Wait... wait... let me get another look... That is him!
My bad. I was fooled by his placid demeanor, his even-keeled news conferences, his patience, his shift toward democracy.
Frankly, I was a bit surprised that he hasn't been ripped by any of his players yet, at least publicly.
But then, the season is young, isn't it?
All seriousness, major props to Coughlin. You're talking about a 61-year-old man who has incorporated the same old-school rigid style for almost every one of his 38 years coaching football.
And he's changed.
Can you believe how he has changed?
To understand the depth of Coughlin's change is to ask yourself a simple question: Could you, having performed your job pretty much the same way for four decades, suddenly change your style?
I know I couldn't, which to some folks represents a rather distressing piece of news.
Coughlin, though, has tried hard to change his ways. One sign was in creating a 10-player leadership council before the season. The idea is to bounce issues off players, mostly veterans, and get their feedback on various aspects of the team. This is a guy who was about as flexible as a tire iron his first few years as Giants coach. A guy who came in with the reputation for having a million rules and seemed to enforce 999,000 of them his first year.
Like the one mandating players show up five minutes before the start of meetings. That one was a big hit with the players.
But Coughlin changed because he had to change. Not only was the team's immediate future at stake, but Coughlin's career was on the line as well. A hasty departure from another team threatened to send Coughlin to head-coaching oblivion, a place currently occupied by his predecessor, Jim Fassel.
The Giants essentially steered Coughlin toward change by handing him a one-year contract extension following last season. The team seemed to be saying, "We know you are a good football coach. Now prove you can coach players." Giants hierarchy wanted to know Coughlin's vision and how he would change his approach to make the Giants a better football team.
"Much of those discussions were having him tell us what his plan was going forward to make us better and to make us as successful a team as we all want to be," Giants president John Mara said back in January after re-upping Coughlin. "Tom has demonstrated and articulated a vision for the future. It is one that we agree with, one that we support, and one that we embrace."
Coughlin recognized, however grudgingly, that he needed to soften his approach with players. One of the first signs of his change came when he showed great restraint during Michael Strahan's holdout/break/vacation in training camp. Coughlin steered clear of any inflammatory comments, knowing their ramifications when Strahan eventually returned. Of course Strahan came back, and by all accounts their relationship has been peachy.
Coughlin methods are clearly getting through to this team. One area of discipline shows itself in penalties. The Giants averaged 7.5 penalties a game in Coughlin's first three seasons. They had become quite adept at not only committing too many penalties, but committing mindless infractions at the worst possible time. The Giants had 143 penalties in Coughlin's second season, and though we'd like to blame every single one of them on Luke Petitgout jumping early, his teammates contributed greatly to the problem.
Through six games the Giants had cut their penalties almost in half, to 4.3 a game. Outside of an occasional Jeremy Shockey moment, whether it be spiking the ball after a catch or tripping a defender following an interception, the Giants have played intelligent, disciplined football.
There was no panic after an 0-2 start in which the Giants allowed 80 points and roughly the same amount of yardage as the acreage needed to build their new stadium. The ensuing four-game win streak leading to the San Francisco game brings to mind another smart offseason move by Coughlin: the hiring of defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. He's been a terrific addition to the team, and it's not because, as a couple wise guy colleagues suggest, Spagnuolo bears a vague resemblance to yours truly. Spagnuolo's schemes have helped players such as rookie Aaron Ross and veteran Sam Madison utilize their skills in coverage. Strahan's emergence, Osi Umenyiora's brilliance and Mathias Kiwanuka's newfound sense of comfort have come under Spagnuolo's watch.
A less-talked about addition to the staff has been quarterbacks coach Chris Palmer, who came in with a spotty NFL record but has helped polish Eli Manning's game. Coughlin's ability to help Manning realize his potential played a key role in contract talks with Coughlin. Palmer, and surely Coughlin, have helped Manning improve his fundamentals in several aspects, namely poise in the pocket and technique before and during release of the ball.
And of course, there have been no whispers inside the locker room of Coughlin getting his butt out-coached. "I think there is a good feeling of support everywhere," Coughlin said last week. "There is really no finger pointing or anything in that locker room. And that has been a big plus. We go in at the half. If things aren't going as well as they should, guys are very supportive of one another. They really believe they can come out and change things in the second half."
Mara put it best when describing Coughlin's demeanor back in January. "The only change that I want to see is us win more games. He is the hardest-working coach that I have ever been around. And he wants to win, probably more than any other coach that I have ever been around. Now he just has to go out there and do it."
He is doing it so far, and the Giants are off to another great start. Yet with the season not yet at the halfway mark, the Giants remain something of a work in progress. They have been relatively healthy, a situation that, as last season proved, can change in a heartbeat. They have played a rather kind schedule, which gets a tad more difficult in the second half.
But at this point, Coughlin's work has been admirable. The NFC is hardly glowing with top-notch teams. Right now there are the Cowboys and the Packers and the Giants and that's about it.
Perhaps history will repeat itself. The organization admittedly was displeased with Fassel's work in the 1999 season. Yet the Giants extended Fassel's contract and he took the team to the Super Bowl in 2000.
Kevin Gleason covers the Giants for the Times Herald-Record in Middletown, N.Y.
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