In coaching game, AFC gets best of NFC; Led by Parcells, Johnson, migration might bring shift in balance of power; GENERATION X AND O; GENIUS COACHES

THE BALTIMORE SUN

When Bill Parcells was matching wits with Joe Gibbs in the 1980s, he called the New York Giants-Washington Redskins rivalry "the best the NFL has to offer."

Those two coaches combined to win five Super Bowls titles in an era when the NFC dominated the NFL, winning 13 straight titles from 1984 to 1996.

The coaching of men like Parcells and Gibbs was part of the reason for the NFC's dominance. If you toss in the three titles won by Bill Walsh and the two by George Seifert in San Francisco and two by Jimmy Johnson in Dallas, those five coaches combined to win 12 Super Bowls in the 14-year span from 1981 to 1994.

Those five coaches have something else in common. They've all moved on.

Walsh retired as San Francisco coach after the 1988 season and is now the team's general manager; Parcells quit the Giants after the 1990 season and is now the New York Jets' coach. Gibbs retired after the 1992 season and now owns a NASCAR racing team; Johnson quit in Dallas after the 1993 season and is coaching the Miami Dolphins. Seifert, pushed out of San Francisco after the 1997 season, is coaching the Carolina Panthers.

Parcells and Johnson have switched to the AFC. So has Mike Shanahan, who was Seifert's offensive coordinator with 49ers' 1994 title team, and has won the past two Super Bowls in Denver.

Mike Holmgren, who won the Super Bowl after the 1996 season in Green Bay and then lost to Shanahan's Broncos the next year, has moved to Seattle.

The fact that Johnson, Parcells, Shanahan and Holmgren are all coaching AFC teams might signal the beginning of a switch in the NFL's balance of power.

Shanahan ended the NFC's string of 13 straight Super Bowl titles. Parcells and Johnson were in the playoffs last year, and each could be on the verge of another title run.

By contrast, the NFC has only two coaches who've won a Super Bowl -- Seifert and the New Orleans Saints' Mike Ditka -- but neither seems to have the talent to be in the race this year.

Is this the beginning of an AFC era?

"There's not enough data yet," said the Ravens' Brian Billick, who could become part of this trend because he made his reputation with the NFC's Minnesota Vikings.

Saints general manager Bill Kuharich doesn't believe either conference will dominate in the era of free agency -- "I don't see the AFC winning the next five Super Bowls" -- but said that the migration of coaches such as Parcells and Johnson to the AFC may be changing the style of play in the conference.

"I think the NFC had a more physical style and the AFC was more of a wide-open, throw-it-around-the-field conference," Kuharich said. "Denver the last two years with its running attack became kind of a hybrid. And when coaches like Parcells and Johnson bring that style of play, the other teams have to defend that style."

Kuharich said that if you take his coach, Ditka, out of the mix, he'd rank Parcells and Shanahan atop of the list of active coaches.

"I think Parcells has a proven track record. He gets the most out of his group of 53. He brings all the intangible things that separate the average teams from the better teams," Kuharich said.

Of the Broncos' coach, he said, "Shanahan has had great talent, but some teams have great talent and don't win. He's a good talent evaluator and a strategist."

Except for Seifert, the NFC doesn't appear to have coaches with the track records to match the best of the NFC.

Ditka won a Super Bowl in Chicago, but his record is difficult to judge. He won only one title with that great Bears team of the mid-1980s, but it can be debated whether he was the victim of injuries to quarterback Jim McMahon or was out-coached in 1986 and 1987 by Gibbs, whose Redskins knocked Ditka out of the playoffs in Chicago both of those years.

Except for Seifert and Ditka, the best of the NFC field are Dan Reeves of Atlanta and Dennis Green of Minnesota. They're both successful coaches, but they seem to have the Chuck Knox-Marty Schottenheimer syndrome.

Reeves has taken four teams to the Super Bowl -- three in Denver and last year in Atlanta -- and was routed each time.

Green takes his teams to the playoffs, but he's 2-6 once he gets there. His window of opportunity may have closed last year when he couldn't get to the Super Bowl despite a 15-1 record and a 13-point lead late in the first half of the NFC title game.

The 49ers' Steve Mariucci has been impressive in his first two years, but his short tenure makes it difficult to judge his career. It doesn't help that he has an aging team that could collapse when quarterback Steve Young retires.

The NFC's best current hope may be Ray Rhodes in Green Bay. He failed in Philadelphia, where he may have been the victim of a bad organization. Now he's got one of the best jobs in the game. He's working for the a top general manager, Ron Wolf, and he has quarterback Brett Favre in his prime.

Another NFC coach with potential is the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Tony Dungy, who took a step backward last year after making the playoffs in 1997, but appears to be on the right track.

One reason it may be difficult for the AFC to put together a long run is that Johnson and Parcells may be short-timers. If either wins the Super Bowl this year, it's easy to imagine him walking away on top.

Johnson almost quit last year when his mother's death made him realize there's more to life than football. He was packing his belongings when he owner Wayne Huizenga talked him out of it. Since Parcells gets itchy feet after three or four years in one job, the speculation is rampant in New York that he could be in his last year.

One league official, who didn't want to be identified, said, "They may not be staying around long."

The official also noted that it's difficult to make long-range predictions in the free-agency era because of players changing teams.

"Everybody's in a hurry to bury the AFC, but everything goes in circles. The teams that have the best players have an advantage," he said. "These guys [coaches] get a lot of publicity, but they don't play the game. It's still the players."

Running the show

A look at the top five coaches in each conference:

AFC, Rec.*, Career accomplishment/Skinny

Mike Shanahan, 55-29, Won past two Super Bowls. Has to

Denver prove he can win without John Elway.

Jimmy Johnson, 71-57, Won two Super Bowls with Cowboys.

Miami Is he getting ready to leave coaching?

Bill Parcells, 130-92-1, Won two Super Bowls with Giants. He's N.Y. Jets a tyrant, but gets most out of his players.

Mike Holmgren, 75-37, Won Super Bowl with Packers. Will he be

Seattle happy now that he's running whole show?

Tom Coughlin, 35-29, Reached AFC title game in 2nd year.

Jacksonville A Parcells disciple who's a control freak.

NFC, Rec.*, Career accomplishment/Skinny

George Seifert, 98-30, Has highest winning pct. in NFL history.

Carolina Never got credit he deserved with 49ers.

Dan Reeves, 162-117-1, Made nine Super Bowls as player, coach.

Atlanta Often victim of bad decisions by GM Reeves.

Dennis Green, 71-41, Taken Vikings to playoffs six times.

Minnesota Has never reached Super Bowl.

Steve Mariucci, 25-7, Made NFC title game in 1st year.

San Francisco Only in S.F. could 25-7 be called routine.

Tony Dungy, 24-24, Ended Bucs' playoff drought in 1997.

Tampa Bay He's proving that nice guys can win. *-Career regular-season record -- Vito Stellino

Pub Date: 9/10/99

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