How far should a head coach go?

How far should a head coach go to protect his assistants?

Paul Schwartz: To the end of the earth and back. OK, that's overly dramatic but it does make the point. No one puts in the grueling hours of an NFL assistant coach, the grunts who toil endlessly in dark meeting rooms and get little of the glory on Sundays. The heads coach entrusts his staff to relay his messages and teach his techniques to the players and without that rigid chain of command the system doesn't work. If the loyalty factor isn't a two-way street then backbiting and second-guessing is sure to follow. There are times, though, when the man in charge must step in and either steer the assistant in a different direction or else relieve the assistant of his duties. Remember during Jim Fassel's regime when the offense became bogged down and the heat was rising on a young offensive coordinator named Sean Payton? Fassel doggedly refused to tweak Payton's calls and insisted on staying the course, but finally the situation deteriorated to the point where something had to be done. Fassel took over the play-calling and after the season ended Payton left the team. That leads us to Tom Coughlin and his offensive coordinator, John Hufnagel. If Coughlin in his heart and mind feels that the harsh criticism heaped on Hufnagel from the outside is pure bunk, he should do nothing. But if Coughlin believes that Hufnagel is part of a problem the time has come for Coughlin to take over the play-calling. What will be interesting to observe is whether or not Coughlin after this season is either asked or told to shake up his staff and let Hufnagel go. Head coaches rarely say 'If he goes, I go' and I'm betting Coughlin won't say that, either.

Ken Palmer: Of course he won't. He's no idiot, which is what everyone is making John Hufnagel out to be. Hufnagel didn't look so stupid last year when the Giants finished third in scoring, nor when he was the man behind Tom Brady and the powerful Patriots offense. It's obvious that Coughlin doesn't feel that Hufnagel needs the boot or he would have been gone already. That's one thing you don't have to worry about regarding Coughlin – his loyalty getting in the way of his desire to win football games. He's the prototypical coach that would cut his own mother if she weren't producing. With that said coaches should show a certain amount of loyalty to their support staff. While it's easy to take on the ‘I can do it better myself' attitude, that's not why there are so many men on a pro football coaching staff. One only has to look at Fassel as an example of a head coach being too loyal. While he obviously underestimated Sean Payton's play-calling abilities, Fassel did stick by defensive coordinator Johnnie Lynn and OL coach Jim McNally for way too long. Those decisions eventually contributed to his firing. Coaches should exhibit some level of loyalty, but not to the point that they're putting themselves in danger. Bosses in corporate America would never do it; why should football coaches?

PS: What the heck are you talking about? Hufnagel was, in your words, ‘the man behind Tom Brady and the powerful Patriots offense.' You ever hear of a guy named Charlie Weis? Come back to us, Kenny. All right, now take a look around the league. There aren't many compelling races for division titles, with front-runners assuming a commanding lead. Of course, that doesn't hurt the stretch run for the NFL one bit, as the wild card races are rampant and inclusive. This is exactly what Pete Rozelle envisioned, parity disguised as mediocrity, virtually every team in the playoff mix deep into the season. Teams at .500 can ride one late hot streak into the post-season. Scoreboard watching rules every weekend afternoon. Is this good stuff? I think not. The more, the merrier isn't my idea of riveting viewing. I liked it better when there were dynasty-type teams, when there was greatness out on the field, not this any-given-Sunday blather that turns form into formless. There are few clashes of titans any more, like back when the 49ers-Cowboys created instant classics. I liked it when only those teams with winning records could even think about getting a sniff of the playoff scent. What we have now, with have-nots inheriting the earth, sort of stinks.

KP: Not at all, my friend. The St. Louis Cardinals barely won 80 baseball games this year, but ended up World Series champions. The more, the merrier, indeed. All the wild card positions do is ensure that the best teams get into the playoffs. What if the NBA only allowed each division winner into the postseason? Then the Atlantic would contribute a sub-.500 club like the Knicks or Nets and other more-deserving clubs would be denied access. The wild card not only ensures that more games matter later into the season, but it improves ticket sales, fan interest and TV ratings – and we all know TV rules this league. I love the wild card. For example, there's no question the Giants and Cowboys are both postseason worthy, especially considering the NFC is so watered-down this year. Having two wild card slots guarantees they'll both have a chance to make it and quite possibly sets up a third match-up, which would likely be an all-time classic. Without the wild card, only one would get in, hurting the league and its fans in the process.

PS: I never said I hated the wild card, it just would be nice if those teams actually managed to have a winning record or something better than 9-7 to get in. Next topic. The Giants this season have evolved into a team of stars, which is part of their problem. So many strong personalities. As usual, the spotlight isn't wide enough to illuminate some of the truly under-appreciated players on the roster. My vote for the player taken most for granted is David Diehl, the left guard who has started every game this season and all 62 games in his career. That's remarkable, and even more impressive is that the big guy never, ever even misses a play or a practice. In the crucial victory in Carolina, Diehl had to move outside and play right tackle for the first time since his emergency fill-in appearance last season. Diehl never flinched and did the job against defensive end Julius Peppers, who just might be the most formidable opponent in the league for an offensive tackle. Afterward, Diehl didn't seek praise for his work, he merely accepted congratulations and moved on. Diehl is always there and thus gets over-looked, but he shouldn't be.

KP: At least we're consistent here, buddy. You've mentioned Diehl as the most under-appreciated Giant so many times that he's become one of the most appreciated. Same goes for Ryan Kuehl and me. The best part about Kuehl is that only the most ardent Giants fan even knows he's on the roster. Yet he possesses one of the team's most important jobs. I know I don't even need to bring up Mr. Junkin and what happened at the end of the playoff disaster in San Fran a few years back to illustrate this point. For all of Diehl's versatility, one bad Kuehl snap could turn an entire game against Big Blue. But we both know that that's a moot point. When Kuehl signed with New York a friend of mine from Cleveland claimed that he would never miss a snap and that he was as dependable as they come. He was right. And for that Kuehl certainly has the highest value for low recognition quotient on the Giants.

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