Hangin' with the boys

Leading up to last Sunday's Big Showdown in Big D coach Tom Coughlin continued to do something seemingly impossible for a new coach, especially someone trying to resurrect a 4-12 team. He's quieted the critics. New York critics, no less. That's like getting Britney Spears to wear something that doesn't show her bellybutton. Or the presidential candidates to succinctly answer a debate question. <BR><BR>

The game against Dallas was important because it gave Coughlin's Giants a chance to get an early-season gauge of how they stacked up against their NFC East opponents. After getting stuffed by Andy Reid and the Eagles in Week 1, 31-17, Coughlin faced legendary Redskins coach Joe Gibbs for the first time as a head coach. Seven turnovers later, the Giants walked away with their first victory and Coughlin received a game ball. It was a complete turnaround from the week's previous loss and an entire preseason where finger pointing all seemed directed at Coughlin and his strict, unyielding ways.

Well, as we all know, winning does solve everything. With the Giants impressive 26-10 victory against Coughlin's mentor, Bill Parcells, and his Cowboys, New York heads into the bye week at 4-1. Not only have they already equaled last year's number of wins, it's the Giants' best start in 11 years.

Against his buddy Parcells, Coughlin realized conventional coaching wouldn't beat The Tuna, so he coached very aggressively. With a 19-10 lead and 5:29 left in the game, Coughlin instructed QB Kurt Warner to throw long to Amani Toomer. Incomplete. On second down, he had Warner throw again. Almost picked off. Now it was third-and-10. The conventional Coughlin would try a draw and, at least, tick off a few seconds. Instead, Warner threw a third time – a screen to Barber, who promptly plucked his way for 55 yards and a first-and-goal. Then Barber, the man who leads the NFL in yards from scrimmage, punched it in from the 3 to seal the victory.

After winding up at 2-1 against his NFC East counterparts, we've learned a number of things from Coughlin so far. Though the season is still young, Coughlin is quickly making the Giants one of the more respected teams in the league. He's done it the only way he knows how: his way, with discipline, defense and a power running game.

For anyone but Parcells to say it's not a surprise, you better check your nose in the mirror.

When Coughlin was hired in January as the 16th Giants coach, the opinion around the NFL was mixed. After a disastrous 2003, a change was indeed needed. The '03 Giants lacked almost as much discipline as Art Schlichter with a wad of cash in Vegas. But many looked at Coughlin as a coach from a bygone era. A Lombardi-esque kind of coach in the mold of his mentor, Bill Parcells, minus the charisma. Or like Mike Ditka without the Super Bowl victory.

But the top Giants brass knew Coughlin and liked him very much. As the receivers coach for New York, 1988-90, Coughlin became a Parcells' assistant because of his "demanding" approach and being "insistent on things being done the right way." Parcells says he first became aware of Coughlin from Marion Campbell, the former Eagles coach who had Coughlin as an assistant in 1984-85.

As the Jaguars first head coach in 1995, Coughlin turned in a 4-12 record his first season. Doesn't sound impressive, but at the time it was the most victories of any expansion team in NFL history. The following year he became NFL Coach of the Year by leading Jacksonville to the AFC Championship game. The success continued through the '99 season with four straight playoff appearances. He did so on the legs of Fred Taylor, one of the more underrated backs in the league, and a stingy defense.

Yet, when the Jaguars started to slide, missing the playoffs the next three seasons, Coughlin's brutal training camps, rigid doggedness, and inability to relate to his players dominated the Jacksonville newspapers. He was fired after the 2002 season and replaced with young, player-friendly coach Jack Del Rio. Coughlin spent the ‘03 season visiting different teams including Parcells' Cowboys. He watched film and lent an extra voice in providing opinions on personnel.

While some coaches would prefer to travel and get away from the grind, Coughlin stayed in the thick of it all for the simple reason that he's a football coach. Or as Coughlin says, he and Parcells are "football people."

According to Floyd Little, a teammate of Coughlin's at Syracuse, where Little was a three-time All-America and later a five-time Pro Bowler with the Denver Broncos, Coughlin hasn't changed much since the former wingback shared the backfield with him and Larry Csonka nearly 40 years ago.

"Tom was one of those guys who didn't have a lot of speed, but he knew all the plays and everyone's assignment. He also knew the pass routes for every receiver," Little said. "We knew he would make a good coach one day."

Little also says that Coughlin stresses being a team player, something that's overlooked by a lot of critics.

"Tom knows how to win," Little added. "Some players today do not have the discipline to recognize the value of sacrifice for the good of the team. Tom was a team player. If Tom can continue to win his way, he could restore the discipline to pro football players that over time has been lost."

Coughlin got his first opportunity in Week One to restore the Giants winning ways against East rival Philadelphia. It couldn't have gone worse.

Going up against Reid, a frequent participant in NFC Championship games, Coughlin and the Giants didn't have an answer for the Eagles' newest acquisition, Terrell Owens. The former 49er caught three touchdowns from Donovan McNabb, while running back Brian Westbrook bolted for 119 yards.

The 31-17 defeat brought into question a couple things: the Giants defense didn't seem to have an answer for the Eagles offense, and Warner looked particularly lackluster and like a man who had lost his previous nine starts. Still, Tiki Barber had 125 yards on the ground and the offense was able to move the ball. An upbeat Coughlin said after the game, "We have our work cut out for us, but I'm not discouraged."

Week 2, the Giants prepared for Clinton Portis, new to the East and one of the most dangerous backs in the NFL. The previous week against the Buccaneers, Portis ripped off a 64-yard touchdown run on the game's first play. What the Giants were able to do against Portis and company shocked the NFL. After a poor Week 1 performance, the defense seemed to come from nowhere to force seven turnovers from a typically sound Gibbs-coached team, including two from the usually dependable Portis. The Redskins, however, were able to stymie the Giants run game by holding Barber to just 42 yards. Warner, though, answered the call with 232 yards passing and his first touchdown of the season to third-year receiver Tim Carter. Coughlin received a game ball from the team and personally by Michael Strahan, one of the guys that complained after being stuck with a fine for not being "early enough" to a team meeting.

Prior to Game 4 against the Packers, Coughlin and the Giants were given the "Yes, but" phrase around the league. "Yes, they beat Washington, but" the Redskins handed them the game with seven turnovers. "Yes, they beat Cleveland, but" the Browns are a banged-up sorry team with little offense. The Packers were the Giants' first test and they played well enough to win by 21 points. But because of three missed field goals and other failed chances, the Giants escaped with a 14-7 victory.

Now with the Big Win in Big D, Coughlin is leading a confident, well-balanced Giants team that's keeping pace with the 4-0 Eagles. The Cowboys at 2-2 are proving to be a team that plays well as long as they have a lead. Against the Giants, Parcells found himself relying on his 40-year-old quarterback and aging receivers to get back into the game. It didn't work.

Elsewhere, it's uncertain whether the Redskins are having a hard time adjusting to Gibbs' way of doing things, or if Gibbs is having a tough time getting used to the NFL after 12 years away. All the Giants know is they won't play another NFC East opponent till they meet the Eagles Thanksgiving weekend.

So far, Coughlin's Giants are doing the things you have to do to be a playoff team. Winning at home, and scratching out tough victories on the road with discipline, teamwork and, yes, fun. And no one can say Coach Coughlin doesn't belong among the likes of Parcells, Gibbs and Reid. If anything, they're having a tougher time keeping up with him in the early going than anyone – besides Coughlin, of course – could have ever figured.

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