PITTSBURGH – They came at him in waves through the years, one test of his authority after another. One test of wills after the next. Tom Coughlin has a way he will run the New York Giants and it isn't for the uncommitted.
"There (are) rules and regulations of the team," he said.
Over the past five years he's won every last battle. He either changed a player's mind or he changed their address. It's the eventual result for Plaxico Burress too, the final prima donna in his reconstruction of the Giants.
Coughlin's crew won the Super Bowl last season, yet this team, 6-1 after a stirring, come-from-behind, 21-14 victory against the Pittsburgh Steelers, may be his most perfect incarnation.
He's gotten rid of the "me-first" players who can kill chemistry. He's found a way to go without colorful stars, even if they were likable. Tiki, Shockey, Strahan and all the rest are gone. The Giants' locker room now consists of mostly like-minded winners who can be described as downright boring, starting with the anti-Broadway Joe calling snaps.
These Giants are about winning football games and little else. To do that they know it requires 60 minutes of not just effort but patience and confidence.
This should've been a classic road disaster. There was Burress getting benched to start the game for missing a medical treatment session Saturday. There were big-play mishaps on defense and red-zone failures on offense. There were injuries and penalties and all those yellow towels twirling in the stands.
It was a game where even good teams fumble and fold. But New York just kept churning. It upped the pressure late and broke the Steelers' resolve so much that the Heinz Field stands were half empty even as Pittsburgh had two minutes and the ball to tie the score.
"The collective will was greater on our side," said defensive end Justin Tuck.
There is no greater compliment to the coach. Coughlin is all about collective will. He's got a bruising club, intensely physical even by NFL standards. For 60 minutes it battered the Steelers, sending a stream of players to the sideline, right down to the long snapper.
Its ferocious front four dominated, especially late. Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger dropped back to pass 34 times. He was sacked on five of them, knocked down on 16 others and threw four interceptions.
And yet none of that is equal to the Giants' mental toughness.
"We hung in there," Coughlin said. "That's the best thing about this group. They're a tough group, they stayed together, they hung together in difficult times and found a way to win it in the fourth quarter."
Post game, the New York media crowded around Burress, looking for details of the latest episode in a season-long soap opera that's seen the player fined over $45,000, receive a one-game suspension and now an early-game benching.
Burress had no good explanation for missing an injury treatment Saturday that sent Coughlin off.
Perhaps none was needed. The other 52 players didn't seem to care. A few said they didn't even know he had been benched to start the game. ("I didn't know anything about it at first," said defensive tackle Barry Cofield). Others just shrugged without concern ("Things are good," wideout Amani Toomer said. "We're pretty happy.")
Coughlin has a team now that backs him. It isn't going to be cracked by a single diva. Those days are over.
"He definitely has got the team where he wants it," Toomer said.
"It's kind of infectious in this entire organization," Tuck said.
No offense to undefeated Tennessee or anyone else, but the Giants are the best team in the NFL. They're not just the reigning champions, but the favorites to repeat. The reason is the ability to shake off any hint of a post-championship hangover (which strikes particularly hard in New York).
Coughlin needs to tame one last personality to make it a dream team. If he can't, no one seems too worried about it.
"We've got so much confidence in whoever shows up," Tuck said. "We don't really feel like one guy, regardless of who it is, is going to break our season."
Coughlin has always had the reputation as an unbending disciplinarian. Even by NFL coaching standards, he's unflappable and focused. This is a guy who was oblivious to that legendary Lambeau wind burn he took in the NFC title game.
He supposedly lightened up a year ago, but that coincided with the shifting fortunes on the team. He didn't need to be as tough.
Now, save Burress, he only needs to guide the ship.
Coughlin said he wasn't worried the benching would affect the team. He said he couldn't imagine finger-pointing when three initial drives that reached "goal to go" status resulted in a meager six points.
Those are other people's issues.
"I wasn't worried as much about the frustration as I was trying to find a way to get the ball in the end zone," Coughlin said.
It was the clear mind that comes from a cleaned house. One season after the Giants' surprise Super Bowl run, the team Tom Coughlin has been working toward has almost arrived.
- Tom Coughlin