Everybody Loves Coughlin

Plaxico Burress wasn't here when Tom Coughlin made his grand entrance into Giants Stadium, throwing around his phone book-sized rulebook and slapping his players with fines. He's only heard stories about the beginning of the reign of terror. And his teammates tell him he's only seen Coughlin's softer side.

"Everybody was telling me it was a lot tougher last year," Burress said. "I couldn't imagine it being any tougher than it is now. So when they say things like that, I'm like 'Wow.'"

Believe it or not, there was a time when Coughlin, the Giants' second-year coach, wasn't as warm and fuzzy as he is now. OK, so he's not exactly warm and fuzzy now, either, but his players insist he's been better.

Some of them still shudder when they recall his rocky beginning when they were shell-shocked by his detailed rules and put off by his distant demeanor. When they met him two years ago, they thought he was every bit the cartoon general that his reputation suggested he'd be.

It was, as they remember, a very long first month of his tenure.

"You said the first month?" Michael Strahan said. "How about the first day?

"I think Coach came in last year just trying to make his mark," Strahan added. "You can always come in and be hard and then get a little bit easier to work with. And he must have known what he was doing, because we're here in this situation now."

Coughlin's supporters – and there were many, most notably the men in the Giants' front office who hired him – swore all along that the world would eventually see a method to his madness. It turned out to be a successful one, too, since it took him just two seasons to turn the Giants from a 4-12 mess into the NFC East champs.

Along the way, Coughlin even won over his skeptical players. They even warmly gave him the traditional Gatorade shower after they won the NFC East title in Oakland. Amazingly, as they head into their first playoff game in three seasons, there seemed to be nothing they wouldn't do for their coach.

"To see him after (last Saturday's) game, guys are hugging him and congratulating him," Strahan said. "Guys are just thoroughly enjoying playing for him right now. That's a testament to the fact that this is his team, we're here to do whatever we need to do to win, and we understand that's his focus."

"It's been a drastic change from last year to this year," receiver David Tyree added. "Obviously you have a little bit of a rebellion with new authority. But he made it plain it was about winning, and everybody caught the vision this year."

That vision was blurry to the Giants when Coughlin first arrived and he turned the stadium clocks back five minutes and instructed his players to be at every practice and meeting five minutes early. He barked at them to sit up straight with their feet on the floor, told them to remove their hats and demanded their undivided attention. He began fining players who dared wear the wrong color or wrong length socks.

Not surprisingly, within a month, 7-10 players had complained to the NFLPA that Coughlin's time demands had exceeded what was allowed – complaints that led to the Giants being stripped of two days from their offseason program. By the time the season began, several others had filed grievances about Coughlin and his fines. Players were complaining privately, and some even hinted at their displeasure publicly.

Word of their unhappiness spread like wildfire around the league.

But management still wasn't worried. They still believed they had hired the right man.

"I don't think they knew him," GM Ernie Accorsi said. "I think they were responding to, I think, his inaccurate image. But I always felt like he had the ingredients that players would respond to – meaning he was direct and honest, he'd look you in the eye. Tough? Sure. Demanding? Sure. But there's no con to him when it came to dealing with players.

"Ultimately, could they trust him? I thought they could. It just took them a while to get to know him."

It took Coughlin some time to get to know his players, too, and to warm up to them on a personal level. That, players say, is the biggest difference in their coach from last season to this season. He's lightened up some of his rules – for example, he now allows players to wear sweats instead of suits on flights home from West Coast trips – but most of them are still as rigid as ever. But now he talks to his players, sometimes even about things other than football.

That's something he rarely did last year.

"He's just a little more personable, a little easier to approach," Tyree said. "And you start to understand his character more. It makes it a lot easier to be coached."

It's also helped that players began believing his rules were made for the good of the team. When Burress was late for two meetings in September and Coughlin benched him for the first quarter of the game in San Diego, tight end Jeremy Shockey was the only vocal opponent. The team leaders – Strahan, Tiki Barber, Antonio Pierce – had all been told of Burress' punishment and all gave the coach their support.

That's because they learned that all the complaining they did in 2004 only made them look like whiners – it certainly didn't make Coughlin change. They also learned, Strahan said, "that all the rules that everybody talked about are no big deal."

"Everybody's kind of let all those things go by the wayside and realized the business at hand is to win football games," he added. "All the stuff off the field means nothing unless you make it mean something, and right now no one is making that stuff really matter at all."

Of course, not everyone is always happy with everything Coughlin does and there are still private grumbles that his rules can be tiresome and petty. But the Giants learned, as Coughlin says, "All I want to do is win. There is no agenda."

As a result, this season felt like a country club to the Giants compared to Coughlin's first eventful days on the job.

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