Sidebar: Jack Pardee

One of the things about doing a blog is the chance to write about topics that interest me at the length I want to. The problem is that when I put those essays in timely pieces, I inflate the pieces to huge lengths– and distract the reader who wants topical information. So I’m going to break stuff out when I can.

Jack Pardee, the coach who gave new defensive coordinator Gregg Williams his first big job, is one of those guys you could write a book about. His obituary is fascinating. Pardee played high school ball at a school so small they couldn’t field a foull team and played in a division that only used six players per side.

He was recruited for Bear Bryant at Texas A&M, and went to that first training camp where Bryant had players do full-contact drills in 110-degree heat (which some people considered an ennobling experience and the mark of a great coach– as opposed to rank sadism). Someone wrote a book about that and ESPN made a movie.

He became an all-Pro linebacker for the Rams in 1963, then developed cancer and had to quit the NFL. They made a great TV movie about a player in that situation (Brian’s Song, with James Caan and Billy Dee Williams), but Pardee’s story had a happy ending. He beat cancer and came back in 1966.

He was never as good a player after that, but he was smart and tough and spent played until 1973– finishing his career as one of George Allen’s “Over The Hill Gang” in Washington.

But wait, there’s more.

Pardee was considered a “coach on the field”, which might be how he got a job as head coach in the World Football League (a startup trying to challenge the NFL) as soon as he retired. His 1974 Florida Blazers went 14-6 and reached the championship game. He kept them playing well, even though the team didn’t pay anyone for the last two months. (Now that is coaching.)

Then the league folded, but the Chicago Bears hired Pardee, and he became a very good head coach (84-77 record; eight .500 or better seasons, five playoff trips in 11 years) for Chicago, Washington and eventually Houston. He left Chicago because his contract was up, he didn’t get an extension in time and he was frustrated that they wouldn’t draft a quarterback.

At Washington, he went 8-8 and then 10-6, but got fired in 1980 after they went 6-10. Owner Jack Kent Cooke Washington was underachieving, and hired Joe Gibbs (hard to argue with that decision).

Pardee ended up in the US Football League (another pro startup), as coach of the Houston Gamblers. He was using the run-and-shoot offense, which used four very small, very fast receivers, only one running back (a fullback-sized player), no tight end and had the quarterback roll out on every play to avoid the pass rush.

He had a great team– Jim Kelly (yes, the Jim Kelly; he didn’t sign with Buffalo out of college) at quarterback and four receivers who all ended up in the NFL: Ricky Sanders (6,400 yards with Washington), Richard Johnson (two good years with the Lions), Clarence Verdin (two Pro Bowl seasons as a punt return man) and Browns return man (who made one trip to Hawaii) Gerald McNeil.

The run-and-shoot had a lot of concepts that are being used now, but its big problem was that you couldn’t kill the clock effectively with one back, no tight ends and four small receivers. Bill Walsh once wrote a piece in Pro Football Weekly, saying that he admired the scheme, but couldn’t understand why the coaches who ran it wouldn’t use a tight end as one receiver and a second back as another, so they could shift to a scheme where they could run the ball.

When the USFL decided to shift from spring football to fall (at the urging of the idiot running the New Jersey franchise– a guy named Donald Trump), the league folded in 1985. In 1987, Pardee took a job with the University of Houston, where he continued to run the run-and-shoot. Andre Ware (who was black) won the Heisman and became a first-round pick, but recruiting violations (which occurred before he was hired), kept them out of post-season.

But Bud Adams, who owned the Houston Oilers, loved the offense. When he fired Jerry Glanville after 1989, he hired Pardee. Which produces one of these facts I just love. Between 1984 and 1994, Pardee coached for three different teams– all of them in Houston. You can just imagine the conversation: “Honey, I’ve got good news and bad news. The bad news is I’ve been hired by a new team. The good news is that we don’t have to move.” 

WFL, NFL, USFL, NCAA– and, yes, later in his career, Pardee coached in Canada.

Pardee brought the run-and-soot with him, which many people assumed would fail. And he used it with Andre Moon (which many people assumed would fail, black people not being smart enough to run a complex offense). But the Oilers were very successful in his first four years: 9 wins, 11 wins, 10 wins and 12 wins, making the playoffs in all four years.

But Pardee’s record in the post-season was 1-4, because (as his critics gleefully pointed out), the Oilers couldn’t hold a fourth-quarter lead. They lost 41-14 in his first year, because they were outmanned.

Next year they beat the Jets 17-10 in the wild card game, but lost 26-24 to Denver, which scored 10 points in the fourth quarter to come from behind.

