Saturday, January 08, 2000

In NFL, even coaches want free agency




BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Bill Belichick is looking for a loophole. Can't blame him, really. His contract says he's supposed to follow Bill Parcells as head coach of the New York Jets.

        What man in his right mind wouldn't prefer to replace Pete Carroll with the New England Patriots?

        Parcells is pro football's Big Tuna, winner of Super Bowls, larger than life. Carroll, by contrast, owns all of the stature of a jumbo shrimp. One man's footsteps are the size of snowshoes; the other's snowflakes.

        If you're going to make a mark coaching in the National Football League, the best place to start is where the shadows are small. Bill Belichick is notoriously short on personality, but he is pretty long on logic. He has to know that the coach who replaces Parcells is destined to be diminished by comparison.

        When he resigned from the Jets Tuesday — his first day as Parcells' successor — Belichick cited the uncertainty of an impending ownership change. What the former Browns coach didn't say was that he was walking out to pursue a better opportunity — more power, more money and less of Parcells' haunting presence in the hallways.

No loyalty left
        NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue — who works for the owners — can be counted on to uphold the Jets' claim. The Patriots, who were once on the other end of this gambit with Parcells, probably will cough up a couple of draft choices to sign Belichick. Parcells may coach the Jets for one more season because, “I'm not going to let this franchise go down the tubes” and/or because there may be many millions of dollars in the job.

        The sports fans of America can be expected to grow slightly more cynical. If that's still possible.

        Loyalty used to be an antiquated concept in professional sports. Now it is as obsolete as door-to-door ice delivery. Contracts are considered binding only so long as they are considered advantageous. Everyone's pining for free agency, from the locker room to the executive suite.

        What's the difference between an owner who plays one city against another to extort stadium concessions and the player who holds out because his contract hasn't been renegotiated? Both men own the same skewed moral compass. Both men contribute to the perception that it's every man for himself.

        Belichick's attempt to bolt the Jets with three years remaining on his contract is only the latest illustration of a troubling trend. (Parcells has tried it twice, with varying success.) When coaches start dishonoring their obligations — legal, ethical and moral — they taint all they have taught. When the same people who insist there is no “I” in the word “team” abandon their teams in mid-contract, their message tends to get mixed.

        No one wants to stand in the way of someone improving his position. No wise executive puts a team at risk by trying to keep an unhappy coach. No good can come of a situation in which the man in charge leads out of obligation rather than passion.

        Yet unless there are extenuating circumstances — an ailing relative, a healthier climate, an extradition order — coaches probably ought to honor their contractual commitments. They ought to live up to their word. They ought to practice what they preach.

No job security
        Perhaps, though, this is too much to expect in a profession as tenuous and cruel as coaching. On its best days, running a pro football team is a grueling task. On its worst days, you wind up with players like Carl Pickens. Every day, the hours are lousy and the stress is severe.

        Job security in the NFL generally means getting paid in the event you get fired. Ray Rhodes won eight games in his first year with the Green Bay Packers, and it wasn't enough. Norv Turner's position with the Washington Redskins was predicated on making the playoffs.

        Given the intolerant standards of his industry, it's hard to fault Belichick for looking out for No. 1. It's hard to blame him for seeking the best possible situation, for wanting to trust his fate to Drew Bledsoe instead of Vinny Testaverde.

        Honor isn't for everyone.

        Tim Sullivan welcomes your email at tsullivan@enquirer.com.