Keidel: Tom Coughlin’s Last Call?

By Jason Keidel
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Even when he was a young man, Tom Coughlin had the façade of an old man. His face, eternally red from stalking a thousand sidelines, marching into countless winter winds, never smiled.

And though his vocation revolves around a game Coughlin always carries himself like a serious man, with all the levity of a librarian. Simply, he’s never seemed to enjoy his job. And this season has surely accelerated the aging process.

Yesterday’s game against Green Bay, if not this entire season, is seen as a referendum on Coughlin’s coaching. Beating the unbeaten Patriots can’t be removed, but it can no longer add years to Coughlin’s career. There have been many references to Coughlin’s age (65), positing that once he qualified for Medicare he was disqualified from roaming and ruling the Meadowlands.

But his age is only a concern because he’s not winning. Marv Levy wasn’t too old when he was leading the Bills to four straight Super Bowls. Jack McKeon wasn’t too old when this Marlins won the World Series. Casey Stengel was just a pup at 68, when the Yankees beat the Braves in Game 7 of the 1958 World Series, but he was suddenly ancient 24 months later, when he lost Game 7 to the Pirates. After Mazeroski’s heartbreaking homer and Stengel’s subsequent firing, The Old Professor famously declared he’d never make the mistake of turning 70 again. It was a very poignant poke at his bosses.

But Tom Coughlin’s problem isn’t his physical limitations, but rather the widening, metaphysical fissure between an old man with old-school tenets and his key-demo defense. His words don’t seem to reach or match the nouveaux parlance of his players. We can’t say exactly when he stopped talking in a way for his wayward athletes to understand, but it seems pretty evident that Coughlin can’t snap his classroom to attention as he used to.

All week the word was that Perry Fewell fueled his defense with stern words, pep talks and volcanic admonitions, ranting and raving at a team that has teetered all year, symbolized by their wretched performance in New Orleans. And yesterday the Giants played a perfect team, stride-for-stride, until the very end, falling just short when they couldn’t afford to. They were betrayed by Fewell’s defense, which, ultimately, is Coughlin’s defense.

Eli Manning, who has been the lone giant on the Giants this season, led a remarkable drive to tie the game with less than a minute left in regulation. With the crowd, momentum and mojo on their side, the defense was given the simple task of holding the Packers for 58 seconds and force the game into overtime, where the Giants surely would have had the edge.

Aaron Rodgers, as is his will and wont, calmly and surgically sliced the Giants secondary in three plays, kicked a field goal, and perhaps booted Big Blue from the playoffs. All the permutations indicate the Giants are quite alive and kicking in the postseason hunt. But, as their former and best coach, Bill Parcells, famously asserted, you are what your record says you are.

And there’s no indication that the Giants (6-6) will defeat Dallas twice and resurrect and replicate their resplendent run in 2007. That was a different team, time, and coach. Everyone looks a little older and slower in 2011. The tandem of Mother Nature and Father Time has taught the Giants that even miracles require a little participation.

Some will draw parallels between last night and the gripping game against New England in 2007, when both teams played ravenously while neither needed to. But the Giants had already procured a playoff spot entering that contest, and perhaps they thought it was practice, a prelude to a Super Bowl rematch a month later.

Now you have a 6-6 team on a four-game losing streak, scoreboard watching, and extending a perilous pattern under Coughlin, who, as Giants coach, is 47-17 during the first half of the season yet just 24-36 in the second half.

Losing nobly to the Packers wasn’t the best occurrence for the Giants. Jay Cutler’s busted thumb and Atlanta’s loss to Houston did far more to feed their playoff hopes. But championship teams don’t pin their hopes on another team’s scoreboard. This isn’t 2007, nor does it feel like it.

Think about the deluded rationale that your team wins when it loses, and taking solace from the fact that the Giants have much company in mediocrity. Do you think the Packers wonder how other teams are playing? How about New Orleans, San Francisco, New England, Baltimore, and Pittsburgh? Tim Tebow, whose throwing motion makes Charles Barkley’s golf swing look like Van Gogh’s Irises, wins because he hates losing. The Giants don’t have to win anymore, losing their allergy to defeat, and now leaning on the ghosts of 2007. Or maybe they’re just not any good. Or maybe both.

The Giants scored 35 points against the undefeated, defending world champions – more than enough to win – and lost. What more do you need to know? Most agree that defense wins championships, and the Giants’ defense is indefensible, indifferent, and inexcusable.

