Nobody knows how this is all going to turn out for the New York Giants, but I believe this: If this team makes this year's playoffs, there shouldn't be any more discussion about who's the best coach in the league.
Look at Tom Coughlin, winner of four straight games with a team that once looked as though it would never win again. Postgame Sunday, Coughlin was neither somber nor celebratory. As he always does, win or lose, he offered an assessment of the day's work that pivoted tightly into an assessment of the next.
"Anytime you win four in a row, there are some good things happening," Coughlin said after a 27-13 victory over the Green Bay Packers. "There are some things as a coach that I'd like to clean up, but we're happy to be in the position that we're in, and we'll be back in the division this week [against Dallas]."
Coughlin coaches in and from the moment. It's the only way he knows. It has earned him two Super Bowl rings during his successful 10 seasons as coach of the Giants, and those rings have become the defining element of his coaching résumé. But Coughlin's greatest accomplishment over the past decade, in an NFL that turns over playoff teams annually at a dizzying rate, is that his teams are always in the hunt.
Whatever the circumstances, Coughlin always coaches a contender. He hasn't finished under .500 since his first year with the Giants. And while that streak still seems likely to end this year due to an 0-6 start and a tough-looking December schedule, it hasn't yet. And the fact that Coughlin and his team are still grinding speaks to the quiet brilliance of the most underappreciated coach of his era.
"In this league, 0-6 means shipping your cars home and planning your vacations," defensive end Justin Tuck said Sunday night. "But guys have really come together. We feel confident that we have a chance now."
That comes from the top. Yes, the Giants have strong leaders in the locker room, but the man setting the example for all of them is Coughlin, in whom they believe completely. His "old school" approach means he treats his players like adults, showing a leader's support but also investing them in the appropriate level of responsibility for their performance. He doesn't berate, but he doesn't sugarcoat either. Coughlin's criticisms are rooted in a shared expectation that both he and the player in question will care and work enough to fix the problem.
Great coaches assess what they have and seek ways to make it work. This formula has held up through the ages and always will. For all the talk of Chip Kelly's offensive "system," the Eagles are 6-5 because of Kelly's ability to connect with his players and tailor his ideas to what they do well. If Kelly can make the playoffs as a rookie coach, it will have more to do with the human level on which he's coached his team to buy in to him and each other than it will with anything he drew up on a dry-erase board. Kelly would be the first to tell you that.
Coughlin would back him up. He's the best current avatar of the late Bum Phillips' famous description of Don Shula: "He could take his'n and beat your'n, and he could take your'n and beat his'n."
Coughlin is a solver of puzzles, and while this year's 0-6 start may have been his toughest yet, he doesn't deal in such long-range comparisons. Moments past cannot be altered, and moments to come cannot be predicted. The current moment, the current puzzle, is all that matters. Coughlin's ability to maintain that focus is the key to his genius. He consistently demonstrates, in his off-field handling of his players as individuals and as a group, how to identify and deliver the right message for the moment. To wit:
Sept. 8, the night the Giants turned it over six times in the opener: "I'm totally, totally disappointed and embarrassed by that kind of football."
Sept. 23, the day after the 38-0 loss in Carolina made them 0-3: "What we really need to do during this point in time is make sure we stick together."
Oct. 11, the day after they fell to 0-6 in Chicago: "Everybody is disappointed. Everybody wants answers. But they are committed to each other, and I think they'll remain that way. We have good character."
Oct. 21, the night of the first win, feeding off the relieved grins all around him in the locker room: "Oh, this is what it feels like, huh?"
Nov. 17, after a fourth straight win: "Every game is so precious right now. We're just excited to have a little bit of momentum going."
There's no way to know what the message will be after Sunday's game against the Cowboys, and Coughlin wouldn't bother looking ahead to try to predict it. A foolish waste of time, when there are vital present moments to manage with messages designed to help win that game. Whether the Giants do or don't, Coughlin will reassess and figure out how to manage the following week based on the way the puzzle looks then. Until there are no more buttons left to press, he'll continue his determined pursuit of the right ones.
From the outside, the Giants' task still appears impossible. They need to finish 5-1 against some of the league's best quarterbacks just to get over .500. It'd be a tough task for the very best teams in the league, and these Giants clearly are not among those.
But from the inside, where Coughlin operates, the six-game whole of the remaining puzzle is not at issue. Coughlin is looking only to find the next piece. The Giants' greatest organizational asset is their coach's ability to maintain that focus, stay true to his philosophies and continue to manage his players the way the situation dictates.
The Super Bowl titles are great -- the pinnacle achievements of his life's work and that of everyone else involved. But this here -- this nitty-gritty, week-to-week problem solving -- this is where Tom Coughlin's understated greatness is found. This is what makes him as good at this job as anyone else in the world.