Commentary

Trust in Tom Coughlin to save season

Giants' coach, known to turn impossible into possible, can lead Blue out of 0-4 hole

Updated: October 3, 2013, 10:02 PM ET
By Ian O'Connor | ESPNNewYork.com

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- They are handing out contract extensions at a dizzying pace in New York, where Terry Collins landed a new two-year deal, Mike Woodson cashed in on a one-year team option, and Joe Girardi compelled the Yankees to offer him a raise far healthier than his roster. Combined, these three men have claimed one championship (Girardi's), or one shy of the total delivered by the head coach of the Giants, Tom Coughlin, who somehow has less job security than them all.

Coughlin isn't just the leader of an 0-4 team. He's the 67-year-old leader of an 0-4 team who has one year left on a contract with a franchise that doesn't like its coaches to enter the final year of their deals. In other words, at season's end, the Giants will either offer Coughlin a one-year extension (the most likely scenario), or, if this 0-4 turns into an ungodly 4-12, they might quietly ask their man to retire (not out of the question, though it should be).

Only no matter what happens between Sunday's game with the Philadelphia Eagles and a MetLife Stadium Super Bowl that appears destined to be played without a home-sweet-home team, this much is certain: If any NFL coach can save the Giants from themselves, it's the oldest coach in the league. Coughlin. The same man who won a championship out of what was nearly an 0-3 hole in 2007, and who won a second four years later despite carrying a 7-7 sack full of misfit toys into Christmas Eve.

[+] EnlargeTom Coughlin
AP Photo/Ed ZurgaTom Coughlin knows the Giants have turned the season around before. But will they do it again?

"Certainly it does [give you confidence], because we've had these situations before," Coughlin told ESPNNewYork.com on Thursday. "I've always believed you stay with the grindstone. You persevere. Adversity does make you stronger. I believe in all of those things."

Yes, Coughlin is a hopeless Old Schooler, an apostle of the two greatest coaches of them all, Vince Lombardi and John Wooden. So sometimes it sounds like he's stealing material from one of their real or imagined pep talks, or lifting pages out of some old four-star general's diary.

But in assessing the damage done by four weeks of wretched football, and in sounding hopeful of a turnaround to come, Coughlin does speak with two improbable rings' worth of credibility.

"We've done it before," he said in a quiet moment after Thursday's practice, "and we've done it in ways that a lot of times no one even recognized what we were doing. But the players know full well where I'm coming from, that I'm striving always to put them in a position where they can win, and to be the very best that they can be. So they know and they rely and they depend on that.

"I'm also the one who tries to keep them in a good spin. I want the positive. I don't hide anything on Sunday and Monday from what happened in the game, but by the same token, I'm trying to lift them up, and they know they can expect that from me."

Lift them up? In his early years in Jacksonville, and later with the Giants, Coughlin was known as something of a despot, an unforgiving coach who wore down his players in film session after film session, drill after drill.

Yet after Victor Cruz felt emboldened enough (perhaps by his new contract) to question the play calling during the Giants' devastating loss in Kansas City, Coughlin playfully challenged the receiver to a fight in a team meeting, a good-humor move that shows how far the coach has come. When he was publicly challenged by Tiki Barber in the bad old days, Coughlin responded by twice calling Barber into his office to demand an explanation and to show the running back tapes of his own mistakes. Two Super Bowl triumphs over Bill Belichick and Tom Brady can do a lot for a man's perspective.

Asked Thursday if he likely would've had a darker reaction to an 0-4 team as a younger coach, Coughlin said, "I have learned over time those types of things by spending time with a good group of young men, which has been my experience here. I think the word that I've tried to understand a little bit more about is patience. I'm trying to be a more patient person with a regard to all the buttons you need to push.

"Having said that, it is time. We all know it is time."

It's time for the Giants to be the Giants, and for Eli Manning to be Eli Manning. The offensive line, a line that comes across as a victim of the government shutdown, has to give Eli a break. The pass rush that helped Eli beat the New England Patriots in two Super Bowls has to get a hand or two on Michael Vick, even if Jason Pierre-Paul is hurting and Justin Tuck is looking old enough to be a Yankee.

"We just have to make something happen on the field," Coughlin said. "We've had so few opportunities to express ourselves, especially in the second half. Three of the four games, with a few minutes left in the third quarter, we're right in it, and then we don't take over the ballgame.

"We need to play a complete game. We haven't played a complete game around here yet, and we need to get some continuity going."

Or else? Well, not quite. Last summer, Coughlin said he could see himself coaching into his 70s. He still starts his days at quarter to five in the morn, sleeping in until 6 a.m. on gameday, and still maintains he has the same energy and passion for the fight.

Coughlin is also working on eight consecutive non-losing seasons, so no matter where this 0-4 is heading, he's earned the right to dictate the terms of his departure. At the close of 2006, I was among those who called for his job (wrongly, as it turned out), and among those who believed Coughlin would never alter his draconian approach enough to make the necessary human connection with his team (wrong again). John Mara, team co-owner, decided against firing the coach after he pledged to make the kinder, gentler adjustments that ultimately helped the Giants win the Super Bowl the following year.

The second title sealed the deal. And now the Giants' owners can rest easy knowing that even if they extended Coughlin through the 2015 season, they wouldn't have to worry about him hanging on for the extra payday. He's going to retire the moment his heart tells him to, even if that means leaving $7 million on the table.

But for now, Coughlin isn't thinking about his contract, or retirement, or anything but finding a way to finally win a football game in a division, the NFC East, that ultimately might crown its winner at 8-8. He knows he's a much better coach and communicator than he was when he first took this job -- "I don't think there's any doubt about that, because of what we've gone through together," he said -– so players and fans alike should understand that the Giant who grew up in Waterloo, N.Y. hasn't met his Waterloo just yet.

If Tom Coughlin fails to save the 2013 Giants, it only means that no coach could save them.

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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