A Sept. 27 Sports article incorrectly said that Dallas Cowboys Coach Bill Parcells has been ineligible for the Football Hall of Fame. Parcells was eligible in 2000 and 2001. (Published 9/28/04)
Joe Gibbs's laughter filled his Redskins Park office after the Washington Redskins coach read the one-sentence fax from Dallas Cowboys Coach Bill Parcells:
"Does this mean we can't talk for the next five years?"
The congratulatory message -- and inside joke -- was sent Jan. 7, the day Gibbs announced his return to the NFL after an 11-year absence. Gibbs didn't bother responding to Parcells's missive.
"I thought that was pretty good: He was joking because we never talked before," Gibbs recalled recently at Redskins Park, laughing loudly again. "I didn't answer, but he knew the answer was, 'Yes!' I don't want to talk to him, and he don't want to talk to me."
Gibbs last coached the Redskins from 1981 to 1992. For eight of those years, from 1983 to 1990, Parcells was at the helm in New York. The Redskins went to the Super Bowl three times, winning twice; the Giants went twice and won them both -- putting Gibbs and Parcells on the Mount Rushmore of NFL coaches.
They faced off during epic games at RFK Stadium and Giants Stadium. Parcells was Gibbs's coaching nemesis, winning 11 of 17 times, but Parcells considered Gibbs the best he ever faced. And from a distance -- or the opposing sideline -- the coaches held a mutual admiration.
"It's just like having a lot of respect for the enemy," Parcells, 63, explained last week. "That's what it is for me. He's not my enemy; he's a friend. But he happens to be my enemy on Sundays. And I'm damn sure he feels the same way."
Without being aware of Parcells's remarks, Gibbs, 63, said matter-of-factly, "He's the enemy."
Tonight on national television, the coaches will battle for the first time since 1990 as the Redskins (1-1) play the Cowboys (1-1) at FedEx Field. The intriguing twist to the sideline reincarnation is that Parcells guides Washington's arch rival from Dallas, winners of 12 of the past 13 games against the Redskins. The loser falls to the bottom of the NFC East.
"It's really a made-for-Hollywood Monday night game," said Bobby Beathard, Gibbs's former general manager. "To tell you the truth, I've been waiting for this all summer. First, Bill takes the Dallas job and then Joe came back. I just thought it would be great for them to knock heads."
As part of his preparation, Parcells studied game film of the Redskins during Gibbs's first tenure, including familiar contests against the Giants.
Parcells retired in 1991 for health reasons; he underwent angioplasty, the first of five heart procedures. Gibbs departed the NFL in 1993 partly from exhaustion, and to spend more time with family while overseeing a NASCAR team that found immense success. That year, Parcells returned to the NFL as coach of the New England Patriots and never envisioned facing Gibbs again.
However, Parcells is resisting the nostalgia and playing down the obvious story line. Last week, Parcells talked about the importance of his team's first division game, and emphasized the historical antipathy between the franchises. Washington and Dallas have played each other 12 times on Monday night, with each team winning six.
"It's a different time, different place, different circumstances," said Parcells, who added that even the locale, eight-year-old FedEx Field, is different. "So it's not the same. I really can't view it that way. It's going to be different for both of us."
Joe Bugel, Gibbs's assistant head coach-offense, said Washington's staff has been so consumed with its game plan that the coaching rivalry is an afterthought. The Redskins appear more focused on eliminating the uncharacteristic numbers of mistakes, including seven turnovers, in last week's 20-14 loss to the New York Giants and overcoming the losses of linebacker LaVar Arrington (knee surgery) and defensive end Phillip Daniels (torn groin).
"We haven't really talked about the old times," said Bugel, who coached with Gibbs during his previous Redskins tenure.
Gibbs, while acknowledging the game's magnitude, said Saturday, "Bill Parcells and I won't be out there" on the field.
Did Gibbs look forward to facing a Parcells-coached team? "No, I don't," he responded dryly. "I'd rather have somebody easy."
Said Parcells, "I feel the same way because he's a very, very worthy opponent -- always has been."
Bringing Out Their Best
Gibbs, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1996, joked that Parcells's congratulatory fax went unreturned last January because he remains angry that Parcells prevented him from winning three more Super Bowl titles. Gibbs is 135-55 against teams not coached by Parcells. But against Parcells, who has been ineligible for the Hall of Fame because he has not stayed away from the game for five consecutive years, Gibbs is 6-11, including six straight losses.
"Is it really? That's not good. Don't tell the players that," said Gibbs, who won his first three games against Parcells. "He's definitely done the best job when I coach a team and he's coaching a team. So hopefully, we can find a way to overcome that."
Gibbs-Parcells games were known for their close results: Parcells's Giants averaged 22.1 points; Gibbs's Redskins 21.4. Parcells -- who won five straight during one stretch by a total of 18 points -- attributes his upper hand to a few lucky breaks. "Ninety percent of those games," Parcells said, "could have been won by either team, really."
Redskins tight ends coach Rennie Simmons, who returned to the team with Gibbs this year, said: "We knew when we went up there or they came down here, that it was just going to be down to the wire. It was like a heavyweight fight, so you gain a lot of respect for one another."
Parcells wouldn't reveal a favorite recollection against Washington, but he has previously said that one of his best occurred Sept. 11, 1989: The Giants won, 27-24, at RFK when Raul Allegre kicked a 52-yard field goal with no time left. It was the only Gibbs-Parcells match settled on the game's final play, and Parcells relished silencing Washington's rabid crowd of 54,160.
Perhaps the most memorable showdown was the 1987 NFC championship game at the Meadowlands, played on Jan. 11. The Giants won, 17-0, in front of 76,633 -- the only time that a Gibbs-coached team has been shut out. The contest, during which New York took a 17-0 halftime lead, was notable for the wind gusts that reached 30 mph and the bone-chilling cold.
