A fine mess

Back in May, when somewhere between seven and 10 Giants complained to the NFL players' association about some of Tom Coughlin's offseason workout program rules, the incident was dismissed throughout the organization as no big deal. It was not the start of a mutiny, not a sign of unrest. In fact, it wasn't much of anything at all. <BR><BR>

So what is it now that at least two and maybe as many as four players have gone to the union again – this time to file a grievance against Coughlin for fines they received for breaking another one of his rules?

It may not be a mutiny, but there is no doubt it's at least a symbol of the unrest in the Giants' locker room over some of the rules Coughlin has laid down in the eight months since he was hired as the Giants coach. The fines were relatively small (between $500 and $1,000) and the infractions were relatively minor (being three minutes "late" to a team meeting). But the players still decided to challenge their coach and take the matter right over Coughlin's head. The latest incidents involve four players – defensive end Michael Strahan, cornerback Terry Cousin, and linebackers Carlos Emmons and Barrett Green. Two weeks ago, according to a report that first appeared on Foxsports.com, Coughlin scheduled a team meeting to start at 8:25 a.m., and Strahan arrived at 8:23. But one of Coughlin's rules is that players must be in their seats five minutes early, which means that under "Coughlin Time" Strahan was actually three minutes late.

Strahan, according to the report, arrived to find the door to the meeting closed and team officials, fearful of a Strahan-Coughlin confrontation, warning him not to enter. Later that day, Strahan and Coughlin had a heated discussion about the incident, and the defensive end ended up with a $1,000 fine. During training camp, a similar incident occurred involving Cousin, Emmons and Green who were also not early enough to a meeting. They ended up with a $500 fine each.

According to an NFLPA spokesman, a grievance – which is different than an appeal and could result in a hearing in front of an arbitrator after the regular season – has been filed on behalf of all four players. One NFLPA source said Strahan placed a call himself and asked them to file the grievance on his behalf. Cousin admitted he has also appealed the fine, though Green and Emmons insist they did not.

Coughlin declined to discuss the incidents, though he did admit his policy is that "Meetings start five minutes early." He also said one of his primary rules for his players is "Be on time." Of course, that's where the problem has arisen. Cousin and Green – the only two of the four players willing to talk about the incident – insisted "We were on time." Green went on to say that he thought Coughlin's insistence on players being in their seats five minutes early "was something that he recommended. I didn't know it would be a punishable offense."

Certainly, from Coughlin's perspective, a rule is a rule, and he sees no excuse for a player not being five minutes early. In fact, just to make his point clear, he's had all the clocks in the Giants' stadium facilities set five minutes fast. And the players get the point. They just think Coughlin is being petty. If a meeting is scheduled to start at 8:25 but Coughlin really wants them there at 8:20, why wouldn't he just tell them that in the first place? And why pick a fight with four key defensive players over three lousy minutes – especially when they had all still arrived before the meeting had actually started?

There's a good possibility the players might have just paid the fines and let it go if they weren't already chafing under Coughlin's iron rule. This all started with those complaints about the offseason workout program, when Coughlin was forcing his players to eat breakfast at the stadium and keeping them there for meetings longer than allowed. And it's continued with his insistence on a strict dress code on the road, removing the TVs from the workout room, the way he nitpicks over the height of players' socks, and the way he forces the players to run onto the field for pre-game warm-ups like a high school marching band.

However, Coughlin does not believe he's losing his players. In fact he thinks his players are adjusting to his rule book just fine.

"The players understand and they know what the program is about and I don't think there's been that difficult adjustment at all," Coughlin said. "This is a group that has been fairly receptive. Everyone wants to make things out as if we had all these rules. The NFL has a lot of rules, in case anybody hasn't looked at the discipline schedule set by the commissioner. But we have certain things we believe in, and that's the way it's going to be. One of them is obviously to be punctual."

Ironically, Coughlin made that comment on a day when he was nine minutes late to his own press conference – 14 minutes late if you go by the "Coughlin Time" clocks.

To be fair, while the Giants' players are certainly grumbling loudly behind the scenes, there is hardly an all-out mutiny going on. It's obvious he has a problem with Strahan – a big problem considering Strahan is perhaps the most influential team leader. But beyond that, the players insist (at least publicly) that Coughlin doesn't have any problems with his team at all.

"He doesn't have a problem with anybody," Cousin said. "He just has things that he wants us to follow. We're doing that the best that we can. That's really it. He doesn't have a problem with anybody in the locker room."

Not yet, anyway. And that's the key – possibly to this entire season. The coach and players seem to be testing each other right now, feeling both sides out to see how far they can be pushed. The coach wants the players to understand he is a dictator, and his rules are law. The players want the coach to know they're not afraid to challenge him when they think he's wrong.

So far they've challenged him twice – both times before the regular season had even started. Imagine how testy the two sides will be if the Giants are out of the playoff chase by mid-year.


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