One of the most nauseating sports cliches is, “We control our destiny.” Not just because it’s an oxymoron (destiny is a predetermined course of events beyond human power or control), but also because it’s a defeatist’s mantra. When you win you need no scripted platitudes or corporate codas scrawled across the blackboard. The Giants are lost, and the fact that most teams are also lost shouldn’t make you feel better about yours.

Yesterday was nearly nirvana for New York. Instead the Giants and their fans cling to tattered threads like moral victories, speaking in a cheerful but callow cadence. Almost winning is not winning. It’s not a language New Yorkers speak.

The calendar isn’t Tom Coughlin’s enemy. The man knows his trade as well as anyone in the sport. The game hasn’t passed him by.

His team has.

Feel free to email me:

Do you think Coughlin has lost the Giants? Be heard in the comments below…

  • CJH

    I think what Jason’s article is about is what we in the military call “command climate”. It’s a leadership issue – we’re not just losing battles here; we’re losing the war. And when that starts to happen you change leadership, if only to shake things up and instill a different attitude about winning and losing.

    It’s the job of the front office to field a championsip caliber team – by and large, they have delivered. It’s the job of the coaching staff to get that team to perform consistently and commensurate to the the quality of its players – by and large, over the past three years, Coughlin & Co. haven’t done that. When a team continuously underperforms to the level of expectations that team sets for itself, then you have a leadership problem. And that starts at the top.

    I like Coughlin, too. But sometimes it’s just time to go.

    • JK

      Bravo, CJH!

      I enlisted in the 1980s, so my military lexicon lacks a little depth. But you nailed my sentiment. Coughlin was a fine coach when they won the Super Bowl, and he still has a fine football mind despite not winning one playoff game since 2007.

      We need to at least try to be objective, and hence if the coach gets the love when they win he must accept the loathing when they lose. His team is 6-6 and have lost 4 straight at the worst time. His defense hemorrhages yards and points, and we all hear the background bickering from his players. Simply, the Giants are a mess.

      At the risk of redundancy, far better coaches than Coughlin have lost their team’s attention. It’s not an indictment of Tom’s terrific career. Age is an issue. Not his actual age, but the stage of his tenure. A new face in the place is in order, even if his missives resemble Coughlin’s sermons.

      As a species, we have a tendency to project pristine qualities on people we admire, which is natural. But when the worship becomes warped, we are unable to understand facts.

      No matter the age or wage, our heroes get old and die. And sometimes we discover that they were never heroic. As adults we should understand that. Yet too many adults are acting like children. There’s no better example than Paterno’s apologists, who still defend the disgraced coach despite his stagnation in stopping Sandusky.

  • Ralph Masi

    Jason, I think one has to be careful before leaving Manning blameless, too. He makes, and made last night, great throws — but consistently manages to take his team out of games; less now than in years past, granted, but againt, Phila — and haviing no awareness of his peril once he left the pocket before his fumble — and then against N.O., and the end zone INT, and then last night, clueless that Mathews could, and would jump a route like that… one bad play or two, every single game, has just as much of a knack for collapsing a team’s chances as a blown coverage.

    Speaking of which, this defense, since the playoff loss to Phila after a 12-4 season in January 2009, has looked old, slow, and lifeless — against strong teams. It dominates wek teams. And maybe they are just that — old, slow, and lifeless. I’m afraid that Rodgers would have done it last night with just 38.. or 28.. or 18 seconds, left.

    I see, and have seen since SF, a 6-10 or, 7-9 season. The SF game was the indicator — out-posessing SF 35:25 and somehow NEVER controlling the game. Dallas cannot WAIT to see the Giants’ secondary, and Romo moves even better than Rodgers. thanks, Ralph Masi

    • JK

      I dig it, Ralph, but I think Eli is the least of your problems. He completes 62.5 percent of his passes, has thrown 23 TD and 11 INT, with a tidy, 96.0 QB rating. In fact, I’d say he’s the team’s MVP. Would you agree?

      Manning is 66-49 over his career, including a Super Bowl MVP. While he’s certainly flawed, I think most teams would take that from their QB over the last seven or so years.

      You mention Rodgers, but he’s in his own stratosphere. It’s unfair to compare Eli – or anyone – to Aaron right now. If we’re looking for villains, I’d point directly at defense. When you drop 35 points on the Packers, you should win.