In year #3, Buffalo beat them 41-38. That was the famous game where Kelly couldn’t play due to an injury, Buffalo was behind 28-3 at the half– then had a pick-six to fall behind 35-3… but scored 38 points with Frank Reich at quarterback.

You could have seen that as a defensive collapse (and defensive coordinator Jim Eddy got fired), but many people pointed out that Pardee’s offense wasn’t equipped to sit on a  lead.

In 1993, Pardee made the mistake of bringing in a “superstar coordinator” to try to get over the top. He hired Buddy Ryan (who’d been fired as the Eagles head coach)– who spent the year complaining about the “Chuck and duck” offense.

It blew up in game 16, when Houston had a 14-0 lead going into the half. Offensive Coordinator Kevin Gilbride tried to pass, QB Cody Carlson fumbled, and Ryan punched Gilbride. The Oilers lost 28-20 to Kansas City in the playoffs– the Chiefs scoring 21 points in the fourth quarter, to cement the “can’t hold a lead” rap, and Pardee’s job was in danger.

Since this is the only chance I’ll probably ever get to go on record about the Ryan-Gilbride incident, let me point out four things:

  1. Houston won the game 24-0.
  2. Gilbride won two Super Bowls as a coordinator; Ryan won one as coordinator and one as defensive line coach.
  3. Gilbride’s 6-16 mark as head coach (San Diego) wasn’t great, but Ryan’s record was also below .500 (55-58-1).

Fourth, as a friend points out, the difference between Gilbride and Ryan’s head coaching records might simply be the ownership. Gilbride went 4-12 in his first season and was fired when the Chargers got off to a 2-4 start the next year. Ryan went 5-10-1 in his first season with the Eagles– a game and a half better– but then started 1-5 the next year.

Ryan’s career record at that point was 6-21-1, or half a game better than Gilbride’s. The difference was that Norman Braman stuck with Ryan and Alex Spanos decided to pitch Gilbride.

We’ll never know, but it’s an interesting point– which might be true. Another thing that sunk Gilbride is that the Chargers traded up to get a chance to draft uber-bust Ryan Leaf.

Pardee’s assessment of the incident was entirely correct:

“Buddy was always an idiot,” Pardee said in a phone interview from his Texas ranch. “He put some good teams together — actually, he put some good defenses together — but he wasn’t a good team coach. He was always one of those coaches who put guys against each other.

“What happened wasn’t Kevin’s fault — he handled it well. He just didn’t want to be pushed around. Who could blame him for that? Buddy wasn’t the only one who was going to stand his ground.”

But after that event– and the loss to Marty Schottenheimer in the playoffs (even then, recognized as a mark of shame)– Parde had to make changes. He fired Ryan, naturally– but kept Ryan’s scheme and promoted Ryan’s protege (Jeff Fisher) to coordinator.

Gilbride kept his job, but Adams decided that Moon (who was 37) was a choker and needed to go. Pardee wasn’t in a position to refuse– and he would up with Cody Carlson as his starter, Bucky Richardson as his backup with Billy Joe Tolliver in the mix.

An offensive scheme built around the quarterback fails miserably if you don’t have a quarterback. The Oilers started 1-9, and Adams whacked Pardee, promoting Fisher. Fisher, showing his keen offensive mind, decided to keep Tolliver at quarterback for the first five games (all of which they lost), before trying Richardson in the final game (which they won).

Pardee was 58, and he might have had another chance if he had been content to wait for an offer. But he decided to get back into the saddle immediately, signing a deal to coach the Birmingham Barracudas of the Canadian Football League.

The Birmingham was in Alabama, because they CFL had decided to try to expand its audience by adding expansion teams in the US. They added teams in Baltimore, San Antonio, Memphis and Shreveport.

You can guess how well that worked out. The Barracudas went 10-8 and made the playoffs. But they lost 52-9, the expansion effort folded and Pardee now had too much strangeness on his resume to make him a prime NFL candidate.

The bottom line on Pardee is that he coached in five league and won in all of them. And of the seven teams he coached, his worst record was 20-22:

  • 14-6 in the WFL
  • 87-77 in the NFL (20-22 with Chicago, 24-24 in Washington, 43-31 with Houston)
  • 23-15 in the USFL
  • 22-11-1 in the NCAA
  • 10-8 in the CFL

And that sub-.500 record in Chicago (by one game) looks good. He took over a team that had gone 4-9-1, then 3-11 and 4-10. He went 4-10 in his first year, 7-7 in his second and then 9-5 in his third, before leaving for Washington. It was dull as all get out, and he ran Walter Payton within an inch of his life. But he was winning– and had he had any help from the GM, he might have won more.

Nobody remembers Pardee, so I’m glad that the Browns’ decision to hire Gregg Williams gave me a chance to immortalize him. It’s one of the reasons I write this thing.


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