty ImagesPete Rozelle squashed a deal between Bill Parcells (shown as Giants coach) and the Falcons in 1987.
Blank, a high-profile owner with a flair for headline-type moves, knew that he needed to make a big splash for a franchise that this season lapsed into irrelevance locally. This has been a miserable season for the Falcons, with the Michael Vick episode and Bobby Petrino's leaving the team after 13 games. Bringing The Tuna here, with the kind of cachet and respect Parcells' name brings, would have qualified as a big splash.

Of course, Parcells, currently an ESPN analyst, has a history of great deliberation over job offers. Tuesday night, as reported by ESPN's Chris Mortensen, sources felt a decision on the Atlanta position could come as early as Wednesday.

It did. Parcells turned down the job, the Falcons said.

Sources said Parcells had similar discussions with the Miami Dolphins about a general manager-type position, but those talks broke off about 7-10 days ago. The Falcons, in a news release, said Parcells was considering an offer from Miami.

If Parcells would have accept the post here, it would have culminated an off-and-on courtship that began after then-Falcons owner Rankin Smith fired coach Dan Henning following the 1986 season.

At that time, Parcells was head coach of the New York Giants and coming off a Super Bowl XXI victory over the Denver Broncos.

Negotiating with Parcells' agent at the time, the late Robert Fraley, the Falcons offered Parcells the dual role of head coach and general manager. The pursuit of Parcells followed the team's courtship of former Philadelphia coach Dick Vermeil and of UCLA coach Terry Donahue. Fraley approached Falcons management, including Smith's two sons, team president Rankin Smith Jr. and vice president Taylor Smith, and apprised them he had an unnamed client who might be interested in the job.

That client turned out to be Parcells.

The two sides were deep into discussions, with the Falcons offering Parcells broad powers over the football operation and a then-unheard of salary of $900,000 annually. At the time, Parcells had two seasons remaining on his contract with the Giants, at salaries of $300,000 for 1987 and $325,000 for 1988.

But, after considerable negotiation and rampant rumors that Parcells might bolt the Super Bowl champion Giants for the Falcons' job, then-commissioner Pete Rozelle intervened and shut down the talks.

During the Pro Bowl week in Honolulu, Rozelle announced that, because of Parcells' contract with the Giants, he would not permit the Falcons to continue the discussions. And he essentially ordered Fraley to cease any attempts to remove Parcells from his Giants' deal. Because Rozelle felt the talks had been initiated by Fraley, he did not enact any sanctions against the Falcons, although many thought the franchise had breached the NFL tampering rules by conducting negotiations with a coach under contract to another club.

Under the guise of plausible deniability, Falcons officials issued a statement denying any violations of the league's tampering policies.

The botched courtship of Parcells in 1987 was, unfortunately, all too typical of the manner in which the franchise operated at the time. The Smith family subsequently hired Marion Campbell, whom it had fired five games into the 1976 season, for a second stint as head coach. Campbell lasted less than three full seasons in his second go-round, resigning with four games remaining in the 1989 campaign.

Even under new ownership, Atlanta is still chasing the kind of stability it sought in 1987, when the Falcons tried hard to bring Parcells here. This time, under Blank, the Falcons thought they'd get the man team management felt was the right guy two decades ago to provide that stability and leadership.

Instead, it fell through. Again.

Senior writer Len Pasquarelli covers the NFL for ESPN.com.