Coughlin can't weather another collapse
If Giants falter again, coach won't lose only his cool or his mind -- he will lose his job
NEW ORLEANS -- Tom Coughlin has no choice but to reconnect with his team this week, and find something, anything, to restore its credibility. If he fails, Coughlin is not going to lose only his cool or his mind.
He is going to lose his job.
Last week, after watching 3-6 Philadelphia commit one felonious assault after another on his lifeless New York Giants, Coughlin went public with his disgust over his team's effort, not merely its execution.
And how did his Giants respond in New Orleans on Monday night? By letting the Saints go marching in, and out, and around, and wherever they felt like marching on their merry way to a 49-24 victory that strongly suggested the Giants are primed to deliver another late-season collapse on muscle memory.
No, Coughlin can't survive another one of those. They'll never be able to take away his Super Bowl trophy from the greatest night in franchise history, but that trophy and that conquest of the 18-0 Belichicks and Bradys can't carry Coughlin from here to eternity.
For the record, I was among those who called for his dismissal after the 2006 season, only to be silenced by Coughlin's charmed run to the title the following year. The Giants coach had earned the considerable benefit of the doubt going forward, and didn't deserve the lack of public support he received from his employer late last season.
But Coughlin is on his own now. The Giants have lost three straight to fall to 6-5, and they have to right themselves at home against the unbeaten Green Bay Packers, as formidable a team as any Vince Lombardi put in pads.
"There is no effort problem," Coughlin said of Monday night's Giants. "They tried, they tried."
No medals for trying, Coughlin's former boss, Bill Parcells, was fond of saying, even though the Giants weren't guilty of trying too hard in the Superdome. No matter how much their defense was compromised by Michael Boley's absence and Osi Umenyiora's ankle injury, and no matter how often Coughlin insisted that his players were passionate in their preparation all week, the Giants have no legitimate excuse for allowing Drew Brees to run a glorified passing camp on their watch.
"We ran into a buzzsaw," Justin Tuck said. "We weren't able to do anything we wanted to do defensively."
Perry Fewell, defensive coordinator, has to answer for that, as it appeared he borrowed the game plan from his overmatched predecessor, Bill Sheridan.
Brees threw for 363 yards and four touchdowns and, for good measure, zigged when Giants safety Deon Grant zagged on an eight-yard run for another score. A noted dunker of the football over the crossbar, Brees failed to summon his old elevation while celebrating his rushing touchdown and settled for a botched finger roll. It was the only thing he botched all night.
Just in case Eli Manning had forgotten on this homecoming trip, Brees reminded the first family of New Orleans, the Mannings, that this is very much his town. Brees made his first mark here in the months after Hurricane Katrina hit, when his free agent choices came down to the sun and fun of Miami or the near-apocalyptic scenes stretched across the Gulf Coast landscape.
"It looks like a nuclear bomb went off," Brees told himself when he toured New Orleans. He felt a calling, and decided against taking his talents to South Beach.
Brees would play Peyton Manning's Colts in a Super Bowl, and as much as ol' Archie wanted his sadsack Saints to finally win the big one, he'd delivered some Colts jerseys to Peyton's old high school coach, on Peyton's orders.
"I wanted to make sure your heart is in the right place," the Colts quarterback told the coach, Tony Reginelli.
It didn't matter. Brees beat Peyton for the title, and spoke of how his original calling inspired him to lead. "We played for so much more than just ourselves," he said that night. "We played for our city. We played for the entire Gulf Coast region."
The mission statement is no longer the same. The Saints aren't trying to win a second championship in the name of a devastated people; they're just trying to prove they're not one-and-done wonders.
Monday night, with Eli in the house, Brees might as well have been pitching against Peyton all over again. The former Super Bowl MVP embarrassed the Giants, made them look Washington Generals silly.
"I expect perfection," Brees said afterward. "I understand that's impossible to achieve."
Nobody was asking the Giants for perfection after they managed 29 rushing yards against the Eagles. But this? A virtual no-show that summoned a legion of old second-half haunts?
"Tremendously shocking," Tuck called it.
The Giants came up painfully small in so many areas. Jake Ballard didn't do enough to break up a game-shaping Manning interception in the end zone in the first quarter, and Aaron Ross decided to pull up a chair and watch Jimmy Graham score a touchdown on an uncontested slant in the second.
Manning slapped his hands in frustration after a few maddening drops. On cue, Brandon Jacobs played the fool with a touchdown dance that was mocked by the lopsided score. And just as he did last year as a New York Jet, Steve Weatherford picked the worst possible time to prove that punters are honest-to-God athletes, too.
Coughlin called his failed attempt to run for a first down "foolish" and "a very bad play on his part," though the coach did take the fall for 14 New Orleans points. "Two of them," he said of the Saints' touchdowns, "are my responsibility."
Actually, all seven Saints touchdowns were Coughlin's responsibility. Those are the terms of any head coach's engagement, precisely why guys like Coughlin are paid the big bucks.
"How many wholesale lineup changes would there be available?" he said when asked if a personnel shakeup was in order.
Yes, the Giants are a physical and emotional wreck, and desperate enough to try 61-yard field goals. It doesn't look good for the Green Bay game, but then again, the 5-8 Giants -- coached by Jim Fassel and quarterbacked by Kent Graham, of all people -- beat the 13-0 defending champs from Denver in 1998.
Coughlin has to find a way to script a day just like that against the Packers. If that's beyond the realm of possibility, so be it.
For winning that epic Super Bowl, and for standing among the best coaches in franchise history, Coughlin will always have the memories.
Those will be his parting gifts.
Ian O'Connor is the author of "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter." "Sunday Morning With Ian O'Connor" can be heard every Sunday, 9-11 a.m. ET on ESPN New York 1050.