Heat's on Coughlin with Make-or-Break Season

ALBANY – The Giants had finished the morning practice of their first full day of training camp when Tom Coughlin gathered players near an end zone of their University at Albany field. This was no get-acquainted chat, no how-was-your-summer hello. This was the Coughlin of old, or of new, or maybe an old-new version.

Whatever, this was the Coughlin who fined players for being within five minutes early for meetings, the Coughlin who once used sidelines as a personal screaming zone, his face tomato-red while spitting out expletives. Except he was measured, not maniacal. Come hell or high water, he plans to get his point across to this football team.

"It really wasn't emotional,'' he said afterward. "It was just a series of things that I had made notes on about tempo and how we practice.''

It was a whole lot more than that. It was Coughlin reminding young players that each mistake gets them closer to the inactive list. It was Coughlin harping on the importance of preventing and forcing turnovers to a team with a minus-seven ratio last season.

But this isn't that team, thankfully, and Coughlin has begun doing everything in his power to avoid a repeat performance. For a man who prides himself on consistency, he seemed to arrive to camp with a special need to prove himself again, three seasons after holding the Lombardi Trophy in Glendale, Ariz.

The Giants have plenty to prove, which means Coughlin has plenty to prove. They shot out of the blocks 5-0 last season before losing eight of their final 11 games in one of the more pitiful collapses in franchise history. They looked overmatched and uninspired in the final weeks, a combination that left team president John Mara piping mad at a postseason media briefing.

Coughlin fired defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan and replaced him with Perry Fewell who – surprise, surprise – shares Coughlin's high-pitched form of communication. Coughlin got another batch of defenders through the draft and free agency. It's on him more than at any point since the start of the 2007 season. And listening to Coughlin, knowing his standards, you get the feeling he would agree with that assessment.

He looked deeply within himself after the 2006 season, his third as Giants coach. They had just gone 8-8 and lost an opening-round playoff game for the second straight year. More than a few people called for Coughlin's job. Management made it clear that he would have to improve his clunky interpersonal skills. Coughlin got the message. He allowed players to see past the militaristic disciplinarian and gave them a peephole into his heart; an organ that many players had sworn couldn't be located without the use of a microscope.

Coughlin has no intentions on returning to the pre-Super Bowl winning coach. But it sure is clear Coughlin has taken special care on making sure this team comprehends his message. Beat reporters couldn't remember him ever following up the pre-camp conditioning test with a practice, as Coughlin did on Sunday. He needs to prove to himself that he can win the whole thing again as head coach. It would put Coughlin in rarefied air, a place only 12 head coaches reside as multiple-Super Bowl winners. The flip side is another Giants collapse, this one from the start, focusing the only December drama on whether Coughlin would return for the 2011 season.

Coughlin already has bucked league odds by remaining with the same team into his seventh season. He might not see an eighth if the Giants don't make considerable strides this year. Counting the final two games of 2008, they have now lost 10 of 18 games.

Coughlin knows the count. He knows every painful detail of what became the season of collapse. He knows injuries were a glaring issue, and has begun harping on the importance of playing every week. When someone asked about cornerback Corey Webster, who had an electrifying one-handed interception and return for a touchdown during an early-camp practice, Coughlin complimented Webster before adding, "Wouldn't it be great to see Corey for 16 games?''

When the next question highlighted injury-prone back Ahmad Bradshaw, who missed substantial practice time last year and coming off surgery seemed hesitant early on, Coughlin said, "I'd like to see him have confidence in himself, what he can and can't do. I want to see him extend that and fight his way through some of the tough days and continue out here with his teammates without having to take a step back.''

You don't need a psychology degree to read into Coughlin's words. The topic was Bradshaw but it could have been the entire team. The message? