Commentary

Coughlin beats Ryan at his own game

While Rex was talking trash to the media, Tom was talking Justin Tuck back to life

Updated: December 25, 2011, 12:34 AM ET
By Ian O'Connor | ESPNNewYork.com

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- On his first day as head coach of the New York Giants, Tom Coughlin talked about curing injuries, about getting all of Jim Fassel's players out of the tubs, and damn it if Coughlin didn't finally heal a Giant before he got himself fired.

While Rex Ryan was sliding into a clown suit last week at the New York Jets' practice site, and putting on a show better suited for Atlantic City than the Atlantic Health Training Center, Coughlin was actually doing some coaching. He was sitting down with Justin Tuck, or the mummified remains of Justin Tuck, and stirring the pride of a football player by touching the heart of a man.

"Give me all that you have," Coughlin told Tuck, who went on and on Saturday evening about their little fireside chat, a conversation that threw open a window on Coughlin's 29-14 conquest of Ryan, the biggest MetLife Stadium loser of them all.

When he was done serving as the Giants' king of pain, ignoring all of his bumps and bruises to honor a distinguished past, Tuck humanized Coughlin, spoke of him in endearing terms. He said it meant a ton that his coach took time out of his hectic schedule to meet with him, "to let me know he was thinking about me and how I was feeling."

The same coach once widely criticized for his tense, distant, and unforgiving approach.

"That did a number on me," Tuck said of the meeting. "You start thinking about a lot of stuff. You start thinking about your legacy. ... I've got a 21-month-old at home, and I want him to see me play the game the right way."

Yes, Coughlin got Tuck to play the right way, the way the pass rusher played when the Giants won it all.

"He challenged me to lead this team," Tuck said, "and I think I did a good job of responding."

Tuck didn't miss a practice snap all week, and the sight of him -- not the sound of Antrel Rolle -- reinvigorated the team. Coughlin watched his defense practice with more spirit and speed than it had in a long, long time.

"It was shocking," said a coach who is not easily shocked. "When I looked up I said, 'Is that the same guys?'"

These weren't the same guys who had lost five of six. These were the guys who would make a pinata out of Mark Sanchez and a fool out of Ryan, a sad, beaten man left to engage in a profane back-and-forth with Brandon Jacobs.

The postgame handshake with Coughlin was a classic Belichickian drive-by; Ryan couldn't have said less, or disengaged any quicker.

Not that Coughlin cared. "I honestly don't think he gives a damn what Rex says or what Rex thinks," Chris Snee said of his father-in-law, who was asked if his team and program made a statement in the wake of Ryan's nonstop verbal assault.

"We won the game," Coughlin said. "That's the statement."

The 65-year-old coach was hurting as he stood on the postgame podium, his left leg screaming for mercy after D.J. Ware crashed into him on the sideline. Coughlin winced and doubled over as assistants and trainers rushed to his aid and helped him to the bench.

Only Coughlin wasn't sitting out the finish of this one. He was once tough enough to play in the same Syracuse backfield with Floyd Little and Larry Csonka, and stubborn enough to whine, "I'm not getting the damn ball," when the bigger names got all the big carries.

One way or another, Coughlin was going to make it out to midfield after the game; he wasn't letting Rex off that easy. As he hobbled toward Ryan, Coughlin thought about his owners, his players, their families, and the fans.

"Of course," he said, "I allowed myself a momentary caught-up-in-the-season kind of thought as well."

This was Rex's nightmare before Christmas, after all, a defeat so humiliating that the Jets allowed Ahmad Bradshaw his second touchdown in a desperate endgame bid to regain possession. Bradshaw didn't need Ryan's help on his first score, not when he merely pancaked one of Ryan's defenders on the way home.

[+] EnlargeTom Coughlin
AP Photo/Julio CortezTom Coughlin, despite taking a hit to the leg during the game, was extremely happy afterward.

From start to finish the Jets were bush leaguers on this day, using black curtains to cover the Super Bowl logos outside the Giants' locker room. "You have to ask them about that," said the beaming Giants owner, John Mara. "We don't cover theirs."

Ouch.

Mara conceded this Giants victory wasn't only about playoff positioning "given everything that was at stake, given all the noise that's been coming out of Florham Park." He also conceded that Coughlin's triumph over Ryan wasn't only about job security.

"You don't have to motivate our coach any more than he's already motivated," Mara said, "and he wanted this game very badly, too, for a lot of reasons."

Mara wouldn't guarantee Coughlin's return in 2012, if only because a public vote of confidence in this market can be read eight different ways. Barring a complete no-show next week against Dallas, Coughlin has earned his ticket to ride.

And he did it the hard way, the only way he knows how. Coughlin reminded Ryan and everyone else that he knows how to survive in New York, and that he knows how to absorb a hit or three along the way.

"No toughness, no championship," some Giants told him after Ware barreled into his leg. "You are exactly right," Coughlin said in response.

The coach joked with his players that he would join them for treatment in the trainer's room, and he joked with the press that he was actually feeling no pain. "Never better, never better," Coughlin said.

"I think you'd have to kill him," Mara said of his man, "to keep him down."

If Rex Ryan didn't know it then, he knows it now. He tried to run Coughlin out of a town Snee sneeringly called "New Jet City," and failed miserably. The Jets likely knocked themselves out of the playoffs with an absurd, pass-happy gameplan, and with a resolve and intensity that was no match for the Giants'.

Ryan didn't have his team ready to play, and his counterpart did. All these years after saying what he said about injuries, setting himself up for a predictable fall, Coughlin inspired a wounded team by inspiring an injured player.

In a room sealed off from Ryan's bluster, from all of the trash talk, Coughlin sat down with Justin Tuck and ended up talking a pretty good game himself.

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 from 9 to 11 a.m. ET on ESPN New York 1050.

Ian O'Connor

ESPNNewYork.com columnist
Ian O'Connor has won numerous national awards as a sports columnist and is the author of three books, including the bestseller, "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter." ESPN Radio broadcasts "The Ian O'Connor Show" every Sunday from 7 to 9 a.m. ET. Follow Ian on Twitter »

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