CORTLAND, N.Y. -- Before Bill Parcells arrived in 1997, the New York Jets provided plenty of fodder for David Letterman's Top Ten list. They were hilariously inept. Parcells changed that the minute he walked in the building. For that, the franchise's long-suffering fans should be eternally grateful.
Now, as we reflect on his career as he laces up his roller skates for a trip to Canton (Parcells-ologists understand the roller-skates reference), it's impossible not to include the most haunting question in sports as part of his complicated Jets legacy:
There are two what-ifs attached to Parcells' four-year stay with the Jets:
What if the Jets didn't implode in the fourth quarter against the Denver Broncos in the '98 AFC Championship Game?
Parcells, who will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Saturday, still hasn't gotten over that loss, which he calls the most disappointing of his career. To this day, players and coaches from that team are convinced they would've won the Super Bowl over the Atlanta Falcons, whom they routed in the regular season.
What if Parcells kept coaching the Jets beyond 1999?
They had a strong nucleus and they had Vinny Testaverde returning in 2000 from a torn Achilles tendon, but Parcells walked away abruptly. Then heir apparent Bill Belichick resigned. Parcells -- who spent one season in the Jets' front office -- handed the job to Al Groh, who messed up a good thing and was shown the door.
Not long ago, Parcells told USA Today he regretted quitting the New England Patriots after the '96 Super Bowl run because it was a young, talented team still on the rise. On Tuesday, he offered no such remorse when asked if he second-guesses himself for leaving the Jets' job.
"No, I've never thought of that, I really haven't," Parcells said in a phone interview. "It's a transient business nowadays. There was new ownership, and you never know what's going to happen when that happens. It was time where they could start again with their own philosophy and a new owner."
He was referring to Woody Johnson, who bought the team from the Leon Hess estate. Hess, the man who lured Parcells to the Jets, died a few months after the Denver loss. Parcells revered the man. I believe he would've coached longer than three years if Hess were alive.
"I enjoyed Mr. Hess very much," said Parcells, who stuck around in 2000 as the de facto general manager to assist Johnson's transition to the NFL. "He was a very special person. I'm honored I got to know him. I have a very, very high regard for him. His word was always good. A handshake is all you needed with him."
"I enjoyed the organization, trying to get it going a little bit. I think we had a pretty good chance that one time. I'm sorry we didn't get it. That's up there with the disappointments I've had, that opportunity in '98."
The Jets led the Broncos 10-0 with 25 minutes to play in the AFC title game, but then fell apart in dramatic fashion. They finished with six turnovers, including fumbles by two of Parcells' most trustworthy guys, Curtis Martin and Keith Byars. They lost 23-10. Afterward, Parcells' face resembled a line from an old Jim Croce song -- a jigsaw puzzle with a couple of pieces gone.
He once called it his worst loss.
"It is," he said on the phone. "Things happened in that game that were just unexpected. Some of the most reliable people I had just had a couple of ... it was bad luck, really. But that's football. Those things change games and careers and destinies. It was a tough one, though. Very, very tough."
Some fans are critical of Parcells, claiming he left unfinished business. Obviously, coaching remained in his blood, as he took over the Dallas Cowboys in 2003. But let's not lose sight of the big picture: Parcells changed the direction of the Jets. He was a beacon for an organization that had been operating in the dark.
Former wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson experienced the turnaround, from 1-15 under Rich Kotite to 9-7 in Parcells' first season. Johnson said the Kotite-led Jets had a "Bojangles staff. That coaching staff was a joke." He said there were times when he saw Kotite talking on his cellphone during practice. Parcells changed the culture from Day 1, according to Johnson.
"He got us inside the house instead of being on the front porch -- the doormat, getting stepped on by everybody," he said in a phone interview. "The doormat label was removed.
"He's a repair man, a fixer," Johnson added. "If you're an owner and you want to change something, call Bill and let him ride in on his white horse to save the day."
Before leaving, Parcells created a foundation for the 2000s, wheeling and dealing for four first-round draft picks in 2000. Chad Pennington, Shaun Ellis and John Abraham became instrumental players for Herm Edwards, who succeeded Groh.
"Bill Parcells was instrumental in reshaping the Jets organization, both on and off the field," Woody Johnson said in a statement to ESPNNewYork.com. "His leadership helped position the team for a new era. You cannot write the history of the New York Jets without recognizing his tremendous impact."
Since Parcells' departure, the Jets have totaled six playoff appearances and only four losing seasons in 13 years. In the 13 years prior to his arrival, they had only three playoff appearances and eight losing seasons.
Parcells didn't make them champions, but he made them relevant again, adding to his Hall of Fame credentials. But even he knows that people expected more.
"Nowadays," he said, "just going in the right direction doesn't count for too much."
It's one of the toughest things in sports, wondering what might have been.