      Regardless, thanks for reading and responding. Much appreciated, sir.

      • Ralph Masi

        Thanks JK — agree, and were it not **for**such a weak defense, Manning too would be enjoying MVP hype. There’s definitely something systemic at work here — and it was most noticeable against the Eagles last DEC; 28 points in 7 minutes. Simply put, it was the inability to get a critical stop — ANY stop. Imagine if they had: Giants win the NFC East, Eagles the Wild Card instead of the Packers, and the whole landscape shifts.

        It showed again against the Eagles two weeks ago, this inability to get a critical stop, and, yesterday. And, it seems to appear, this persistent inability does, in the 2nd half; tired, banged up D-line, with no depth / ability to rotate linemen on-off? Resulting inability of 2nd-rate LBs to pick up the slack? DBs who, without intense pass-rush pressure, don’t scare anybody? Both sacks and, INTs, the past three seasons appear to’ve been front-loaded. This is a stat worth cheking out — anyway, thanks gain Jason // R m

    • Jonas A-K

      I agree with you on putting some blame on Manning and the defense, though much more so on the defense. The long and short of it is that despite the good overall stats that Jason listed, Manning still has had a couple of late-game lapses that have contributed to close and inexcusable losses. However, if the defense could learn to even play during the second half of a game and maybe contain a drive or two – especially on third and fourth down – then Manning wouldn’t have nearly enough pressure on him.

      • JK

        I can’t think of any Giant who’s had a better season than Manning. If you’re making an argument for another player, Jonas, let’s hear it. I really can’t think of anyone.

        • Jonas A-K

          I’m not arguing for anyone else – there is no doubt that Manning’s been the team’s MVP this year. I’m just saying that it’s easy to look at his late-game misplays during this slide if you want a culprit. Personally, I think it’s all the defense’s fault, because if they were able to do anything late in the game, three of these losses might not have happened.

  • Jonas A-K

    Great article, Jason. The Giants have now let us down four weeks in a row and it’s been awful tough to find silver linings. The loss to the 49ers was one thing; the blowout loss to Seattle sandwiched by really poorly played close losses to the Eagles and the Packers were just downright demoralizing. In each, encouraging gains were immediately followed by stabbing fans in the hearts, showing that this Giants team is not ready to play a full 60 minutes of any sort of consequence. Coughlin has been a fine coach, but as you brilliantly put it, “Coughlin can’t snap his classroom to attention as he used to.” Just like with Terry Francona and the Red Sox, it might be time for a change, if only to try to light a different fire under the Giants’ behinds.

    • JMS

      This team’s too talented to be 6-6 and as much as i hate to say it, some of that has to land on coughlin.

      • JK

        Why do you hate to say it, JMS? If Coughlin gets kudos for 2007, surely he shares the blame for 6-6. When you score 35 points, it’s rather reasonable to expect a win, at home, with so much at stake. If they hold Rodgers for just 58 seconds, the Giants win that game in overtime. (A supposition, of course, but the Giants had the momentum after the 2-point conversion.)

        Had the Giants won their prior three games, then you can extract moral imperatives after a loss, by three points, to a fine franchise and transcendent quarterback. But 6-6 with a 4-game slide stretching into December, the Giants are a very average club. Luckily, for them, no one else is stampeding toward the wild card.

        No matter the heft of the head coach, he eventually loses his grip on his team. It happened to Noll, Landry, and Shula – far more accomplished coaches than Coughlin. Tom’s had a splendid career. As incongruous as it sounds, you can celebrate his contributions even as he’s fired.

        • JMS

          I hate to say it b/c I’ve always liked coach c. and what he’s stood for. I hate to say it b/c finding a replacement for him that will offer the same level of accomplishment and stability is no easy task. unfortunately, however, these giants are not a self motivated bunch and the inconsistant effort we’ve seen out of them the last 2 years indicates to me that old school coaches like coughlin who refuse to pander to the players and expects them to act like the professionals they’re paid to be are on the verge of extinction. for my part, that’s too bad b/c he’s still as good an X and O coach as there is out there.

  • Tim

    Eh …

    If they beat Dallas twice and win the division, and win a game in the playoffs, Coughlin will be back. It’s more than possible.

