By Zachary D. Roberts
By Anna Merlan
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If the New York Giants beat the New England Patriots this Sunday in the Super Bowl, historians may peg the turning point of the 2007 season to a hot summer's afternoon at the team's Albany training camp. After a grueling workout, Tom Coughlin assembled his players for a film session. Everyone expected the usual verbal assault. Instead, their coach told them, "Let's everybody just go out and have a good time. How about bowling?"
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."
But does Coughlin know enough to win a duel of wits with pro football's resident genius, Patriots coach Bill Belichick? "A good question," says Accorsi. "Not too many coaches have ever actually outsmarted the competition. Bill Walsh did. Bill Belichick has. It's a really scary thought that he has two weeks to prepare for this game."
The Giants have fired up this town the way only an underdog canand make no mistake, despite the wild optimism of sports-radio callers and the reckless predictions of some local beat writers, the Giants are underdogs. Big underdogs. Perhaps the biggest Super Bowl underdogs in almost 40 years.
Let's not let a couple of thrilling playoff wins obscure what the Giants are up against. The Patriots, as everyone knows, are a perfect 18-0 to the Giants' 13-6. There's an enormous gap between the Patriots' and the Giants' performances, and the deeper you dig, the wider it gets. (Giants fans who don't want to lose heart are advised to skip ahead a couple of paragraphs.) In 18 games, including the postseason, the Pats have outscored their opponents by a ridiculous 335 points, and their total of 589 regular-season points scored is an all-time NFL record. The Giants, in 19 games, have outscored their opponents by just 39 points.
During the regular season, Big Blue was 14th among 32 teams in points scored on offense and 17th in points allowed on defense. Most of the time, a team with those numbers finishes 8-8, which is as close to mediocre as a team can get.
Moreover, New England's numbers were compiled against much tougher opposition. Going into the playoffs, most experts ranked the top five NFL teams, in order, as New England, Indianapolis, San Diego, and Jacksonvilleall AFC teamswith Pittsburgh, Green Bay, and Dallas pretty much regarded as jump ball for the fifth spot. In other words, you had to go to the fifth spot in the seeds to maybe find a team from the NFC. The Patriots whipped San Diego, Dallas, Indianapolis, Pittsburgh, and the Giants. The Giants' 10-6 record didn't include a single win against any of the contenders for the top five seeds, and until the playoffs they didn't have a victory over any of the best teams in their own conference, going 0-3 against Green Bay and Dallas (twice), outscored by 43 points in those three games.
The bottom line, let's face it, is that it's great the Giants won their conference, but the contenders for the NFC are in pretty much the same situation as the candidates for the Republican Party presidential nomination: They all suck, but heysomebody's got to win. Yet there's no denying that Coughlin and the Giants were a different team on December 29, when they lost to the Patriots 38-35 in the final game of the season, with Eli throwing four touchdown passes. From that game through the victory over the Packers, Manning has never been better.
Do the Giants really have a chance to make football history this Sunday? Here's four strategies that might result in victory:
Introduce Tom Brady to Jessica Simpson. Through the first 13 weeks of the 2007 season, the Dallas Cowboys were flying high with a 12-1 record, on track to play the Patriots in the Super Bowl. Then rumors of a Tony RomoJessica Simpson romance surfaced. The Cowboys lost three of their next four games. Simpson, with the IQ of a Hostess Ding Dong, appears to be just Brady's type.
Get Eli Manning to "guarantee" a victory. Why not? The last time we saw a fourth-year quarterback from a Southeastern Conference school playing for a New York team that was a more-than-two-TD underdog in the Super Bowl was nearly 40 years ago. Joe Namath sent the football world cleats over helmet by guaranteeing that the Jets would beat the Baltimore Colts. Eli Manning needs that kind of chutzpah now. In fact, Joe has some advice for him: "All he needs is to change his facial expressions a littleyou know, look tougher and meaner," Namath tells the Voice. "He's already got the determination. He just needs to look like it a little more so the opposing defense gets the message."
Have Eli get off on the right foot. The Giants' unsung hero for the 2007 season is quarterback coach Chris Palmer, an 18-year NFL coaching vet. Palmer worked with Drew Bledsoe, and he went to the Super Bowl after the 1996 season. In 1997, at Jacksonville, Palmer worked with Mark Brunell, who led all AFC quarterbacks in passer ratings. In 2006, he took a QB named Tony Romo, who hadn't thrown a regular-season pass in three and a half years, and turned him into a Pro Bowler.
Palmer is a mechanics guy, and Eli definitely needed a tune-up. When pressured, Manning had a bad habit of leaning back and throwing off his back foot, which is the primary reason his downfield passes lost velocity in mid-flight. Palmer got him to step forward and follow through on every throw, greatly increasing both his speed and accuracy. It took a while for Palmer's teachings to sink in, but once they did, Eli enjoyed the best stretch of his NFL careeras exemplified by 85 consecutive postseason passes without an interception.
Give Brady the Favre Treatment. The Giants' defense got tough when Steve Spagnuolo's philosophy kicked in. Spagnuolo, the former Philadelphia Eagles linebacker coach, was famous for devising tactics that smothered Brett Favre; you saw some of them at work in Green Bay during the championship game. Hugh Douglas, former Eagles lineman and now-radio-talk-show host, calls Spagnuolo "a genius at devising blitzes. The key to beating Brady is to put the pressure on. A lot of teams rush four guys at him and get nowhere because their blitz is easy to read. Spagnuolo disguises his blitz packages. He might send four men at you, but one of them might be an outside linebacker and another a defensive backand they might come from different sides or from the same side, you never know." With Spagnuolo calling the shots, the Giants led the league in sacks with 53.
No one thinks it's going to be easy, but these new Giants have the tools and the 'tude to end Boston's sports domination of New York. And, at last, they have their fans behind them too. But just to tilt the odds a little more in our favor, does anyone have Jessica Simpson's phone number?