EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- There's a difference in New York Giants coach Tom Coughlin this summer, and his players have noticed it.
"He's definitely more intense than I've seen him in a while," longtime Giants defensive end Mathias Kiwanuka said Monday. "He's back to the '07 Tom, who was just 100 percent focused on details and not willing to let anything slide. He's holding everybody accountable."
Kiwanuka was quick to ask that he not be misinterpreted. He wasn't saying Coughlin lacked intensity or failed to demand accountability over the past six seasons -- just that this training camp has brought with it a reinforcement of the old Coughlin style. Post-practice speeches on the field have been more pointed, with fewer light moments. Coughlin has involved himself more directly in meetings and drills. After the Giants had a punt blocked in their first preseason game, it was Coughlin himself -- not the special teams coaches -- who oversaw the punt-protection drill in the next practice.
"You can see in his eyes that he wants to win now," Kiwanuka said. "There's no waiting until next year. He's all about getting this group of guys right here to win now."
The easy outside interpretation of these comments will focus on Coughlin's age (he turned 68 on Sunday and is the NFL's oldest head coach) and on the pressure presumably brought on by missing the playoffs four of the past five years. But it's a mistake to assume Coughlin feels time advancing on him or that he fears for his job. He has made it clear that he does not. If he's more driven to win this year, as Kiwanuka says it seems he is, then it's not because of anything as petty as self-interest.
We get so caught up in the week-to-week, day-to-day, win-now obsessiveness of NFL culture that we too often miss the big picture. And in this case, it's important to step back and think about Coughlin's place in New York Giants history. He may well be the best coach they've ever had, and if he's not he's second behind no less towering a figure than Bill Parcells. Coughlin has won two Super Bowl titles, shepherded the career of Eli Manning and ensured himself a place in the team's Ring of Honor. He matters to the Giants in a way that stretches well beyond the confines of this one season.
And the Giants matter to Coughlin, which is why he's not coaching for his job but rather for the health of the franchise of which he's such a vital part. This is a crucial time in Giants history. The team is attempting the delicate task of reshaping a championship roster that got too old and transitioning into an immediate future that has a chance to be just as successful. It's not easy, and most teams can't do it. It says something about Coughlin that he could have walked away but stayed to oversee that transition. It says a lot about Coughlin that he's taking such a hands-on role in shaping it.
This is still one of the absolute best coaches in the league, regardless of age. We laud Rex Ryan for last year's 8-8 Jets season, but Coughlin's 7-9 with a hollowed-out Giants roster that lost its first six games was just as impressive a coaching accomplishment. Coughlin is a leader at the peak of his powers, and his leadership will determine the success of the 2014 Giants -- as a present-day team and a building block -- as much as anything or anyone else does.
Tom Coughlin is not coaching for his job, nor is he worried about when he'll retire. He's locked in on making the current Giants team the best addition to the franchise's history it can be. And if he recognizes the importance of his own role in that task, he's just being responsible.