By Jason Keidel
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Admit it -- you joined the jeering, the growing chorus calling for Tom Coughlin's head on a Big Blue platter. His team was teetering in December (7-7), with galling home losses to Seattle and Washington on its resume. The transcendent, 2007 season was shrinking in the rear view mirror, just an old visage fading like his frostbitten face on the Frozen Tundra against Brett Favre in overtime.
But then the Giants didn't lose another game, writing a surreal sequel four years hence. And since the subsequent stunning run to another title, Coughlin has made a habit of making pundits look stupid. And if I don't qualify for the former, I certainly am the latter.
I seriously doubt you were doing backflips in your bedroom when you heard that Tom Coughlin was hired as head coach of the Giants. When we hear of "old-school" coaches, Generations X, Y or Z see it as a euphemism for old and ornery, a plodding graybeard filled with senior moments who runs the ball until he's forced to toss it, and whose idea of going buck-wild is a screen pass to the fullback.
Coughlin arrived in 2004 with his military mantras, most notably that injuries are often a thing of the mind, only to find his team shredded by torn tendons, limbs and ligaments. But unlike his days in Jacksonville, where his stubbornness greased the skids to unemployment, he was far more malleable in the Meadowlands. He opened up, listened to his captains and consiglieres and found that having an open-door policy opened new doors deep into the playoffs.
When Coughlin was canned by the Jacksonville Jaguars, it felt like a de facto coaching epitaph for a middling, middle-aged man who got his shot and blew it. And when the Giants hired him, it looked like little more than the safe play, reeling in refuse from the toxic waters of failed coaching lifers. There was nary a gleeful word on the street about the idea of bagging a brooding, recycled geriatric to lead the Giants into the 21st Century. Clearly, the game had passed him by.
You must admit that Coughlin doesn't have a flair for the dramatic, because there's no change in his coaching cadence; he owns a straight, strict monotone whether his club is down by 10 or up by 20. The closest he comes to an ardent expression is when the cold winds of Lambeau paint his face a tomato-red coaching caricature. But his timing is flawless.
You'll recall Coughlin's first plunge into Super Bowl madness back in 2007. They were bungling in the beginning, limping out of the gate, 0-2, with Antonio Pierce's appalling display in the locker room, blasting an air horn in a female reporter's face while she asked questions. Then they won the Super Bowl. I still don't know how they did it beyond a rabid pass rush and a few clutch catches.
Coughlin's Giants have belied the old bona fides of consistent winners. First of all, the chalk chases the Lombardi Trophy, the 14-2 teams who breeze to home-field advantage, whereas the squalid 9-7 squads that must grind to the final gun of the final game are merely chum for champions. Even better, the Giants doused the dreams of a million New Englanders and spawned a small nation of young, Ecuadorian boys who donned the 19-0 T-shirts shipped out by the shell-shocked 18-1 Patriots.
Yes, my beloved Steelers made an impossible road run to the Super Bowl in 2005, but that was supposed to be an aberration. Yet the Giants have made it their personal Big Blueprint. And now, between the two rings and the lone team to beat an 18-0 team, Coughlin is making a case for the greatest coach in Giants history.
Better than Bill Parcells?
No doubt that Tuna's totality, his entire career arc, arches over his former pupil. Parcells' archived work as a master handyman, reviving more moribund teams than any coach in NFL history, has made him a Hall of Famer, despite the dumbfounding votes of vindictive reporters. But Coughlin is climbing up the ladder of New York legends. And should he reach another Super Bowl – and Eli Manning is in his prime and primed for another ring – then the case is irrevocably closed.
Last December, at 7-7, everyone from Mike Francesa to Joe the Plumber was predicting a premature ending for the Giants, and I led the line. Just like in 2007, the Giants morphed into road warriors, plowing through the Frozen Tundra, beating the best Packers team since Lombardi and again beating the more glamorous Patriots in the Super Bowl. The symmetry and symbolism are eerie, endless and timeless. Two titles in four years is a dynasty in the nouveaux metrics of salary caps, concussions and coaching carousels.
It speaks to Coughlin's consistency -- and the obvious benefits of a team tethered by a belief in each other -- from the owner to the wide receivers to the water boys. It's no secret or coincidence that the Steelers, with just three coaches since I was born (1969), are etched every year for double-digit wins. Indeed, the Patriots, Packers, Giants, Colts, Ravens and Saints (until this year) thrive on a conga line of consistency. It's not exotic or exciting. It just works.
Just compare the Giants to their co-tenants in MetLife Stadium. It's a contrast in style, substance and sanity. Big Blue has no rust in their chain of command, while Gang Green springs more leaks and rumors than TMZ. Their corporate edicts read like an EKG -- Rex Ryan contradicts Mike Tannenbaum while the GM is often overruled by his owner, the shampoo heir who airs his desire for stars and splashes over sound personnel moves. How else do you explain the tumult over Tim Tebow?
Since he hasn't the fierce, foghorn baritone that became Parcells' signature, nor the calm, country refrain of Dan Reeves, it's hard to point to a particular characteristic that inspires Coughlin's troops. So maybe his equanimity, his refusal to get too high or low in the gory or the glory makes him such a fine leader.
And just like the amazing mojo we see in Queens with the Metropolitans, sports can be eternally cruel to one team (Jets) while an inexplicable Wonderland sprouts around Giants Stadium only when the Giants are playing.
Luck is a key ingredient to greatness. Indeed, last night we watched Tim Duncan and Kevin Durant, two titans passing each other at midnight. It was dusk for one and dawn for the other, with the laconic, iconic Duncan handing the baton to the 23-year-old hardwood savant who is equal parts greatness and gracious. What if Duncan wasn't available in 1997? What if Portland plucked Durant and Oklahoma drafted Greg Oden?
Tom Coughlin has stated that he wants to coach until he's 70, which is just two years away. While I don't pretend to know his bench press or spin-class schedule, it doesn't take Dr. Oz to know that he's in physically sound shape, or Dr. Phil to know that he's metaphysically stable.
Is Tom Coughlin the best coach in Giants history? The fact that we now ask that after he's been fired countless times by fans and media –- yes, I'm owning up to my end of myopia –- speaks to Coughlin's discipline and decency, if not his dominance. And it's nice for Coughlin to coach the greatest quarterback in club history. (With all due respect to Yelberton Abraham, Phil and Fran, Eli has long become Big Blue's QB nonpareil.)
It's hard to be a great coach without a great quarterback, as well as the reverse. Either way, Tom Coughlin just dropped his John Hancock on a contract extension. At about $7 million per season, the football lifer who loves the sideline and loathes the spotlight has found himself on Broadway once again. And you'd be hard pressed to pick a coach who deserves it more.
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