By Ernie Palladino
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The Jacksonville Jaguars’ press guide lists Tom Coughlin as the team’s executive vice president of football operations.
If Bill Belichick was ever open about it — which he’s not and never will be — he’d probably list Coughlin as his biggest pain in the posterior.
If one person in the league has a right to some personal animosity toward the former Giants coach, it is that hoodie-wearing genius up north, who takes on the franchise Coughlin ushered into the NFL himself in 1995 in Sunday’s AFC championship game. Only two Coughlin-coached Giants teams stood between Belichick and a perfect 7-0 Super Bowl record.
It’s about as unlikely that the Jags will walk out of Gillette Stadium with a ticket to Minneapolis as it was in 2007 when the Giants beat the overwhelmingly favored, 18-0 Patriots for the Lombardi Trophy, or in 2011 when another well-favored New England squad fell in the final moments.
But then, whenever those two leaves from the Bill Parcells coaching tree get tangled up with each other, even an 7½-point line should bring Belichick no measure of comfort whatsoever.
Anything can happen.
The difference now is that Coughlin won’t be on the sidelines to torture Belichick. The defensive calls for the type of heavy pass rush that kept Tom Brady at a reasonable distance in both those Super Bowls go though Doug Marrone’s headset now, as will any Blake Bortles play that even slightly resemble Eli Manning’s miracle throws in both those Super Bowls.
Coughlin now sits high above the action in the press box, intense as ever but basically powerless to control the action on the field. Still, the team Belichick and Brady face has the 71-year-old executive’s fingerprints all over it, for he is the one who brought those guys in.
If Calais Campbell sets Brady on his rump a time or two, Belichick can look up and curse Coughlin, who coaxed the first-team All-Pro pass rusher out of Arizona with a $60 million free agent contract last year. If shutdown cornerback A.J. Bouye picks Brady once or twice, Belichick can blame Coughlin for making him one of his first free-agent pickups.
He drafted LSU running back Leonard Fournette and then watched him as he bulldozed opponents for 1,040 yards and nine touchdowns.
Just as important, Coughlin changed the culture of the organization the moment he walked into the building. The comfortable got uncomfortable. Accountability and intensity, hallmarks of Coughlin’s Giants tenure, became paramount, as did productivity.
His influence in personnel and as Marrone’s personal sounding board helped turn the Jags from a 3-13 laughingstock to a 10-6 AFC South champion. And then they walked into big, bad Pittsburgh, once regarded as the Pats’ only legitimate threat, hung up 45 points, brought all sorts of heat down on head coach Mike Tomlin and sent Tomlin’s offensive coordinator, Todd Haley, to the unemployment line.
All of that makes Sunday’s game all the more fun to contemplate.
Can the specter of Coughlin prevail over New England again?
Whatever in the world will Parcells’ former defensive coordinator do if he loses a third chance at his sixth Lombardi Trophy to his tie-and-jacket-wearing former staff mate?
Will life as Patriots fans know it end?
Might it affect global warming?
Perhaps that’s going a bit too far. But you get the idea. It won’t matter that Coughlin isn’t on the coaching lines anymore. His mere presence changes things. It happened with the Giants, who had fallen on some deeply hard times in Jim Fassel’s final years. It has happened this year in northern Florida.
By rights, the Pats should handle the Jags with the same ease as last week’s 35-14 divisional win over the Titans. Let them score the first touchdown just to get them feeling good about themselves and then lower the boom.
It could well happen like that. Or, if Coughlin’s intensity continues to run its electrical course from press box to field, Fournette could power his way to three more touchdowns, as he did against the Steelers. The Jags could stay close enough for Bortles to unleash some miracle pass, just as Manning did twice for Coughlin, or as Minnesota’s Case Keenum did for soon-to-be Giants coach Pat Shurmur to knock the Saints from the playoffs on last week’s final snap.
Anything is possible when Coughlin and Belichick appear in the same postseason sentence.
Given their history, Belichick can only hope the last sentence he utters Sunday doesn’t include some swear word directed upstairs.
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