- Ian O'Connor, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Tom Coughlin saw the poor kid coming his way, a rookie defensive tackle named Markus Kuhn, and the coach of the New York Giants stepped up to console him. Coughlin had just broken the news to the media -- no, not something he often does -- that Kuhn was done for the season with a torn ACL.
"Sorry, big guy," Coughlin said as the two embraced, as the coach gave the seventh-round pick two hard pats on the back.
"I'll be all right," Kuhn told him.
"You will be all right," Coughlin said. "You will come back better."
"That's right," the rookie said as he disappeared down the hall.
Coughlin, noted tough guy, had just made his first compassionate move of next season, and this back-room, small-picture scene reminded of his big-picture ability to connect with his team on a human level. Last year, with his Giants about to fall apart, with his team in dire need of the pass rush that forever defined it in good times, Coughlin sat down with the battered and beleaguered Justin Tuck and showed him that he cared.
The Giants don't score their second Super Bowl triumph over the New England Patriots in five years without that sit-down, without Coughlin having that man-to-man with Tuck and coaching him right out of the grave.
Can Coughlin do it again this year and find the one player or push the one button that will right the wrongs of his southbound 6-4 team?
"I hope so, and I believe that will happen," Coughlin told ESPNNewYork.com on Monday. "Now, whether there's anything such as [the Tuck meeting] this year, I don't know. I think whether it's an individual or in the groups, I think the message is loud and clear and I think they got it today."
The message of these Giants being good enough to win it all one more time.
"I believe in these guys," Coughlin said, "and I believe they want what I want. It's just frustrating for everybody right now."
The coach was asked if the two Super Bowl titles, one seized despite last season's 7-7 record, inspired his belief in his own ability to lift the Giants above their two-game losing streak and the dispiriting performances of their franchise player, Eli Manning.
"Absolutely," Coughlin said. "I think we'll be able to put ourselves in that frame of mind again, and that we'll get the absolute most out of this team as we go through these next six games."
And there can be no Doubting Thomases doubting Tom. On any subject involving the Giants, Coughlin remains the most credible voice in town.
In 2007, when Giants owner John Mara couldn't stand to watch his 0-2 team by the middle of the third game and when nobody involved in the drafting and (non) development of Manning could stand to watch Manning throw by the middle of the 11th game, Coughlin hung in there with his quarterback, the same guy who would be MVP of Super Bowl XLII.
Last year, when Rex Ryan was blustering about what his Jets were going to do to the Giants on Christmas Eve, Coughlin was doing some actual coaching with Tuck, who finally rose above his injuries and became Justin Tuck again, allowing Manning a chance to become MVP of Super Bowl XLVI.
Monday, Coughlin wasn't only handing out hugs and handshakes and we'll-get-'em-next-times to his players. In his news conference, he described Manning's decision-making against the Cincinnati Bengals as "terrible" and "foolish," words a potential Hall of Fame coach doesn't often speak into a live microphone about his potential Hall of Fame quarterback.
But Coughlin fears no player, no columnist, no talk show host. Even though he's softened over time, Coughlin still projects the same toughness that's allowed him to survive and thrive over nine years in the sport's toughest market.
Go back to the final hours of the 2006 season, right after the Giants lost a first-round playoff game to the Philadelphia Eagles. Knowing just about every opinion-maker present wanted him fired, Coughlin fought for his job in a defiant postgame news conference the same way he would fight for it in subsequent meetings with Mara and Jonathan Tisch.
Not every endangered New York coach is half as passionate as Coughlin was in his own defense. Last March, a month after the Giants' latest parade, Mike D'Antoni bailed on the New York Knicks rather than fight through the problems he was having with his own franchise player, Carmelo Anthony.
"Could you use the word 'resign'?" D'Antoni would ask Jack McCallum in an interview for SI.com. "It hurts when I even hear the word 'quit.'"
It should hurt. D'Antoni wasn't the first guy to find himself overmatched in New York, and he won't be the last, and maybe this go-around with the Los Angeles Lakers and their star-studded egos will end differently for him. But probably not.
Phil Jackson could tell D'Antoni that coaching big teams in big cities isn't for the faint of heart, and Tom Coughlin could tell him more of the same. When Coughlin was wiped out on the sideline in last year's Giants-Jets brawl for it all, a hit that ripped three muscles off his hamstring and nearly sent him into surgery, he refused to do anything but finish the game and force the vanquished Rex Ryan to shake his hand.
The 7-7 Giants were suddenly the 8-7 Giants and on their way to a charmed place. That experience is likely making it difficult for Coughlin to motivate his players, to sell them on the urgency of winning these midseason games, leaving him to answer the same old questions about the same old November fade.
"My standard answer for last year," the coach said, "was it didn't come out too bad."
No, it rarely comes out too bad on Tom Coughlin's watch. So as they headed off for some much needed bye-week R&R, the Giants had reason to embrace the same message Coughlin gave Monday to the poor kid with the torn ACL.
You will be all right. You will come back better.
Even Doubting Thomases can't doubt Coughlin's ability to turn things around.