By Jared Chausow
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Bowling? It's as if Bear Bryant or Vince Lombardi had ended one of their legendary boot-camp practices with iced tea and croquet. What possessed a coach with a reputation as the biggest martinet in pro football to pull the ramrod out of his own ass? A coach who bragged of his own reputation as an SOB suddenly gone . . . nice?
A lot of homers in the New York sports press are having a good time saying I told you so to cynical sportswriters (including me) who were calling for Coughlin's head earlier this season. But after the first two games of 2007, against the Dallas Cowboys and Green Bay Packersgames the Giants lost by a combined total of 32 pointswho was really buying Tom Coughlin's stock? At that point, his four-year record with the Giants was 25-27 (including a 0-2 record in the playoffs).
Before the euphoria of the Giants' overtime victory at Green Bay for the NFC championship blots them out of memory, let's recall a few Coughlin classics:
November 13, 2005: The 6-2 Giants manage to dominate the 3-5 Minnesota Vikings at the Meadowlands, outgaining them 405 yards to 137 with 25 first downs to Minnesota's 11. The Vikes gained exactly 12 yards on the ground, and Minnesota won 24-21 despite the fact that New York did not give up a touchdown from scrimmage. The loss was the fault of a mind-blowing special-teams breakdown, with the Vikings getting 394 yards on kick and punt returns.
November 27, 2005: Eli Manning piled up 324 yards against the Seattle Seahawks, Tiki Barber rushed for 166 more, and the Giants outgained the Seahawks by a whopping 135 yardsand lost 24-21 thanks to a franchise-record 16 penalties, 11 of them for false starts. Jay Feelywho had kicked 23 of 25 field goals up to that point in the seasonmissed left, right, and short, shanking his way into both David Letterman's monologue and a Saturday Night Live sketch.
January 8, 2006: The Giants played the Carolina Panthers in the wild-card round of the playoffs. Both teams had an 11-5 record, and the Giants presumably had the home-field advantage, yet they never even came close to scoring and lost 23-0. Eli had just 91 yards passing and was picked off three times; Tiki had a season-worst 41 yards rushing; and the Giants gave up a staggering 223 yards on the ground. It was after this game that Jeremy Shockey made his famous comment, "We got outplayed and out-coached. Write that one down." Duly noted.
November 26, 2006: Leading the Tennessee Titans 21-0 after three quarters, the Giants collapsed in the fourth, giving up 24 points. The big play and the winning score came when Matthias Kiwanuka had Titans quarterback Vince Young wrapped up for a sack on fourth-and-10 but, fearing a flag for roughness, let him go; Young scrambled 19 yards for a key first down. "We're going to be sick about this one forever," Coughlin said afterwards. Not forever, as it turns outnot if they can win the Super Bowl. As late as December 16, the home fans booed them in a 22-10 loss to the Washington Redskins at the Meadowlands. Coughlin's crew doesn't perform well in the hometown spotlight; these Giants are the first Super Bowl team in NFL history with a losing record at home.
Throughout his 12-year pro coaching career, Tom Coughlin has given a perfect imitation of someone who is both in charge and out of control, with the result that the Giantsone of the most talented teams in the leaguehave also been the most erratic, forever changing the way of their errors without changing the error of their ways. Things got so bad last year that The Washington Post's Mark Maske wrote, when Coughlin accused the media of being a distraction: "What the media was distracting Coughlin's players from . . . was disliking him and disliking each other."
Somehow, at his and the Giants' nadir, Coughlin went from being someone whom the New York media regarded as only slightly more popular than Hitler (that was Coughlin's own comparison, by the way) to Wilford Brimley. Safety James Butler remarks that Coughlin is "so approachable you can talk to him about, really, anything." By all appearances, Coughlin, at age 61, has achieved the remarkable feat of changing himself from a football coach into a full-fledged human being.
The Giants now have a "leadership council" of players: "I share my thoughts with them," he recently told Sports Illustrated, "they share their thoughts with me, and they take the message to the team. My whole philosophy has been to communicate with the players better." What brought all this on? No one knows, but Coughlin's former general manager, Ernie Accorsi, the man who engineered the acquisition of Eli Manning, believes that "Tom found it in him to change and grow. It's rare when that happens in any field, but it's downright unheard-of in football. It's taken him a long time, but he no longer thinks that he knows it all. He seems to be delegating authority much better. He seems to know what he doesn't know."