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Kraft Is Primed for More Patriot Games

NEWSDAY

New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, just moments after troublesome coach Bill Parcells divorced himself from the team, wasted little time Friday letting the New York Jets know he’s ready to get down to business.

Cutthroat business.

Kraft, who still holds the option on Parcells’ football future, was blunt in notifying the Jets that any discussion about obtaining the Super Bowl coach’s rights has to start with the No. 1 pick in April’s NFL draft. The owner, though expressing his admiration for the Jets’ hierarchy, stopped just short of accusing the team of tampering.

“I’m not playing chicken, I’m not bluffing, I’m not even threatening,” Kraft said in a midday news conference, often thumping the lectern for emphasis. “I’m just saying, ‘Guys, if you want Bill as your coach in ’97, make sure your first-round draft choice is there in its current position.’ ”

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Jets president Steve Gutman was in constant contact with owner Leon Hess, but did not call the Patriots about Parcells, according to a league source. Kraft, as he left Foxboro Stadium at 7:30 p.m., said the Jets instead had asked for the phone numbers of two Patriots assistants but wouldn’t identify the coaches.

Speculation around the Jets’ camp is that the team is interested in Patriots defensive coordinator Bill Belichick as a possible candidate if a deal for Parcells cannot be worked out. Meanwhile, Bob LaMonde, the agent for Green Bay Packers offensive coordinator Sherman Lewis, said the Jets have not contacted Green Bay about the availability of his client.

New England, fresh from its 35-21 Super Bowl loss to the Packers, needed little time to settle on Parcells’ replacement. San Francisco 49ersdefensive coordinator Pete Carroll likely will be announced as the new coach next week.

In contrast, the Jets’ glacial pace has irritated Kraft. “I guess they don’t have a sense of urgency about this,” he said, adding that he had not talked to Gutman or Hess. Andy Wasynczuk, New England’s vice president of business operations, and Bobby Grier, director of player personnel, are believed to be the point men in the negotiations.

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Gutman said he listened to Kraft’s 45-minute conference but had no comment. “Nothing has changed,” he said of the Jets’ deliberate exploration of their options. “We have no further comment until the process is concluded.”

Said a clearly ruffled Kraft: “The longer it goes, the more expensive the solution will be ... The best thing for the New England Patriots, no matter what we get -- and I’m not sure we can even probably get enough, but we’ll do something if it’s reasonable -- is that it’s best for us that he not be coaching the (division rival) Jets next year.”

The Jets, coming off a miserable 1-15 campaign, remain unwilling to include the top pick in any discussion about Parcells, and sources close to the team denied speculation that the prime draft choice is going to be traded. A spokesman for the New Orleans Saints, who hold the No. 2 selection, said Friday night that the Jets had not contacted them about a deal. New Orleans is interested in Tennessee quarterback Peyton Manning, a junior expected to make a decision about his draft status later this month.

The spokesman said the Jets, who have $25 million invested in quarterback Neil O’Donnell, have assured the Saints they are not interested in drafting Manning. Ohio State offensive tackle Orlando Pace, the top-rated player in the draft, is thought to be the Jets’ and Patriots’ target.

Who gets the 6-foot-6, 330-pound Pace will be determined in the coming days.


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