By Steve Silverman
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The end of Tom Coughlin’s tenure with the New York Giants is the perfect opportunity to measure his impact as an NFL head coach.
It may have ended with four consecutive disappointing seasons in which his team did not make the playoffs, but it’s clear Coughlin has been an elite head coach in the NFL.
There have been 479 men who have been head coaches in the NFL throughout the league’s history, and Coughlin ranks 12th in games coached (320), 12th in wins (170), seventh in postseason victories (12) and tied for fifth in Super Bowl wins (2).
In my opinion, he ranks 11th among the pantheon of all-time great NFL head coaches — behind Vince Lombardi, Bill Belichick, Tom Landry, Don Shula, Bill Walsh, Paul Brown, Bill Parcells, Chuck Noll, John Madden and George Halas.
Based on the way he handled big games and the condition his teams were in when he inherited them – he did quite well with the expansion Jacksonville Jaguars as well as the Giants – Coughlin almost certainly deserves to be in the top 10, but how in the world do you take out Halas? He coached the Chicago Bears for 40 years and basically founded the NFL.
Coughlin’s two Super Bowl victories alone qualify him as one of the greatest coaches of all-time because the Giants did not have better personnel than either of the New England Patriots teams they defeated.
Many opponents would have gone into those games with a defeatist attitude at the thought of facing the undefeated 2007 Patriots or the offensively explosive 2011 team, but the Giants fought them on even terms before winning both of those games in the fourth quarter.
Belichick has led the Patriots to six Super Bowls, and he has lost only two — the two he coached against Coughlin.
Coughlin went on a great run with the Jaguars before he became the Giants’ leader. The Jaguars went 9-7 in 1996, their second year of competing in the NFL.
They earned a spot in the playoffs as an AFC wild-card team. They entered the playoffs riding a five-game winning streak, and while that was impressive, few expected anything but a blowout loss when they went to Buffalo for their first playoff game.
Coughlin instilled a spirit in his team that they could win, and they came up with upsets of the Buffalo Bills and Denver Broncos. The Jaguars were stopped by the Patriots in the AFC championship game, but Coughlin had demonstrated he was capable of leading his players to high-level performances.
Coughlin became head coach of the Giants prior to the 2004 season, and the Giants were a playoff team in two of his first three years. They lost both of those playoff games, and while things seemed to be going in the right direction, there was an undercurrent of discontent surrounding his coaching style.
He was an unrelenting despot on the sidelines. While that style may have benefited predecessors such as Lombardi, Shula, Brown, Parcells and Halas, it was wearing thin on the modern-day players.
Coughlin knew of his players’ unhappiness, but he did nothing to change his style until veteran defensive end Michael Strahan convinced him that he had to show his players some love.
Coughlin did not become Mother Teresa on the sidelines, but he backed down just a bit, and the Giants responded with a 10-6 season in 2007. That got the Giants into the playoffs, but they were forced to play nothing but road games. They defeated the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Dallas Cowboys and Green Bay Packers before getting a chance to play the 18-0 Patriots in the Super Bowl.
While that 17-14 victory featuring David Tyree’s remarkable reception was almost certainly the signature victory in Coughlin’s career, the win over Brett Favre and Green Bay in the NFC championship game should never be forgotten. That was a game played in brutal conditions with a minus-1 actual temperature and a wind chill that was significantly colder.
The stoic Coughlin was frozen on the sidelines, with cherry red cheeks and snot bubbles running, but his players took their cue from him and outlasted the Packers 23-20 in overtime.
Four years later, the Giants once again faced Green Bay in the postseason on the road. While the conditions were much milder, the Packers had the most explosive offense in the game with Aaron Rodgers at the helm. The Packers were a 15-1 team in the regular season and had eclipsed the 40-point mark six times.
The Giants were supposed to be another victim, but instead they trounced the home team 37-20, and they went on from there to beat the San Francisco 49ers on the road in overtime before taking on and defeating the Patriots in the Super Bowl once again.
The significance of that second Super Bowl win cannot be overstated. They had beaten the Patriots once, and Coughlin and the Giants had the full attention of Belichick and the Patriots. They took New England’s best punch, and the Giants remained standing.
Surviving that game was an incredible achievement by Coughlin, and one that makes him one of the all-time greats among those who have ever stalked the sidelines.
The 69-year-old Coughlin has earned his place in history and will always be remembered as one of the greatest head coaches in NFL history.
Follow Steve on Twitter at @ProFootballBoy.