By Jason Keidel
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Though their resumes are as inverted as their physiques, Tom Coughlin and Rex Ryan could be coaching for the same thing this season — a chance to coach next season.
Always on the clock, Coughlin — red-faced, military-molded, fit and fiery, whistle dangling from his neck like a drill instructor — is literally a lifer. There seem to be two ways he’s leaving MetLife Stadium for good — feet first or fired.
At the age when most men are checking water currents, weather and squeezing bait onto fishing hooks, Coughlin (who turns 68 in August) has made no mention of retirement as he enters his 20th season as an NFL head coach. It’s as if he loathes or fears the next chapter in his life. Indeed, coaches often find the coffin to be the next, swift destination. Coughlin may be many things, but near death doesn’t seem to be one of them.
But you wonder why his wonder years are so ardent. Coughlin has the perfect refrain for a football coach — never happy, sated or satisfied. He doesn’t muse over the two rings he’S won, or even the game he won a week ago. He has the ornery worldview of Patton, the scowl of a marine and the energy of a rookie linebacker.
Unlike Ryan, who is trying to establish himself as a champion, Coughlin’s legacy is laminated. He could have retired after retiring the 18-0 Patriots in 2008. But he stuck around and decided that beating Bill Belichick in the Super Bowl was kinda fun.
What explains the masochistic bent of a coach (to paraphrase Steve Spurrier)? He doesn’t need the cash or cachet; his place in Canton is secured. He turned the fledgling Jaguars into contenders, and remolded the moribund Giants into champions. Clearly, when Coughlin removes his blinders, he’s blinded by the periphery. His tunnel vision is what makes him a great coach and lousy retiree. No shuffleboard and bingo for Big Blue’s HC.
Dick Vermeil coined the phrase “burnout” over 30 years ago when he flamed out as head coach of the Eagles. It’s a common condition with head coaches and managers; your life under a lateral cone of a projector’s light, the 16-hour days in your office, boxes of pizza scattered across the room like fallen dominoes. Yet Coughlin seems allergic to meat-hook rigors of NFL life.
And why does Coughlin want to coach the current Giants? They started a startling 0-6 last year, and this year’s roster is a village of variables. Perhaps the best thing going for Big Blue is its divisional domain, as the East is the weakest division in the NFC, if not the NFL. (Perhaps a close second to the AFC South.)
But there are no cakewalks in the rabid parity of pro football. And the Giants’ schedule outside the division is murderous — Colts, Cardinals, 49ers and the Super Bowl-champion Seahawks (a combined 46-18 in 2013). Not to mention the much-improved Rams and a Falcons club that two years ago was one quarter from the Super Bowl. Weeks 9 through 11 are against the Colts, Seahawks and 49ers, with no bye week.
They lost team leaders and Sunday stalwarts Justin Tuck, Hakeem Nicks and Chris Snee, while importing over 20 new players. They struggled to rush and protect the passer in 2013, and now have a new offensive coordinator who kneels at the altar of Bill Walsh, with an entirely foreign playbook for their decorated and durable QB. If Eli Manning weren’t maddening enough, imagine a thousand new pass plays on his iPad.
Manning threw a wretched 27 interceptions last year — the second time in five years he’s thrown over 20 INT. And now Manning’s QB coach wants him to complete 70 percent of his passes, a number passed just seven times in NFL history (by just six signal-callers). Manning’s career average is 58.5 percent. He completed a career-low 57.5 percent last year, and his career-high was 62.9 percent in 2010. He also has to deal with the wind tunnel of the Meadowlands. As someone who lives about 90 seconds from MetLife, I can assure you the tales of tornadic gusts are not embellished.
Not to mention the offensive line, which was long their trademark, was in disarray last year. Manning was sacked 40 times (12th-most in the NFL), was hit 83 times (19th in the NFL) and the offense as a whole gained 307.5 yards per game, nearly dead-last in the NFL (28th). They ranked 29th in rushing (83 YPG) and 28th in points (19 PPG).
While the secondary is much improved, a robust pass-rush is essential, which can only occur with a healthy and focused Jason Pierre-Paul. Ownership dropped over $100 million in free agency, but Manning doesn’t have a go-to guy entering the season, and his most gifted wideout, Odell Beckham, Jr., has yet to play a snap in the NFL.
Yet this is what Coughlin lives for. A Bill Parcells disciple, coaches like Coughlin see themselves as gridiron handymen, making disparate parts buy into his monolithic — if not maniacal — ethos. Their tool belts wield way more sticks than carrots, clearly of the old-school mold.
But Coughlin has softened a bit over the years, which is not an insult. He merely has changed his frigid view of players, a vast improvement over his “injuries are a thing of the mind” mantra when he arrived at the Meadowlands.
Some things haven’t changed. It still takes a crowbar to pry a smile from Coughlin’s mouth. He speaks in corporate clichés, allows few peeks into his fickle soul and enjoys keeping the media at moderate distances.
Coughlin spent a few moments with WFAN host Mike Francesa on Tuesday. He spoke in his typically proud, raspy cadence; constantly coaching and speaking with spastic hands and coaching bromides. In the age of the New Age, it’s somewhat refreshing to see an actual coach who relies as much on emotional nuance as he does numbers. His rosy face, hoarse voice and comb over were in midseason form.
You don’t have to be a Giants fan to be a Coughlin fan. You just have to be a football fan.
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