Will Leitch’s dispatches from recent visits to the Giants locker room will run every day this week leading up to Sunday’s game against the Philadelphia Eagles. Today: Tom Coughlin, gruff — and goofy.
Yesterday, Giants coach Tom Coughlin was asked about his team’s loss to the Eagles last month, a failure many pinned on the team’s unpreparedness to deal with Brian Westbrook, Philadelphia’s nettlesome running back. (He has caused the Giants considerable pain over the last few years.) Was the loss due to the Giants not being ready? The relatively slow Antonio Pierce covering Westbrook? Or the versatile Westbrook’s simply overwhelming everyone?
Coughlin was not playing this game. “I’m not putting the blame on anybody,” he told reporters. “I’m just telling you it has to stop.” In New York, we’re obsessed with blame. If the Giants lose, it’s not because the Eagles were better, or the breaks just didn’t go our way. We do not simply lose — someone has to be at fault. Coughlin once thought like this, getting caught up in various piddly battles with his players, most notably exiled tight end Jeremy Shockey. Today, he makes no such mistakes.
A month ago, Coughlin was taking control of the narrative, too — just in a much goofier way. Three days after the Giants’ December 14 loss to the Cowboys — the loss that officially had Everyone Concerned — Coughlin began his daily press conference by doing jumping jacks. Coughlin is physically fit for a 62-year-old man, but this is not a regular occurrence.
The idea, as best as anyone could tell, was to show critics and his team that despite two difficult losses in a row against intradivision rivals, his mood was light, and his team was perfectly fine. Coughlin is not, to put it lightly, a particularly jocular man, but here he was, dancing around, joking about not remembering anything from the last two weeks, informing reporters that his team will be sharing his enthusiasm “in about fifteen minutes.”
It’s difficult to imagine Coughlin doing this two years ago, during the Shockey era, when every paper in the city was calling for his head and Bill Parcells was doing his yearly “Hey, maybe I could come back to New York and fix things” dance with his favorite media sources. Coughlin had a reputation as a disciplinarian who provided a turnaround after a laid-back predecessor (Jim Fassel), but ultimately grated on the nerves of millionaire professional athletes who don’t enjoy being screamed at like they’re high-school students. As I’ve argued before, this was more perception than reality, but in New York, there’s rarely much difference between the two. If you win, you’re a genius. If you lose, you’re a moron. Coughlin was a genius before he became a moron before he became a genius.
Coughlin’s calisthenics routine played into the ongoing narrative that he had become “looser,” that he’d learned to talk to players the way they prefer to be talked to. Amani Toomer, the veteran wide receiver perceived as the Wise Old Man of the Giants, was asked after Coughlin’s performance if it was a side of the coach that players see more often than media folk. He shrugged and said, “Sure, I guess. But he’s usually all business. This is his job, after all.”
Which brings us back to Coughlin yesterday. He usually meets the media in the practice bubble just outside Giants Stadium. (The bubble is sponsored by Verizon and has deafening speakers used to simulate opposing crowd noise. The simulation is convincing; I found it difficult to write a sentence on my notepad, let alone call a play.) Rather than performing jumping jacks, he answered questions with a clipped, here’s-your-quote-please-get-out-of-my-face-now cadence. He’s always leaning away, like he has to be somewhere else, and soon. He’s a master of Coachspeak, talking about “focus” and “intensity” and “tenaciousness.” (He has clearly trained defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, a candidate for several head-coaching jobs with other teams, in this style. Spagnuolo talks the exact same way. It’s almost eerie.) Coughlin does not have swagger, per se, but he is confident, speaking like a guy who is not under fire, who is in no danger of losing his job. He speaks like a guy who knows what he’s doing, like he runs the place, like he’s allowing us to stop by, as long as we behave.
And everyone does. After storming away at the end of one of these sessions last month, he saw a group of players in a post-practice prayer at midfield. He turned to an assistant. “When they’re done,” he growled, “get ‘em in the film room.” Coughlin can be loose or gruff, depending on what’s needed at the moment. But finally, he’s the one who’s deciding when it’s time to switch. He’s writing his own narrative, respected and feared at last.