    • JK

      I’d say it’s possible, Tim, but not probable. Even a jaded Giants fan must acknowledge that a 6-6 team, stuck in the muck of a 4-game slide, hardly looks like a Super Bowl contender.

      I dig the notion that it’s not over until it’s over, but I find little solace in losses. The Giants just had to contain Rodgers for 58 seconds, and they didn’t.

  • nathan

    Last week I thought the team had stopped listening. After last nite Im not so sure. We will find out in the next month. They know they are playing for TC’s job. We’ll see how much difference that makes.

    • JK

      I dig your point, nathan. And had the Giants won three straight entering last night’s contest, then I’d be exponentially more optimistic. But you’re talking about a loss after three more losses, and a quintessentially mediocre 6-6.

      And if Coughlin gets credit for last night, why wouldn’t he get the head for the hideous performance in New Orleans?

      Thanks for reading and responding, sir…

  • Rich

    Let’s save the obituary for after the season, eh? There are plenty of other things to be writing about currently, and there will be ample time to hash and rehash this after the season.

    • JK

      Sorry, Rich, I’ll be sure to check with you before I write another column.

      Feel free to agree or disagree with what I write, but since I don’t tell you how to do your job, perhaps you’d care to show me the same courtesy.

      • Rich

        I apologize if I ruffled your feathers. I can tell by your snarky comment that I did. Per your suggestion, I do feel free to agree or disagree. More often than not, I agree with what you write; however, as a reader, I would argue that I am also entitled to an opinion regarding what you write about.

        As a fan, I take umbrage with the negativity that such a piece elicits. What’s more is that there are some real, near term issues worth discussing that have bearing on this season…here and now. I, for one, have not given up on this season, and despite the record, I still have a lot of confidence in this team’s ability to make a run. That is the long version of what I am saying.

        Regarding my job, I welcome feedback and input from anyone taking enough interest to offer it (not many people would) that might help me do a better job.

        • JK

          I welcome all dialogue, Rich, particularly robust debate. I simply objected to your suggestion that my topic was invalid because you thought so. It seems pretty wasteful to tell others what to say.

          Perhaps you find my piece negative because you disagree with it. But it’s quite reasonable to consider Coughlin’s performance this year when his team is 6-6 and losers of 4-straight games. If he’s loved for winning in 2007, he can be loathed for losing in 2011.

          I see no parallels between ’07 and ’11 other than the fact that they just lost to an undefeated team at home. But if the Giants turn it around, defeat Dallas twice, and win a playoff game, you can call me out and I’ll admit my mistake in public, on this page.

          And I don’t think Coughlin needs to reach the Super Bowl to save his job. My guess is he returns if he wins the NFC East.

      • Rich

        I also think that short of a Super Bowl appearance, Tom will be gone.

  • Robert Richardson

    It is obvious that for whatever reason, there exists an irreconcilable and recurring schisms between Coughlin and the team. No matter the outcome of the 2011 season, he needs to be send riding off into the sunset. Happy trails amigo, thanks for the ring.

    • JK

      I’ve tried to respond/agree (far more thoroughly and eloquently than I am here) for an hour, Robert, yet my own site won’t let me. Heh. I’ll keep trying until I succeed. As always, thanks for reading and responding.

      • Robert Richardson

        Technical difficulties? Tell me about it JK lol. I’m not a Coughlin hater but I don’t think he ever had a “grip” on the team. I remember turning to my cousin when Plax hauled in the winning SB catch and saying “He just bought himself another 3 years” ( referring to TC). I remember the turmoil in G-Men camp that ’07 season and the calls for him to go. G-Men need a change and TC needs retirement come the off season

  • NYGfan

    It sure isn’t Tom Coughlin’s fault that the D has run out of players that can play. No linebackers ( Linebacker play has been awful with Boley the only exception, maybe they should’ve brought Blackburn back sooner, I realize he’s not the long term answer but he brings energy), no Corners ( who is Blackmon? and what happened to first round pick Aaron Ross??? he stinks!), and a disappearing pass rush (Tuck is hurting and Osi is out).

    • JK

      Indeed, NYGfan. But you know the buck stops at Coughlin’s door.

      One thing that surely haunts Tom is his assertion that injuries were far more a thing of the mind than body. He has quickly learned otherwise.

      Now the Giants must run the table. And it’s hard to imagine any 6-6 team magically morphing into a 4-0 team, particularly considering how they’ve played the last month.

      Thanks for reading and responding.

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