On Christmas Eve 2006, the crowd at Giants Stadium, what was left of it anyway, lost its mind. Pausing only to cheer the last home game for the beloved and retiring running back Tiki Barber, they booed with previously untapped reserves of loathing and chanted, of course, “Fi-re Cough-lin.” The Giants, stumbling toward a playoff “run” under the guidance of embattled and clearly toast coach Tom Coughlin, had lost to the New Orleans Saints 30–7 in a game that wasn’t even as close as the final score. The next day’s papers were predictably brutal. The Post greeted its readers on Christmas morning with BLUE XMAS: ANGRY GIANT FANS DEMAND COACH’S HEAD on the front page and YULE HAVE TO GO on the back page. The Daily News cut to the point and simply repeated the fans’ incantation: “FIRE COUGHLIN.”
Coughlin didn’t have much to say for himself. “Human nature now, it’s very easy to not want to be a part of a team that’s not having success. And obviously we are not.” The team seemed in total insurrection; Coughlin had taken hits from Jeremy Shockey and the departing Barber, who called the team “outcoached.” It would just be a matter of time. Firing him wouldn’t even be necessary; his contract had only one year left on it anyway. ESPN openly speculated on his replacement. (Inevitably, Bill Parcells came up again, as did now-despised Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis.) Coughlin had only one factor in his favor: Firing him at the same time general manager Ernie Accorsi was retiring would plunge the franchise into chaos. It would end up being the only factor that mattered. It was blind luck, really.
Thirteen months later, the Giants were dousing Coughlin in Gatorade after winning the Super Bowl. And now, two years later, the Giants are the best team in the NFL and the envy of the sport. Meanwhile, Tiki Barber is paid to make omelettes on morning television. And interview Giants players for NBC about how well coached his old team is.
What happened? How did Coughlin, as ESPN put it the other day, become a “made guy”? Coughlin’s power has coalesced so completely that the Plaxico Burress situation, which would have derailed lesser teams, was essentially yawned off by everyone but reporters. (In the Giants’ locker room last week, tackle Kareem McKenzie admitted to me that the main “distraction” caused by Burress was that players who don’t know the receiver well now had to rack their brains for something noteworthy to say about him to reporters.) Coughlin is now the most powerful coach in the NFL. You can make the argument that Coughlin changed the way he coached, that one night in the middle of September 2007, he woke up in a cold sweat, screamed “Eureka!” and built himself a genius cave. Or you can recognize the scary truth about coaches, and managers, particularly in this city: A lot of this is dumb luck.
This is not to say that Coughlin is a bad coach, or at least not any worse or better than he was when fans were calling for his head. But the hothouse flowers that make up an NFL team’s locker room, and the seemingly random tidbits that can shove a fragile union of professional athletes off the psychological precipice, are an unpredictable lot. Besides talent, much of this is shaped by the Big Mo. If you have been winning, you feel like you can keep winning. Often, the best a coach can hope for—even a coach like Coughlin, who has proven himself this year to be a better game-planner, week by week, than most realized—is to harness momentum and stay out of its way.
The conventional wisdom has always been that NFL coaches have more of an effect on their teams than NBA coaches or, especially, baseball managers. And there’s an element of truth to this; the Chargers’ Norv Turner is in the midst of running his third talented team into a ditch. But once you reach that minimum level of competence—think of, say, Jim Fassel as the medium point; above him, you’re qualified, below him, you’re Al Groh—the difference between the best coach and the fifth best is so thin as to not exist. These are all smart guys. It took twenty months for Coughlin to transmogrify from a moron to a mastermind. It’s all about the circumstances.
How important is a manager or coach? The definition shifts depending on everyone’s mood. Take Joe Torre. When he arrived in the Bronx, he was an underwhelming retread hire, a stopgap until George Steinbrenner came up with a bigger name or figured out how to exhume Billy Martin. And then the Yankees became America’s Dynasty, and Torre became the strategic genius, the public face of an empire. Then the Yankees won often enough that people questioned whether Torre was steering the ship or riding along. When they stopped winning World Series, it was because Torre had grown too complacent. Now that he’s gone? Why isn’t Joe Girardi as smart as Joe Torre? Why isn’t he managing, you know, harder? And when Torre’s Dodgers made the playoffs last year, it was because he was “renewed” and “energized.” It was all headlines; Torre’s the same guy. Managers and coaches, to borrow everyone’s new favorite sports cliché, are what they are. It’s the swirl of public opinion around them that keeps shifting.