The scores and results aren't etched in Gibbs's mind as much as critical moments in games. "I can kind of remember some awesome goal-line stands," said Gibbs, who didn't vividly recall the 17-0 game except for the difficulty of scoring in the wind. "He had probably as physical a group, and we thought we had about as physical a group. And sometimes down there, it's first and goal at the three. It's hammer city."
The Redskins' storied offensive line, the Hogs, was the bulkiest unit in the NFL at the time. New York's defensive front seven was the league's biggest, anchored by Lawrence Taylor, who redefined the outside linebacker position playing from 1981 to '93 as a quasi-defensive end. During his first season, Gibbs implemented the two-tight end system largely because of the need to block Taylor.
"When it came to Lawrence Taylor, we always had an expression: Find the general," said former Washington offensive lineman Jeff Bostic. "If you get the general, you kill the whole army."
For Gibbs to defeat Parcells, it often meant concocting a game plan to overcome his aggressive defense, which stuffed the run and pressured the quarterback. But the chess matches generally boiled down to brute force.
"It was who was still standing. It was a total mugging," Bugel recalled, adding that smash-mouth football was epitomized in the NFC East, which produced seven Super Bowl winners from 1982 to '93. "The toughest guy won those. After those games you went to the whirlpool -- the coaches and the players."
Former Redskins tight end Rick "Doc" Walker called Parcells and Gibbs "Neanderthals with different philosophies."
Parcells and Gibbs protected the quarterback and employed run-oriented offenses, although Gibbs took more chances with deep passes. Gibbs, whose team played a 4-3 defense, was considered the offensive innovator. Parcells, who utilized a 3-4 defense, was more of a defensive mastermind.
However, the coaches are in many ways kindred spirits with myriad similarities.
"There's not really a hair's difference between the overall intent of either coach," Parcells said. "I really don't think so."
Parcells and Gibbs are known for their drive, maniacal work ethic and persnickety ways. Both emphasize discipline, smart football and are extremely well-prepared. They are masterful motivators, plucking obscure players who become critical players.
Carolina Panthers offensive coordinator Dan Henning has known Parcells and Gibbs for more than three decades after working as an assistant for each. "They're a lot more similar than they are different," said Henning, who expects to be transfixed by every snap tonight. "You're talking about two guys who are going to compete like hell whether it's golf, racquetball or football. You better bring your lunch pail because they're two great competitors who happen to ply their trades in football."
When Parcells quit the NFL after winning Super Bowl XXV against the Buffalo Bills, Gibbs praised him for leaving on top. But the Redskins' coach predicted that Parcells would eventually return. After Gibbs retired, Parcells said he could empathize with Gibbs.
A year before deciding to rejoin the Redskins, Gibbs said he identified with Parcells for returning to the game. Despite the pleasure of a new interest -- horse racing in Parcells's case -- the NFL's pull was too great. "You can probably put yourself in his place. I could a little bit easier than a lot of people," Gibbs said. "You kind of know what he's feeling. And I noticed a couple of things he said when he took the job that kind of made sense to me."
The sharpest contrast between the coaches is in their demeanors: Parcells, irascible and domineering, rules by fear. Gibbs, active in his Christian faith, has a relatively genteel personality that belies his passion. Gibbs has never been heard cursing by Redskins players; Parcells peppers conversations with expletives. Gibbs is self-deprecating and expresses discomfort in the spotlight; Parcells is cocky and enjoys interplay during media sessions.
But Henning believes that viewing their personas as polar opposites is too simplistic.
"You don't want to get on the wrong side of both of them. They can crack the whip," said Henning, 62, who coached under Gibbs in Super Bowl XVII and XXII and under Parcells with the New York Jets. "People might see Bill that way because he's more confrontational with the press. I've seen Bill charm the balls off a pool table. The beauty of both of them is that they know when to push the buttons."
Bugel said, "Behind closed doors, he [Gibbs] can rip your shirt off, and knock your teeth out."
Former Redskins players said that Gibbs occasionally revealed hints of animosity toward the Cowboys or former Philadelphia Eagles coach Buddy Ryan. But they said Gibbs never privately sniped at Parcells or brought up his name before games against the Giants. "There was never anything said off the cuff," said former Redskins offensive lineman Mark May. "That was strange because you'd get a little bit out of Joe when it came to Buddy Ryan or the Cowboys."
In chance encounters, Gibbs and Parcells are very amiable toward one another. They share small talk during league's meetings each spring. Yet exchanges between the coaches were so rare that former assistants couldn't recall one vivid moment. The memories ranged from perfunctory handshakes at the end of games to nods beforehand if one coach came in the other's sight.
"There weren't any flippant exchanges or many moments of perfect sincerity like 'Good luck, we wish you the best," Washington quarterbacks coach Jack Burns said. "It was very competitive."
Bubba Tyer, the Redskins' trainer for more than three decades, said, "It was more of a, one nods, the other nods, let's get on with the battle."
The most extensive interaction between the two occurred during a golf outing in 1999, Parcells's final season as Jets coach. The conversation was wide-ranging, with the biggest topic about diet habits. "I enjoyed it. It was good," Gibbs recalled last week. "I didn't think we had any social ties or anything. We did talk a lot about [diets] at the time. I think he had had a heart thing, and we kind of chatted about different things."
Parcells said of the outing, "We had fun."
Gibbs and Parcells have not communicated since the 11-word fax. They don't plan on it -- the silence of enemies renewing their great rivalry. The latest version is perhaps even more intense.
"I'm very happy that he's back in football," Parcells said. "I hope he's happy doing it, and I really mean that. I know it means increased competition. It's always meant that."