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PARCELLS MAY PULL PLUG WITH SEASON DOWN THE DRAIN

Nine months ago, Bill Parcells had flown home from Buffalo and closed his eyes for a good night's sleep by 10. The words had caught in his throat in the visiting locker room of Ralph Wilson Stadium, a grateful coach struggling to spit out his gratitude to the AFC East champions. There was magic in Vinny Testaverde's arm, sprinkling the season with the scent of a Super Bowl.

All this winning intoxicated the coach, reaffirming to himself that Pat Riley was right. There was winning, and there was misery, and no more could Parcells stand to dance on that dark side.

"I keep saying I'm too old to lose," Parcells said hours after the game. "Not many people understand what that means. I have a few players who understand it, and I understand it. If it gets to where you're just losing all the time, at my age, it's just not worth it. It takes too much out of me."

Nine months have turned into nine years for Parcells. The Jets' charter landed in the wee hours of Sunday night, and when the sun rose Monday morning, the realization of his advanced age meeting a lost season had to flash those words inside his mind: "too old to lose."

The Jets lost to the Bills, 17-3, confirming the gloomiest suspicions for the rest of the season: There's no reshaping Rick Mirer into Vinny Testaverde, no trading Phil Simms for Jeff Hostetler midsprint to the Super Bowl. Just a year ago, Parcells confided that the 12-4 season had exhausted him like none before it. What's 6-10 going to do to him?

"I have a lot on my mind, as far as how to try to rectify what's going on here," he said Monday. "We have some tough teams coming up, and if we don't play any better than we did (Sunday) night, we aren't going to win any of these games."

Parcells is 0-2. He has Washington on Sunday at Giants Stadium. He has Denver, Jacksonville, and Indianapolis on the way. He has the sinking feeling of losing every time out, as he did when he was 0-2 a season ago. This time, he isn't alone.

"There's not as much as I'm sure about that I was at this moment last year," he said.

Parcells passed out T-shirts in training camp with the words "Start Over" on the back. He had hoped it to be a state of mind for the Jets, not a state of affairs. He's 58 years old and on record saying he never plans to see 60 as a football coach.

This season promises to take its best shot at Parcells. Every day, he'll have to lean on his players to stay the course, to play inspired without the promise of playoff glory. As much as it'll wear them out, it'll wear him out.

Everyone had a vision of him riding out of the Georgia Dome and into retirement holding the Super Bowl trophy in the air. He wants to race his horses. He's discussed a desire to purchase a minor league baseball team.

He used to think there was plenty of time to do it. This summer, he watched his good friend, Seattle assistant Fritz Shurmur, die of cancer. Shurmur considered retirement a few years ago, but stayed on the sideline to chase Super Bowls with Mike Holmgren.

"It can't go that much longer, you know that," Parcells said in the preseason. "This is a young man's game. When I started, I think I was the second-youngest coach in the league. Now, I think I'm the third-oldest. I know I'm not going to go on forever."

Everything's changed so fast on him. Mere months ago, Jimmy Johnson wanted to walk out on the Dolphins. Things weren't happening fast enough for him; not like they were happening for Parcells. Now, the Jets and Broncos could be out of Johnson's way.

At the end of last season, Parcells made mention of his lasting regret over departing New England for New York three years ago: It was leaving a locker room of terrific talent, understanding there was probably still a championship inside there.

"I'm not going to do that here without giving it my best shot," Parcells said.

Well, his best shot at the season isn't going to be good enough this year. After about 20 minutes Monday, Parcells climbed out of his chair in the interview room, promising to head down the hall and start on a game plan for Sunday. It must have been the longest walk, only to get longer with the losing.

For the rest of this season, he isn't chasing a championship. He's biding time. All along, Bill Parcells promised he was too old for that.

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