When Jack Pardee would not bend, Jack Kent Cooke had no choice. As decent and honorable a man as ever coached in pro football, Pardee is a wonderful defensive technician who twice was the NFL's coach of the year. He will land on his feet, as do all good men with a strong sense of what they are about. Sadly, Pardee's strength was also his weakness.
He has an unalterable belief in his way of playing the game. A survivor of the East Texas plains, a survivor of cancer, a survivor of the World Football League, Pardee has reason to believe in himself. He believed, as his old coach and boss George Allen taught him, that you win football games by not losing. Play the veterans who make no mistakes. Be mean defensively. On offense, take the low-risk road.
Sustained by these beliefs for so long, Pardee was not going to give them up at the suggestion of Cooke, the owner, or of Bobby Beathard, the general manager. As long ago as September, when the Redskins had not yet shown the full measure of their problems, Cooke suggested to Pardee that he use more young players. With an average of nearly five years work per man, the Redskins are the oldest team in the NFL.
Better to lose, 60-0, and build a future, Cooke said, than to lose, 17-7, with old men. If we keep losing with old men, the owner said, this franchise may not be competitive again for a decade.
That won't happen, said the survivor/coach.
It may be happening now, said the owner.
It would be simplistic to say Pardee is gone because he is not Cooke's kind of guy. They are football's odd couple, the strong and silent Texan in his pickup truck working for the millionaire in a Mercedes, who talks nearly as fast as he drives. Such an explanation is unfair to Cooke, for he applauded along with all Washington in 1979 when Pardee's team was only two minutes away from a division championship.
But the owner properly grew concerned this fall when events demonstrated that the good season of 1979 was a fluke, beautiful but yet an aberration. The Redskins had fewer penalties than any other team in the NFC. They had only one major injury, that to a defensive back in the 13th game. Magically, they won three games early they should have lost.
Under adversity this season, the Redskins were exposed as a skeleton team. Under the best of circumstances, they had not made the playoffs the year before. This time -- with the desertion of John Riggins, with important people hurt early on, with the old-crock defensive line another year older -- the Redskins were so weak they beat only one team good enough to win more than five games.
Men don't buy football teams to make money. They have the money already. They are in football for fun. Gene Klein, the owner of the San Diego Chargers, came to last Saturday's playoff game wearing the team colors: gawdawful blue slacks and a gold "Charger Power" T-shirt. Here is a man who in 1973 sold his business for $1.2 billion -- repeat -- 1.2 billion dollars, and he is wearing a T-shirt with a lightning bolt across his chest.
"Now, that was fun," Cooke announced delightedly in the giddy moments after the Redskins somehow beat Klein's mihghty Chargers, 40-17, three weeks before season's end. "That's what we want here in Washington. We want to have fun at RFK."
Cooke didn't demand victory. Had the Redskins lost gallantly, as they did to Dallas last season, Pardee might have survived this latest test as well. But not only did the Redskins lose 10 games when Pardee had convinced the owner he had a Super Bowl team, they lost ingloriously. They lost five in a row for the first time in 15 years. They lost four time at RFK, once to a woebegone Seattle team, once to a seecond-string quarterback of Minnesota. The last time the Redskins lost to many games, Jack Kennedy was president.
All the losing was bad enough. For Cooke, the crime was compounded by the Redskins' terminally boring offense. When nearly 10,000 ticket-buyers stayed home rather than come to RFK the week after the magnificent victory over San Diego -- there were more than 6,000 no-shows for that one -- Cooke was distressed by the apathy. As much as he cares, as much as he wants to have fun with his high-priced toy, he wants Washington to have fun, too.
In the weekly meetings with Pardee and Beathard that grew more intense and finally were made public after the Redskins' successive humiliations by Minnesota and Chicago, Cooke asked the coach all the right questions. Why play those old guys when the kids have to learn someday? Why use a predictable offense with players of middling ability when only an unpredictable offense will produce enough points to win in this ear of quick scores? Why, Cooke wanted to know, is the team apparently lifeless?
As Allen taught him, Pardee believes young players made killing mistakes. The way to win, Pardee thinks, is to control the ball until the other side makes the mistakes. It is up to the players to motivate themselves, the coach told the newspapers, and he reminded them that their jobs for next season were at stake.
Cooke didn't buy it. He believed that players so threatened would play in panic, making even more mistakes. That, or they would rebel. Sometime in the last month of the season, Cooke realized he would have to make a decision. Pardee's mind was set. He would do his job the way he had always done it. Beathard wanted to use younger players, he wanted to bring the offense up to date, he wanted a coach that was as much an inspiration as a technician.
Cooke didn't want another season of losing. Yet Pardee could promise no changes. Beathard could.
And so Cooke chose between the men.