BALTIMORE – He has worn so many shades of arrogance and disgust, but it was hard to look at Tom Coughlin on Sunday and not feel a twinge of pity. His New York Giants have deceived him for reasons neither he nor they seem to understand. Their last two games are defeats by a combined score of 67-14. Nobody does this to one of his teams, especially at the end of the year, when resolve is always the Giants' top virtue.
You can't scream away this kind of failure. You can't throw the headset, bench a player or point a finger at an intrusive NFL world. Blame sat on the head coach's shoulder and he was willing to accept it. If only he knew why. And that, sadly, sat unanswered in a room made of cinder blocks far beneath M&T Bank Stadium.
"We don't have any momentum going," Coughlin said.
"It wasn't anything to do with scheme," he also said. "I wish it was."
What Coughlin delivered after Sunday's 33-14 defeat to the Baltimore Ravens was a concession speech on the season. The Giants (8-7) aren't officially out of the playoffs, but the team that seemed in control of the NFC East just a month ago needs a lot of help – along the lines of multiple meteors striking NFL stadiums – to make the playoffs. Rather than let those possibilities twist in his mind, he shook his head.
They are done, he appeared to say. But why? This he didn't know.
Sometimes good teams stop winning. There's no great explanation other than everything stops working at once. The Giants didn't appear quite right this fall, even when they were 6-2 and the rest of the NFC East was in disarray. Quarterback Eli Manning never appeared in synch with his receivers. The running game didn't materialize. The defense wasn't as fearsome. Statistics might have masked some of these truths for a time, but the inconsistencies couldn't be disguised forever. And they have manifested themselves these last two weeks.
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What seemed most perplexing for Coughlin is this was always his time. No coach understands the tides of a season, rolling high then receding. His pride comes from the way his players always fight their best in December when so many pretenders shriveled in the heat of the biggest games. This is what happened in 2007 and last year. It is why the talk started in earnest that he deserves a rightful place in the Hall of Fame. Two titles are hard to ignore.
On Sunday, he seemed perplexed as to why it didn't happen on cue. The Giants all but assumed a victory going into this game. They had demolished the Saints just two weeks before and were prepared to believe a 34-0 loss at Atlanta last week was a mirage. To learn it wasn't, was heartbreaking for him.
He talked about this game last year, the next-to-last of the season when Victor Cruz had the 99-yard touchdown against the Jets. He called that "a great spark." He wondered why this year's great spark didn't happen.
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"I wouldn't even try to explain it," he said of the difference between this year and last before doing exactly that.
"Emotionally, I probably don't have the wherewithal to do that. You fight your whole year, literally from the time one year ends to the next. All your sights are on getting [into the playoffs]. You can't make a mark for your team unless you get in it. We fought so long and fought so hard. We had our ups and downs. We were sitting where we could determine our own fate and we let that get away from us.
"It's very disappointing."
Since the roster hasn't changed enough from the players who were essential to last season's championship, the answer has to lie in desire. It's not as if the league has discovered a secret way to beat the Giants. They didn't suddenly get bad. The NFC East has gotten better in a matter of weeks. Washington has discovered the playmakers it forever lacked and Dallas has finally found internal leadership. But the improvement in Washington and Dallas does not explain 34-0 and 33-14 losses to Atlanta and Baltimore.
In a game built so much on emotion, the team that won Decembers with will doesn't have the same ability to seize games. On Sunday this realization gnawed at Coughlin's gut.
"We talk a lot about playing above the X's and O's, but we're flat-lining right now," he said. "We're not playing anywhere near the kind of execution we want."
In the locker room behind him, the Giants players offered similar testimonials of shock. But they are also football players, often oblivious to the emotions that coaches can sense.
"You saw the scoreboard, it wasn't real pretty but that's what can happen in football," Manning said.
"Whether [passion] is there or not, it really doesn't matter," safety Antrel Rolle said. "We're not successful in going out there and winning games."
They dressed fast and headed into the chilly December night. One last game looms, a Hail Mary for the postseason. The Giants left knowing their season will soon be over despite enough talent to make a run at the Super Bowl.
Walking out with them was the man who always seemed to will victories on late-season nights like this one.
The fact he suddenly couldn't made him look something he rarely has been.
Lost and confused.
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