Coughlin’s confidence inspired Giants’ turnaround
Tom Coughlin’s New York Giants had just fallen to 7-7 courtesy of an ugly loss to Washington. His boss was already on record as being tired of these late-season collapses. His contract, and thus his 16-year NFL head coaching career, was about to expire. The fans were killing him. The media was only slightly better. The New York Jets were up next and, of course, barking non-stop.
So what adjustments did Tom Coughlin make to save everything?
Instead, in the depths of December, Coughlin met with his team and quickly pointed out the simple truth: They still controlled their own chance at the playoffs.
He didn’t need to say he still believed they could get there; he just moved on to the game plan. His confidence was implied and impossible to miss.
“He always does that,” said offensive lineman Kevin Boothe. “He never wavers.”
Leave it to the oldest coach in the NFL, 65 years strong, to find the patience to stay the course.
Leave it to Tom Coughlin to have the wisdom to see the possibilities in front even if the back pages had him fired.
Leave it to Coughlin, an unbeaten month later, to stand in a cramped interview room at Lambeau Field after just torching the Green Bay Packers 37-20, and convey the same unapologetic faith in his guys.
“We’re a dangerous team,” he said.
In Coughlin’s eyes, they were always a dangerous team. He loved this group. Loved the steady, experienced play of Eli Manning at quarterback. Loved the two-back attack of Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs. Loved the versatile defense and the brutish line that’s been his team’s signature in New York.
He loved them when they started 6-2. He loved them when they slumped on a 1-5 streak.
And after all those years of coaching, he knew to trust what he loved and believe in what he saw. He’d been given a one-year contract extension last offseason and the implication was obvious, playoffs or bust.
Rather than panic in the face of being fired, he just reminded the players that there was no need to worry.
“The important thing was we were never out of it,” Boothe said. “As bad as things were we never lost control of our destiny. I think that was the thing that he focused on. It wasn’t negative. He said, ‘just continue to win games and put ourselves in the playoffs. The easiest way to get to the playoffs is to keep winning.’”
Now here comes Sunday’s NFC championship at San Francisco. There is no lack of respect for the 49ers here, but there is also no one in Big Blue that doesn’t expect to win. That’s just the way they are.
It’ll be the same if they reach the Super Bowl in Indianapolis, where they probably dream of ruining the New England Patriots again. It’s the Giants way.
This is the steady hand that Coughlin delivers and yes, when things are unwinding, it can be infuriating to watch. He’s famous for his my-way-only attitude, which has caused innumerable clashes through the years.
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It can also deliver the calm in the middle of the storm that, when you have the proper group of professionals in place, is all that’s required.
How did the Giants suddenly start playing so well?
“I think that we started to believe and trust in each other,” Coughlin said. “And I think our defensive people got together and decided they were better than the way we had been playing.
“And we got some guys back. [Justin] Tuck was back. Osi [Umenyiora] was back and playing hard. And I think they were just excited about having a good portion of our defensive team playing together.
“And then we had success,” he continued. “Success breeds confidence and they are a pretty confident group.”
It all seems so simple now. It all seems so easy. Of course the coach should trust all this talent. Of course he should believe in this perfect blend of been-there veterans and excitable young guys. Of course he should know they’d have the internal pride to step up and prove they were capable of, well, everything.
At that moment however, just one win in a month and a half, it took a world of courage.
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Coughlin knew the stakes. In July, CEO John Mara had given him a one-year win-now deal after the Giants fell apart down the stretch the past two seasons. During the losing streak Mara hadn’t even bothered with a pointless vote of confidence.
Coughlin had delivered that epic Super Bowl triumph over the 18-0 Patriots three seasons back but the Giants hadn’t won a single playoff game under him before or since the ’07 campaign. There’s only so much time even a world championship can buy.
NFL coaching is a young man’s game (if he does it this year, Coughlin would be the oldest coach to ever win a Super Bowl and he’d beat Dick Vermeil by over two years.). If he was fired, the odds were small he’d ever get another shot to be a head coach.
So this was it, now or never for Tom Coughlin.
If he was worried, the players said it never showed.
As the seconds wound down Sunday, shocked Packers fans shuffled out of Lambeau and Manning took a series of victory knees. Justin Tuck walked over to Coughlin, threw a big arm around his shoulder and offered the slightest of hugs. The game plan, Tuck would later say, had been perfect.
“Congratulations,” Tuck said he told his resurrected coach.
Coughlin didn’t say much back. He didn’t need to.
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