New York Giants head coach Tom Coughlin is in the next-to-last year of his contract, he still labors in the media cauldron that is New York, he'll never win a popularity contest against Jets master of ceremonies Rex Ryan, and the Giants have lost two straight ugly games. And yet, a great gauge of why there's still hope for the Giants' 1-2 season is something that used to be unthinkable around here not long ago: Coughlin isn't the bogeyman who's blamed for everything that's wrong with the team anymore -- not even when he volunteers to be.
Amazingly enough, guess who is on the hot seat heading into the Giants' game against the unbeaten Chicago Bears on Sunday night?
For a change, it's only the Giants players.
Which is progress, all right.
The Giants have been an up-and-down team for awhile now, pretty much ever since Plaxico Burress went out and unintentionally aerated his boxer shorts by putting a loaded pistol down his sweat pants in a nightclub. The gun went off. Plax soon went to prison. The defending champion Giants nosedived the rest of that 2008 season without him and haven't been an indomitable team since.
But Burress' abrupt departure is only a convenient straw man for how long the Giants have been wobbling, same as Coughlin's detail-obsessed personality used to be the root of all evil before the Giants won Super Bowl XLII.
Last week, veteran safety Antrel Rolle -- a first-year Giant -- probably didn't know what an enormous beehive he was stirring up when he looked at the Giants' maddening early play this season and questioned Coughlin's approach and the leadership of the team, echoing some old pre-championship criticisms that Tiki Barber and Jeremy Shockey used to make. Rolle's remarks have been the main talking point around the Giants ever since -- especially once the Giants outgained Tennessee 471 to 271 yards Sunday but committed a debilitating 11 penalties and lost big, 29-10.
But Rolle actually did Coughlin a huge favor.
When Coughlin stepped up in his postgame news conference and tried to take the blame for the sloppy loss, saying, "Put it on me," the nearly unfathomable happened.
No one would let him.
Rolle's remarks forced people to declare who they've got: Coughlin or the Giants players? The verdict wasn't close.
Some ex-Giants whose opinions still hold a lot of sway in this town -- Michael Strahan, Bill Parcells, and even Barber, in his convoluted way -- backed Coughlin and fingered the players during news conferences for the inaugural Ring of Honor ceremony the Giants will hold at halftime Sunday night. And the current Giants players -- to their credit -- took their medicine without complaint.
The Giants have now lost 10 of 14 games dating back to last season. But as they looked ahead to Chicago's visit Sunday, they didn't sound down or beaten as much as fed up -- with themselves.
This is progress, too.
"We're beating ourselves," tight end Kevin Boss said.
"I can't imagine how it is for a coach, especially the things we put on film [against Tennessee]," added Giants linebacker Michael Boley.
The Giants have now committed 10 turnovers in just three games. Eli Manning already has six interceptions, four of them on tipped balls. Five of their personal foul penalties against Tennessee came after the whistle.
"It's one thing if you go out there and you just get beat and they are better than you, they outplay you, or they out-scheme you," Manning said. "Those things sometimes you can handle and you can learn from it. … [But] all we learned is that we can do a lot of good things and we made stupid plays that we can't overcome."
The 2010 Giants had obvious issues beyond Coughlin even before injuries started mounting. And if you listened and watched closely, the coaching staff accurately saw some of the problems coming back in training camp.
The Giants traded late for veteran linebacker Keith Bulluck because retired middle linebacker Antonio Pierce is still missed. They overhauled their secondary and are trying to rediscover the ferocious pass rush they used to have two or three seasons ago. But the surprise news Friday that Mathias Kiwanuka, their best defensive player so far, is out indefinitely with a bulging disk in his neck was a huge blow.
Most glaringly, Coughlin spoke of shuffling the mix on the once-great offensive line, but the young players they tried didn't seize the jobs. Now look: Manning is getting belted around far too often. David Diehl and Kareem McKenzie, the Giants' starting tackles, looked particularly awful against Indianapolis speed rushers Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis two games ago. And the Giants' running game remains a concern.
The Giants made Bradshaw their starting running back over Brandon Jacobs partly because Bradshaw is more elusive and the 260-pound Jacobs doesn't run at people like a freight train anymore. But they need both backs.
Coughlin had to win even more admirers in the Giants' locker room when he bit back publicly at Jacobs after the Indianapolis loss when Jacobs, who has brooded about his demotion for weeks and even pondered seeking a cop-out like a trade, sent his helmet Frisbee-ing into the stands, and then pretended not to know why he was benched.
"He's been told -- too much East-West running," Coughlin snapped.
Calling out Jacobs was the absolute right thing to do. It's also the sort of public stand a head coach doesn't make if he feels his control on the locker room is "in crisis," as Barker claimed last week, despite adding he thinks Coughlin is a "great" coach.
Scapegoating Coughlin won't fly now.
That bogeyman has left the building.
The Giants players are under the microscope. And looking ahead to Chicago, they've gotten the message.
"Just shut our mouths," Bulluck says, "and perform on the field."