By Jason Keidel
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Even when he was a young man, Tom Coughlin had the façade of an old man. His face, eternally red from stalking a thousand sidelines, marching into countless winter winds, never smiled.
And though his vocation revolves around a game Coughlin always carries himself like a serious man, with all the levity of a librarian. Simply, he's never seemed to enjoy his job. And this season has surely accelerated the aging process.
Yesterday's game against Green Bay, if not this entire season, is seen as a referendum on Coughlin's coaching. Beating the unbeaten Patriots can't be removed, but it can no longer add years to Coughlin's career. There have been many references to Coughlin's age (65), positing that once he qualified for Medicare he was disqualified from roaming and ruling the Meadowlands.
But his age is only a concern because he's not winning. Marv Levy wasn't too old when he was leading the Bills to four straight Super Bowls. Jack McKeon wasn't too old when this Marlins won the World Series. Casey Stengel was just a pup at 68, when the Yankees beat the Braves in Game 7 of the 1958 World Series, but he was suddenly ancient 24 months later, when he lost Game 7 to the Pirates. After Mazeroski's heartbreaking homer and Stengel's subsequent firing, The Old Professor famously declared he'd never make the mistake of turning 70 again. It was a very poignant poke at his bosses.
But Tom Coughlin's problem isn't his physical limitations, but rather the widening, metaphysical fissure between an old man with old-school tenets and his key-demo defense. His words don't seem to reach or match the nouveaux parlance of his players. We can't say exactly when he stopped talking in a way for his wayward athletes to understand, but it seems pretty evident that Coughlin can't snap his classroom to attention as he used to.
All week the word was that Perry Fewell fueled his defense with stern words, pep talks and volcanic admonitions, ranting and raving at a team that has teetered all year, symbolized by their wretched performance in New Orleans. And yesterday the Giants played a perfect team, stride-for-stride, until the very end, falling just short when they couldn't afford to. They were betrayed by Fewell's defense, which, ultimately, is Coughlin's defense.
Eli Manning, who has been the lone giant on the Giants this season, led a remarkable drive to tie the game with less than a minute left in regulation. With the crowd, momentum and mojo on their side, the defense was given the simple task of holding the Packers for 58 seconds and force the game into overtime, where the Giants surely would have had the edge.
Aaron Rodgers, as is his will and wont, calmly and surgically sliced the Giants secondary in three plays, kicked a field goal, and perhaps booted Big Blue from the playoffs. All the permutations indicate the Giants are quite alive and kicking in the postseason hunt. But, as their former and best coach, Bill Parcells, famously asserted, you are what your record says you are.
And there's no indication that the Giants (6-6) will defeat Dallas twice and resurrect and replicate their resplendent run in 2007. That was a different team, time, and coach. Everyone looks a little older and slower in 2011. The tandem of Mother Nature and Father Time has taught the Giants that even miracles require a little participation.
Some will draw parallels between last night and the gripping game against New England in 2007, when both teams played ravenously while neither needed to. But the Giants had already procured a playoff spot entering that contest, and perhaps they thought it was practice, a prelude to a Super Bowl rematch a month later.
Now you have a 6-6 team on a four-game losing streak, scoreboard watching, and extending a perilous pattern under Coughlin, who, as Giants coach, is 47-17 during the first half of the season yet just 24-36 in the second half.
Losing nobly to the Packers wasn't the best occurrence for the Giants. Jay Cutler's busted thumb and Atlanta's loss to Houston did far more to feed their playoff hopes. But championship teams don't pin their hopes on another team's scoreboard. This isn't 2007, nor does it feel like it.
Think about the deluded rationale that your team wins when it loses, and taking solace from the fact that the Giants have much company in mediocrity. Do you think the Packers wonder how other teams are playing? How about New Orleans, San Francisco, New England, Baltimore, and Pittsburgh? Tim Tebow, whose throwing motion makes Charles Barkley's golf swing look like Van Gogh's Irises, wins because he hates losing. The Giants don't have to win anymore, losing their allergy to defeat, and now leaning on the ghosts of 2007. Or maybe they're just not any good. Or maybe both.
The Giants scored 35 points against the undefeated, defending world champions – more than enough to win – and lost. What more do you need to know? Most agree that defense wins championships, and the Giants' defense is indefensible, indifferent, and inexcusable.
One of the most nauseating sports cliches is, "We control our destiny." Not just because it's an oxymoron (destiny is a predetermined course of events beyond human power or control), but also because it's a defeatist's mantra. When you win you need no scripted platitudes or corporate codas scrawled across the blackboard. The Giants are lost, and the fact that most teams are also lost shouldn't make you feel better about yours.
Yesterday was nearly nirvana for New York. Instead the Giants and their fans cling to tattered threads like moral victories, speaking in a cheerful but callow cadence. Almost winning is not winning. It's not a language New Yorkers speak.
The calendar isn't Tom Coughlin's enemy. The man knows his trade as well as anyone in the sport. The game hasn't passed him by.
His team has.
Feel free to email me: Keidel.email@example.com
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