Here's how one Jacksonville Jaguars player summed up the tenure of former coach Tom Coughlin:
"When things get rough, you can only take his [expletive] for so long."
It's an interesting thought, especially now that Coughlin is in New York and his Giants seem to have gone through the first of what will likely be many love-hate cycles. The season is about two months old, and Coughlin has already gone from "jerk" (as Fox analyst Terry Bradshaw opined) to genius. How long he keeps the latter title, well, check back after the 4-2 Giants play Minnesota this week.
You see, there is a reality about this marriage. Even in good times, we still can't help but question how long the winning, not to mention the Coughlin-Giants nuptial, is destined to last.
Forget the gushing reviews after the unexpected start. After all, we've seen this act before in East Rutherford. In 1993, Dan Reeves took over for Ray Handley and went 11-5 in his first season. We saw it again when Jim Fassel took over for the floundering Reeves in 1996 and went 10-5-1 to win the NFL's Coach of the Year award.
But there is a fundamental difference this time. Reeves and Fassel were slow to inflict internal turmoil during their New York regimes. Coughlin? He's been stripping tread off the tires on an almost weekly basis. And here's the kicker: Until the Giants experience losing under Coughlin, the hard part hasn't started yet.
Consider Sunday's microcosm. With the Giants riding high as one of the NFL's biggest surprises at 4-1, Coughlin made the uncharacteristic move of giving his players a day off during the bye week. Despite the time off, outside linebacker Barrett Green showed up extremely late for a meeting and lost his starting position. Green, who was considered a key free agent acquisition in the offseason, played only on special teams Sunday.
The Giants lost at home to Detroit, 28-13.
"We took some things for granted, started to feel a little full of ourselves," Coughlin said afterward. "We didn't prepare properly.
"We didn't really listen last week. We had the thing all figured out. We didn't prepare the way we should prepare, and it was very obvious by the way we played."
To which Giants defensive end Michael Strahan responded: "If that's what he told you, then that's what he saw. Write it."
Not exactly a ringing endorsement of Coughlin's criticism. And not exactly the pie-in-the-sky feeling surrounding the team anymore.
Coughlin's rules, while much publicized, haven't been as grinding as his droning nature. The problem is not that his watch runs five minutes fast, or that he wants players to wear suits on the team plane, or even the minutia of not allowing players to sit with their legs crossed during team meetings. The problem is that some Giants players see him as cold and unemotional, which is a common complaint among his previous players. One poll of players taken by Sports Illustrated listed Coughlin as the NFL's worst coach. This is a coach who took an expansion Jaguars team to the AFC championship game in its second year.
Reasoned one former player: "If you have a coach and he doesn't have no bond or anything to you, how are you going to act when he calls you out? You're going to hate him."
There have been the early problems, such as the complaints to the NFLPA about Coughlin running practices too long or levying unfair fines. The most striking punishment were the fines Coughlin handed out to four players for being two minutes early for a team meeting, rather than five minutes early. The protests were glossed over by the impressive start, but resentment clearly remains.
To be fair, the team has righted itself under Coughlin's guidance. But the "discipline" soundtrack has been vastly overplayed. While the iron-fist theatrics have become the most visible part of Coughlin regime, it's the restructuring that has made the Giants competitive. In fact, five developments have made most of the difference. And they have very little to do with Coughlin's drill-sergeant routine.
- Volatile quarterback Kerry Collins was ditched and the Giants gambled on Kurt Warner despite having No. 1 pick Eli Manning in the fold. But the brilliance of the move was signing Warner to a two-year contract with incentive clauses offering him the opportunity to become a free agent in the coming offseason. That gives Warner what amounts to a one-year stage to showcase his talent and allows Manning the needed time to adjust to the NFL.
- When Coughlin took over, the first thing he discussed with running back Tiki Barber was how to hold the football. Running backs coach Jerald Ingram also insisted Barber gain more strength in his upper body. Since the season started, Barber has been locking the ball vertically against his pectoral muscles whenever he gets into the open field. He has yet to surrender a fumble this season.
Last season's offensive line – the worst in the league – was torn apart and reshuffled. At the guard positions, Jason Whittle was acquired from Tampa Bay in a trade and Chris Snee was drafted. Center Shaun O'Hara was signed from Cleveland in free agency. Two holdovers remain: left tackle Luke Petitgout, who missed five games last year with a back injury, and right tackle David Diehl, who played right guard last year.
- While most of the core pieces have remained, more than 50 percent of last season's 4-12 roster was turned over. That included eight new starters on defense, which has been working well under new coordinator Tim Lewis. Incorporating new looks such as the zone blitz and some 3-4 fronts, the Giants boast an NFL-best turnover differential of plus-11.
- On the health front, the Giants have yet to encounter the kinds of injuries they suffered through last season. While it was popular to blame Fassel for the team falling apart, the Giants had key players banged up – Collins, Petitgout, tight end Jeremy Shockey and cornerbacks Will Allen and William Peterson. That hasn't been the case this year.
Now comes the hard part: The inevitable struggles. The Giants' four wins have come at the expense of mediocre teams with a combined 10-16 record. They play Minnesota on Sunday and face the prospect of consecutive losses. Plus, there is the looming question of Eli Manning. As general manager Ernie Accorsi has said, the team won't feel pressure to play Manning as long as the Giants are winning. On the flip side, Manning will be the starter in 2005 no matter what, and considering the difficulties that have transpired with Cincinnati and Carson Palmer, it would benefit the Giants to get Manning starting time. That alone could bring everything to a head.
"I'm hoping that this year continues to progress the way that it has and that I'm the starter for this season," Warner said last week. "We'll address the situation when the season is over and see what direction the organization wants to go. Right now, my whole mindset is being the starter, playing for this team and being successful."
Read between the lines, and you'll see a man who knows his direction is less than certain. Then again, Warner is not alone.
Uncertainty doesn't seem to be such an uncommon thread for the rest of the New York Giants, either.
- Tom Coughlin