By Ernie Palladino
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The past officially became prologue a couple of days ago when the Giants fired their vaunted tight ends coach Mike Pope.
Pope, now 71, was the final link in the coaching chain to all of that franchise’s four Lombardi trophies. He was there in 1986 and 1990 under Parcells, and there again for 2007 and 2011 under Tom Coughlin.
Now, with a new offensive coordinator in Ben McAdoo, who comes out of Green Bay with more recent achievements and new ideas springing from a 36-year-old mind, the Giants are changing. And Pope, an innovator of tight end training and strategy in his day, is no longer needed.
While we all recognize that new coordinators prefer to bring in their own guys as well as their own playbooks — and heaven knows, the Giants need a fresh voice in the offensive meetings — there is still a sadness about Pope’s departure. He truly was an iconoclast among position coaches, and he will be missed.
Coughlin had to pull the trigger on him, though, as he did with Jerald Ingram, another close, longtime associate. Ingram and Coughlin started in Jacksonville together in the expansion days, when there actually was excitement in that Florida town over professional football. The two of them helped the Jags to two AFC Championship games, and when Coughlin landed in New York as the head man, he made sure Ingram came along.
But even at that, his relationship with Ingram didn’t stretch back as far as his association with Pope. And as much respect as Coughlin ever had for Ingram — the coach credited him with curing Tiki Barber’s fumbleitis — it was Pope Coughlin once called “the best tight ends coach in football.”
If there were any better, it was a short list. Pope spent 23 years as a Giants assistant. While there was an interruption from 1992-99 as he traveled between Cincinnati, New England, and Washington before returning to Jim Fassel’s Super Bowl staff in 2000, he spent more time on Giants coaching lines than any other assistant on the list.
Once he arrived in 1983 under Parcells, he developed unforgettable talents, from Mark Bavaro to Howard Cross to Jeremy Shockey. He turned Kevin Boss, a fifth-round choice from tiny Western Oregon, into a 1,000-yard pass-catcher/blocker, and would have done the same for Jake Ballard if Ballard hadn’t blown out his knee in Super Bowl XLVI against the Patriots.
The Giants never ran short of tight ends, thanks in large part to Pope’s teachings. Always thinking, always pondering in a southern accent grown thick during his North Carolina upbringing, he came up with drills no one else had.
One of the tight ends’ favorites was a catch drill done against a passing machine. The usual ones generally entail the subject turning his back to the machine and then spinning 180 degrees for the catch. Pope, knowing the tight ends would be matched up with heavy linebackers as they banged down the crease or ventured over the middle, had his tight ends start in a piked position. A fellow tight end then leaned across his back as an added challenge.
The top player’s resistance forced the receiver to fend off his teammate first before he caught the ball. It was the closest thing to catching a ball in heavy traffic one could find on a practice field.
Swimming goggles, broomsticks, even an equipment shed became training implements. One drill involved tying a football tight with string. Pope would throw the ball, and then jerk it back just as his man touched the ball. It simulated the ball’s jerking action as a tight end is hit from behind. “That drill is designed to get them used to holding onto something as they’re being pulled away from it,” Pope said.
Pope hadn’t lost his touch. New veteran tight end Brandon Myers had a solid year despite what co-owner John Mara called “a broken offense.” It’s just that the Giants needed a change. McAdoo will bring in a whole new philosophy of uptempo passing, the same strategy that made Aaron Rodgers great.
As part of that, Coughlin determined it was time for Pope to go. Change for, perhaps, change’s sake.
It happens in the football business. The good ones don’t become stupid overnight. Pope, called the Professor by at least one intellectually-bent scribe over the years, could never be stupid.
It was just time for him to go.
He will be missed, regardless of how well the new guy brings along future crops of Giants tight ends.
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