Coughlin has Giants year ahead of schedule

There were some magical coaching jobs done this season. Lovie Smith turned Chicago into a Super Bowl contender. Marvin Lewis helped bring Cincinnati universal respect. Tony Dungy darn near led Indianapolis to an unbeaten season.

Tom Coughlin did enough to make his way into the same conversation of great sideline work. He didn't take perennial non-contenders such as Chicago and Cincy to the playoffs. He didn't have the entire league in awe the way Dungy did through 13 games with Indy. What Coughlin did was restore credibility to a proud franchise. He did it with a pseudo-rookie quarterback and a flawed defense.

Coughlin made you feel good again about being a Giants fan. He gave you much more than a playoff berth. He gave you the feeling that these Giants are drawing close to their third Super Bowl title.

Two excruciatingly miserable seasons followed the Giants' last trip to the playoffs. The Giants packed it in early on Jim Fassel in 2003, sending him off with a 4-12 record. In came Coughlin – ahead of Charlie Weis, ahead of Romeo Crennel – talking like he was leading a battalion and not a football team. His debut season was more of the same from Fassel's finale but with better effort, no matter how much Giants brass blamed the 6-10 record on injuries.

Coughlin deserved criticism. He kicked sand in Fassel's wound at the introductory press conference, announcing, among other things, the end of the team's injury problems. Some of us couldn't wait to unearth excerpts from the monologue when players started heading to the injured reserve list as if a keg party awaited.

The injury pileup, of course, began shortly after Coughlin effectively canceled the season by benching Kurt Warner with a 5-4 record. It would be unfair to call new quarterback Eli Manning green during 2004. No, Eli was black and blue, head to toe, thanks to drooling defenses that couldn't wait to see how a Manning looked face up.

Manning was dreadful, no matter how you looked at it. Yet it was hard to tell if he took more hits than Coughlin in the media.

But Coughlin had a long-term plan. Coughlin figured that even if he miscalculated on Manning's readiness – and he did – the kid would benefit greatly from the experience. Who knows if Coughlin actually believed Manning gave the Giants a better chance to win than Warner. In retrospect, does anybody really think Warner was going to lead the Giants anywhere?

What matters is that Manning wouldn't have been equipped to lead the Giants to the playoffs without playing those final seven games last season. A lot of us gave Coughlin serious heat for the move. A lot of us were wrong.

Coughlin and his charges came to some kind of an agreement during the lost season. Unhappiness over Coughlin's rigid disciplinarian tactics became a non-issue. Coughlin continued shaping the roster. He struck a kinship with Michael Strahan, the loudest voice in the locker room despite a potentially career-altering injury. Coughlin got big help from general manager Ernie Accorsi, instrumental in adding Plaxico Burress, Antonio Pierce and Kareem McKenzie.

But somebody still had to coach them. The Giants were impeccably prepared, their mistakes almost always caused by player failure. The Raiders-like penalty numbers were a Coughlin anomaly, more a product of focus deficit on the part of players. Nobody outcoached Coughlin on game day. Nobody.

The team's regular-season signature would be bouncing back from tough losses. The Giants were hot on Philadelphia's tail before Terrell Owens was sent to his room. Big Blue was 5-2 when Owens went out, an entirely different 5-2 than the previous seasons.

The moment that changed this season for the Giants came against Denver. They were coming off that overtime loss in Dallas. Denver had smacked around the Giants for three-plus quarters, taking a 23-10 lead 1:42 into the fourth. But Tiki Barber ran it in from 4 yards out and Manning found Amani Toomer in the end zone for a 2-yard pass with five seconds left. The Giants beat Washington 36-0 the following week. Coughlin and Manning, forever connected, had begun their playoff run.

The Giants rebounded from that awful loss to Minnesota when the Vikes scored in almost every way possible. And touchdowns off an interception, kickoff and punt – the trifecta an NFL first – didn't even represent the Minnesota highlight, that coming when coach Mike Tice took an unexpected header after getting too close to the action.

Coughlin had the Giants ready for Philly the following week. No, the win wasn't a thing of beauty. But not many of them were works of art, just valuable pieces.

Another awful loss in the Jay Feely debacle against Seattle? Another big following-week win, this time over Dallas at Giants Stadium. The Giants had one more big rebound in them, losing at Washington to risk opening the playoffs on the road. They beat Oakland in their fourth West Coast trip of the season to win the NFC East.

Asked what he found most amazing about this team, Accorsi pointed to the Giants going all season without losing consecutive games.

Think about it, in a league where slumps are the norm, the Giants went all the way without a two-game losing streak. Only five other teams could make the claim: New England, Jacksonville, Denver, Carolina and Seattle.

The Giants were supposed to be a year away from title contention. Coughlin has never been a patient man.

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