NEW ORLEANS — NEW ORLEANS -- Why can't they all just get along?
The feud between New England Patriots coach Bill Parcells and director of player personnel Bobby Grier will be resolved soon after Sunday's Super Bowl, but they apparently have worked together well enough to build a team that is a win away from a championship.
Parcells might return to the Patriots next season or start anew with the New York Jets, but Parcells and Grier both have their signatures stamped on this team -- Parcells more so with free agents and Grier with the draft.
"You can say whatever you want, but this team is a result of a lot of hard work and sweat by a lot of people over the last four years," Parcells said. "And now we're putting the final pieces together."
The Patriots have drafted well enough over the years to have 19 of their selections since 1987 starting games at one time or another this season.
So with a solid group of veterans like offensive tackle Bruce Armstrong, fullback Sam Gash, tight end Ben Coates and possible future stars like quarterback Drew Bledsoe and running back Curtis Martin, the Patriots were extremely selective in free agency and the draft in the off-season.
It's safe to conclude that this season of free-agent signings was the Patriots' most effective since Parcells took over four years ago.
Here's why: Only two players who signed as unrestricted free agents, linebacker Rich McKenzie and offensive guard Larry Tharpe, were cut during training camp. There are no survivors left from the eight unrestricted free agents signed in 1993; only two remain from 1994 and one from 1995, return specialist David Meggett.
But this season, a number of free agents shined for the Patriots: fullback/tight end Keith Byars (Miami Dolphins), cornerback Otis Smith (N.Y. Jets), punter Tom Tupa (Ravens), wide receiver Shawn Jefferson (San Diego Chargers), free safety Willie Clay (Detroit Lions), defensive tackles Pio Sagapolutele (Ravens) and Mark Wheeler (Tampa Bay Buccaneers) and World Football League kicker Adam Vinatieri. They all became starters and made valuable contributions.
The Patriots got help from assistant head coach Bill Belichick, the former Cleveland Browns coach, who knew the work habits and productivity of Sagapolutele and Tupa (who averaged 43.5 yards a punt).
"I don't know who gets the credit, but someone in their organization did a good job in the free-agent market. Their rate of success was high, especially compared to the rest of the league," said Houston Oilers general manager Floyd Reese.
Byars, Vinatieri and Jefferson had the most impact on the offense. Byars had 27 receptions for 249 yards and two touchdowns during the regular season, and Vinatieri scored 120 points.
Jefferson, who signed a four-year, $6 million contract, has played a huge role in the team's Super Bowl run. Signed to be the team's deep-threat receiver, he has become secondary to rookie Terry Glenn, but was still effective with 50 catches for 771 yards and four touchdowns.
"There are so many weapons on this offense," Jefferson said. "There isn't one guy who has to carry the burden. Obviously, Drew has the burden to some degree, but even he would admit he's got a lot of options."
The Patriots' biggest needs were on defense, where they had to rebuild a unit that allowed 360.3 yards a game last season.
"We needed more than patchwork," Belichick said.
Clay, Wheeler and Sagapolutele have been the biggest contributors in that area. Clay's 92 tackles were second on the team, and he became the squad's emotional leader.
"Willie always has this habit of coming up with the big play," said linebacker Ted Johnson. "Whenever we're down, he never lets us get too down, and whenever we're high, he never lets us get too high. He knows when to say the right things."
Sagapolutele and Wheeler combined for 90 tackles and have been outstanding in the playoffs.
"Some of these players come from losing teams, but you have to look inside and see if they like losing," Parcells said of free agency. "If they're comfortable with it, then I don't want them around.
"Basically, the criteria I use to evaluate players is, one, does he know what to do? Two, is he trying to play the techniques that we teach him? Three, how well is he doing that? Four, is the guy in condition to play? Five, is he a reliable person?
"All of those things should be equal for every player. The last thing is the tiebreaker, the talent differential."
Parcells, though, came close to making a big mistake in the draft. He wanted Oklahoma defensive lineman Cedric Jones, but Grier, who has the final say on personnel decisions, took Glenn with the team's No. 1 pick.
Jones was picked by the New York Giants and was an oft-injured bust, while Glenn went on to be the Patriots' top receiver with 90 receptions for 1,132 yards and six touchdowns.
New England's second-round pick was Washington safety Lawyer Milloy, who has started the past 11 games at strong safety, and its third-round selection was strong-side linebacker Tedy Bruschi from Arizona, one of the team's best pass rushers.
Grier won't talk about personnel moves until after the season, but the Patriots' decision to take Glenn reportedly heightened the tension between Parcells and the front office over control of personnel.
But the selections, combined with decent free-agent choices and a solid base that included players such as linebackers Willie McGinest and Chris Slade and right offensive tackle Max Lane, have the Patriots in the Super Bowl.
"I think Bobby's coaching background and his knowledge of the league has been very beneficial to him in making some really good decisions," said Ozzie Newsome, Ravens director of player personnel. "Obviously, they realized Bledsoe was the money cow and put some good people around him like Glenn and Jefferson.
"They already had some established players on defense, then they added Milloy, Wheeler and Pio. They made some fine decisions. You have to congratulate them."
New England Patriots (13-5)
vs. Green Bay Packers (15-3)
When: Sunday, 6: 18 p.m.
Site: Superdome, New Orleans
TV: Chs. 45, 5
Line: Packers by 14
Pub Date: 1/20/97