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Thursday, June 17, 2010
Tom Coughlin faces season of uncertainty

By Sal Paolantonio

Tom Coughlin
Tom Coughlin knows his job could be on the line if there is a repeat of the 2009 season.
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Is New York Giants head coach Tom Coughlin on the hot seat this year?

The short and simple answer to that question is yes. It’s more complicated than that, but around the Giants' minicamp these days there is no parsing out blame for last year’s 8-8 collapse or responsibility for this year’s full recovery.

Former Pro Bowl defensive end Osi Umenyiora, standing in front of his locker, was asked who was under extreme pressure to ensure that the Giants find a way back to the top of the NFC East. He answered: "Everybody and everything around here. ... We must win."

But Coughlin? He’s just two years removed from putting another piece of Super Bowl hardware in the Mara family trophy case. But after spending nearly $86 million on salary and bonuses to fix the Giants' defense last season, team president and CEO John Mara was uncharacteristically caustic, saying he was "unhappy with everybody."

Facing a near player revolt, myopic defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan was fired after one miserable season. Enter the fiery -- but unproven -- Perry Fewell from Buffalo.

The Giants then used five of their seven 2010 draft picks to repair a defense that surrendered 41 or more points in three of its final four games. The Giants finished 3-8 in their final 11 games.

This spring, Mara signed free agent Antrel Rolle, a Pro Bowl free safety from the Arizona Cardinals. So far, Rolle seems to be settling down a secondary that last season allowed 27 completions on balls thrown 20 yards or more -- tied for second most in the league.

Asked recently whether he was happy now with the team, Mara told "We should be a better team than we were last year. We better be."

So, if all this doesn’t work, who’s left to blame? Obviously, it’s the head coach. After signing a four-year $16 million extension after the Giants shocked the then-undefeated New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLII, Coughlin has just two years remaining under contract -- this year and next.

And, historically, the Mara family has not allowed its head coaches to enter the final year of their deal a lame duck. If form holds, that would mean that Coughlin would have to have a new deal in place before the beginning of the 2011 season, or the Giants might go in another direction.

Behind the scenes, in the Giants front office, there has been no sense of any ultimatum handed down by the Maras or the team’s co-owners, the Tisch family. "We don’t do business that way," said a senior team executive. There will be the customary postseason evaluation, he said.

But there is clearly a palpable sense of urgency as the Giants go on their summer break. The team is moving into a new $1.6 billion stadium. To move across the street, loyal longtime fans were asked to part with major coin for personal seat licenses – a first in the team’s history. And, there is too much talent on this Giants team, too much money invested, to possibly justify finishing .500 again.

"We understand there is pressure here, big pressure," said defensive lineman Justin Tuck, who has assumed a major leadership role now that Michael Strahan and Antonio Pierce have departed in back to back seasons. "Everybody knows it. And we’re going to thrive on it."

There is no sense whatsoever in the Giants' locker room that the team has stopped listening to Coughlin, who will be 64 in August. He’s adjusted his temperament from two years ago after Strahan, in particular, butted heads with him. Moreover, Coughlin and the Mara family are very close -- they have the same no-nonsense approach to the game and same core personal values.

"This is a guy who is about as straight as they come," said that team executive.

Translation: You need a pretty good reason to fire him. For example, team observers say, if the Giants are competitive, but finish out of the playoffs for the second straight season, Coughlin could survive that.

But if there is repeat of last year’s complete ineffectiveness, Coughlin -- and perhaps general manager Jerry Reese -- might be out the door.

Complicating matters in any possible head coaching moves league-wide, however, is the pending uncertainty of the labor negotiations with the players. If the Giants were to jettison Coughlin (and Reese), New York would not tolerate bringing in a bargain-basement unproven assistant coach to run the operation. That means the Giants would have to spend big again -- perhaps hiring a big name such as Bill Cowher at around $6-8 million a year. (Cowher’s friends have said he is interested.)

After paying off Coughlin’s $4 million 2011 salary and maybe a new coach $6 million, that’s $10 million out the door in a year when there might not be any football, if the owners lock out the players in 2011 in a labor impasse. And with that new stadium debt, would the Giants do that?

Bottom line: The upcoming season for the Giants is fraught with uncertainty, especially at the head coaching position. And Coughlin knows it.

"I don't care if you just won the Super Bowl, you're expected to come right back and perform at the highest level," Coughlin told New York reporters recently. "And, of course, in this market, you're always going to be subject to that kind of scrutiny. My goals, my expectations, what I demand of myself, what I demand of our team, really is internally driven and has nothing to do with outside."

Sal Paolantonio covers the NFL for ESPN. His latest book is called How Football Explains America. (Chicago: Triumph Books.)