- Johnette Howard, ESPN Staff Writer
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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- There are times when Giants head coach Tom Coughlin strides to the podium on Wednesdays and the words that come booming out of his mouth to kick off the next game week sound suspiciously like the basic talking points he plans to give his team. He lays out the opponent the Giants are facing, he mentions whatever lingering predicaments their last game exposed, then he gets into how they can address all of it. And as odd as it seems to say this about a man who has won two Super Bowls, the leadership that Coughlin shows in moments like this is perhaps the most underrated part of what he does.
Coughlin is a coach in the best, most complete sense of the word. Part of the job description is that the good ones sense it's time to show the way in times like this.
The first-place Giants are a perfectly respectable 6-3 heading into Sunday's game at Cincinnati. But in the wake of last Sunday's stinging loss to Pittsburgh, the latest brushfire that Coughlin has to stamp out actually feels more like a bonfire: His quarterback, Eli Manning, has been struggling the past three games.
What to do about it is the question.
And Coughlin blinked and looked unabashedly surprised Wednesday when he was asked if Manning has become so good he would just let Manning "fix himself."
"Well, no," Coughlin answered.
That's not how Coughlin looks at it at all.
If you haven't noticed, one of the hallmarks of Coughlin's Giants teams is players develop here. They just do. Players seem to get better after they get to Coughlin's Giants, and it doesn't matter if they're undrafted free agents or the No. 1 overall pick in the draft like Manning was, a freakish but raw talent like Jason Pierre-Paul or a seven-time castoff like backup running back Andre Brown, one of this season's revelations. The common thread is players just seem to rise closer to the players they're supposed to be under Coughlin and his staff. And the answer he gave Wednesday about how he's handling Manning's slump was a little insight into why.
Coughlin said he made a point to stop by the quarterback room where Manning was studying on Tuesday, which is an off-day for most NFL players but rarely for NFL quarterbacks. When Coughlin dropped in to talk, he didn't bark at Manning about his subpar 125-yard passing day against the Steelers, or the two off-games Manning had before that, like everyone else was. He didn't offer empty go get'em platitudes.
No, crusty ol' foot-stomping, occasionally red-in-the-face Tom Coughlin -- that guy the rest of us always see on the sidelines -- sat down with his franchise quarterback behind the scenes and simply asked him, "What can I do to help you?"
Not "You're a big boy, figure it out. You're the franchise. Play better."
"[What] little things I can tweak in terms of practice that may help us?" Coughlin asked Manning.
The relief Manning felt before Coughlin did anything else had to be palpable.
And then? Get this: Coughlin actually listened to him.
When the Giants took the practice field Wednesday, one of Manning's ideas about what might get him out of his funk was immediately implemented. Coughlin made sure the Giants got back to scheduling a passing drill that Manning likes but which they had gotten away from recently in which Manning and his receivers got to take live-action, full-speed, one-on-one reps against the Giants' starting cornerbacks and first-string defense -- not just reps against the scout team pretending to be this week's opponent.
Manning says the drill gives him and his receivers a chance to work on their timing, to work on getting open, to work on their sight adjustments to what the defense is throwing at them after the snap while Manning is also working on handling the pass rush and "doing a better job of reading their body language" -- in short, all of the things that Manning has been admittedly off on these past few weeks as the offense has slowed down.
And Manning was upbeat Wednesday about how it all went.
"That was one of my suggestions, yeah," Manning said. "We had gotten away from it the past few weeks. ... And I think we missed it.
"You want that competitive live action. I think most quarterbacks like the live one-on-one like that, you know. You know where you're going with the ball and you've got to trust your guys to win. ... You've got a pass rush coming, you've got good press man coverage going on. It's not scout team being told, 'Hey, play it this way. Or play it this way' -- it's going against our starting defense and you've gotta use your technique to get open. ... I get two reps with each receiver. ... So those are 10, maybe 12 reps that I'm not getting every day. And that's passing stuff where we can work on plays, and guys get to see how things play live, versus a live style of defense."
Manning didn't deny that he's taken a "good hard look" at himself these past few weeks. He agrees he can play better. But the fact that he doesn't have to figure it out on his own even if he is the franchise quarterback -- that image of Coughlin standing in the doorway of the quarterback room and asking him "What can I do to help you? What do you think may help us?" -- has to, well ... help.
Even the best franchise quarterbacks can sometimes benefit from a little leadership.
It's hard to miss how Coughlin has asserted himself since the Pittsburgh loss, which he termed the Giants' "most disappointing" in a while.
By Monday, Coughlin flatly told reporters he was confident that the ailing Giants offense could be fixed quickly. Said it won't take much time at all.
On Wednesday, Coughlin again made it sound as if what's ailing the Giants besides some slippage in execution is fairly simple. Leaning forward now at the podium, Coughlin smiled at reporters and dropped his voice into a near stage whisper as he said, "The one thing that nobody has picked up on, which is kind of interesting, is you don't get any continuity offensively if you don't get any first downs! We haven't had any first downs in two weeks! Make some first downs!
"You make a first down and you'll have a chance to get some rhythm, get some continuity, get into your play calling. And when you don't have first downs, it's like this, OK? -- like throwing darts at a board."
NFL football isn't really that simple. But a good coach and a good quarterback who work together like Coughlin and Manning can make it seem that way. It feels more jarring when everything doesn't work.
Coughlin was asked now if he can do certain things early in the game just to concentrate on quickly getting some of those first downs he mentioned. Smirking now, he cracked, "Well, everything we have listed to call is to make a first down. And every one is a touchdown by the way, too."
Then he laughed.
Once again, he didn't sound like a coach who is worried his quarterback can't get fixed.
Just a coach who can help.
13hMatt Walks, ESPN.com
22hOhm Youngmisuk and Rich Cimini