EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – The new Tom Coughlin, the coach who is supposed to be more open, congenial and warm this season, had an interesting message for his New York Giants this week.
Shut up and play.
OK, the message wasn't quite that abrupt. It wasn't far removed, either.
On Wednesday, as the Giants started a three-day mini-camp, Coughlin was amped to the point of being downright convivial. He addressed a group of about 40 reporters and other assorted media and was even a little light-hearted and self-deprecating.
Of course, that's what the offseason will do for most NFL coaches. With no losses and no games to prepare for, this is the time for joy. So when a reporter grooved a couple of questions to Coughlin about what he expects from his team, Coughlin jumped on them.
"I'm glad you asked me that question," Coughlin said. "Because what we would really like to do – and I've talked to our team about it – is to do our playing on the field and let our playing do our talking for us and not spend so much time trying to explain who we are, where we are. Let's just play the game. Talk is cheap. Let's play the game. I would like it to stay that way."
It's a nice wish from Coughlin, who is headed into a make-or-break year as far as his employment with the Giants goes. It's also impossible to disagree with, even with the memory still fresh of easy-speaking running back Tiki Barber and his verbal assaults on Coughlin.
"Yeah, we need to do less talking about what we're going to be and just do it," defensive end Michael Strahan said in a statement that was repeated by plenty of teammates.
Moreover, the Giants will need every bit of concentration on the job if they hope to make a playoff run.
This is a seriously flawed team. Sure, there are a few interesting names on the roster, like Strahan, quarterback Eli Manning and tight end Jeremy Shockey. Enough that if everyone came back healthy and had a career-type season (especially Manning), the playoffs could be had.
The more likely scenario is less appealing. Questions about left tackle, aging veterans Strahan and wide receiver Amani Toomer (who both missed most of last season with injuries), the lack of a top replacement for Barber, a weak secondary and, most of all, Manning's inconsistency, give the Giants the look of a team that could struggle.
And struggle in a public, ugly way. Consider what management did with Coughlin in January. In an effort to make it appear the coach wasn't a lame duck as the Giants waited to get into the Big Bills Sweepstakes (both Cowher and Belichick could be available at the end of the year), Coughlin was given a one-year extension through 2008.
Coughlin was told to show his warm side, lighten up with the media and with the players. Go from his dour self – Coughlin often sounds like some tragic character born of the combined minds of Eugene O’Neill and Arthur Miller – to something more approachable.
At the first sign of trouble this season, look for the players to point the finger at Coughlin's attitude, fair or not. Why shouldn't they if management has already said Coughlin has issues?
Look for Manning to tune out Coughlin the way he appeared to at the end of last season. Manning isn't much for mentors as it is, let alone ones who demand and berate the way Coughlin did last season.
Manning is talented, but he's not particularly focused on the process or what people have to say. Last year, the more Coughlin demanded, the worse Manning played.
Now, Manning has a built-in excuse. It's a lame excuse, a destructive excuse and, most of all, an unfair excuse to Coughlin.
That's because 60-year-old men don't change and they shouldn't have to. Coughlin didn't get to this point in his career because he's a bad coach or an evil person.
Sure, he's harsh and stridently disciplined. But those aren't bad qualities if dealt with in proper fashion. And again, it's not going to change for Coughlin. In the face of emotional strife, which is what a football season is all about, he will be that way again. He proved that Wednesday.
After talking to the media, Coughlin was approached by a reporter who had written something quasi-controversial about Coughlin earlier this offseason. The new Coughlin disappeared.
He shut up and refused to play along with the reporter.