Giant Security shouldn't be a Coughlin Luxury

Their playoff fate hasn't been determined, so when Tiki Barber steps onto FedEx Field Saturday night he won't know whether the Giants' game against Washington will be his last as one of their two figurative leaders.

Their literal leader should be burdened by the same sense of uncertainty.

The franchise's decision-makers seem intent to bring back Tom Coughlin for a fourth season, but he should be coaching for his job based on his history here.

The Giants aren't any better off today than they were three years ago, when they informed Jim Fassel with about a month left in his seventh season that he wasn't the man for the job anymore. As speculation persisted regarding Coughlin's future with about a month left in this regular season, they made it clear Coughlin isn't in any danger of meeting Fassel's fate. It is tough to figure out why, since the Giants are the same model of inconsistency they were when Fassel was here.

If the Redskins defeat them Saturday, it could mark the second time in Coughlin's three seasons that the Giants won't qualify for the playoffs. A loss Saturday should also ensure that they still wouldn't have made the playoffs in consecutive seasons since 1990. The irregularity with which they reached the postseason was an enormous problem for Fassel, whose teams qualified in years one, four and six of his tenure.

Coughlin, though, would probably be rewarded for fielding pedestrian teams. One of the Giants' unwritten policies prohibits their head coach from working during the final year of his contract, and 2007 is the last season of the four-year, $12 million deal Coughlin signed after they fired Fassel. The Giants didn't sign Fassel to a contract extension until the offseason after they played in Super Bowl XXXV, but Coughlin could receive one for failing to make the playoffs in a conference full of inept teams.

As if that isn't inequitable enough, one of Coughlin's primary missions was to make this team more disciplined.

Cincinnati coach Marvin Lewis will tell you that things can always be worse, but for all Coughlin's tough talk and maligned time requirements, these underachieving Giants appear less disciplined on the field than the teams Fassel fielded. They're about average in terms of overall penalties this season, but they've continuously committed costly personal fouls, despite Coughlin's constant warnings. Then again, Coughlin's juvenile sideline behavior hasn't exactly exuded professionalism, either.

Coughlin and his staff should shoulder much of the blame for Eli Manning's regression as well. Manning makes many of the same mechanical and mental mistakes after two full seasons as their starting quarterback as he did during his rookie year. And if Coughlin can accept some deserved credit for solving Barber's fumbling problem, he can't escape criticism for their quarterback quandary.

The former Jacksonville coach has accomplished less with more, too. Fassel, you'll remember, took over a defensively driven, divided team in 1997 and somehow made the postseason in his first year as coach with Danny Kanell at quarterback and fullback Charles Way as their leading rusher. That was before Barber became a star and Amani Toomer became one of the most reliable receivers in the league.

Armed with them, playmaking Plaxico Burress, Pro Bowl tight end Jeremy Shockey, a cohesive offensive line and a supposed star-in-the-making under center, Coughlin's overall record reflects mediocrity.

His strongest supporters will argue that this team was ravaged by injuries, an undeniable impediment when you consider the lengthy losses of Michael Strahan, Osi Umenyiora, Luke Petitgout, Corey Webster, Sam Madison and Toomer throughout the season. But the injuries also mounted in unfair fashion for Fassel in 2003, when Will Peterson, Petitgout, Shockey, Rich Seubert, Shaun Williams and Kerry Collins all missed significant time. And Andy Reid has his Eagles playing better than these Giants, without his star quarterback, Donovan McNabb, and disruptive defensive end Jevon Kearse.

So while injuries obviously aren't the "state of mind" Coughlin claimed when he was hired, losing premier players is a harsh reality of NFL life. Injuries weren't an acceptable excuse for Fassel, so let's not make them Coughlin's crutch.

And don't let Coughlin's allies fool you into believing that these calls for Coughlin's dismissal are personal attacks against someone media members merely don't like. The crotchety Coughlin's inability to smile on occasion is obviously odd, but the cantankerous coach's crusty exterior is irrelevant in assessing his performance. Bill Belichick isn't the most pleasant person in the world, either, but Belichick was fired when he lost in Cleveland and rewarded when he won with New England.

The same principles apply here in this bottom-line business. Coughlin's bottom line is that he lost eight straight games and finished 6-10 in his first season, got shut out in a home playoff game after going 11-5 during his second season and blew a 6-2 start this year, leaving a talented team in the precarious position of not reaching the playoffs for the third time in four years. That is not the progress they sought when they fired Fassel, certainly nothing to warrant a contract extension.

Worse yet, matters might get worse next season.

The Giants will definitely have difficulty dealing with Barber's retirement, no matter how Brandon Jacobs develops. You can't help but wonder about the durability of their top defensive player, too, now that the 35-year-old Strahan has missed basically half of two out of three seasons with pectoral and foot injuries. Manning, meanwhile, isn't on track to become the quality quarterback everyone envisioned when they traded too much to acquire him in 2004.

Barber's return would provide a reason to feel at least a little better about the 2007 Giants, but their all-time leading rusher said he won't change his mind about playing an 11th season. He is completely committed to beginning his life after football, a television career that won't require him to wear a helmet. When the cameras catch him jogging onto FedEx Field Saturday night, Barber won't know whether this will be his last game with the Giants.

His head coach should've been made to feel the same way.

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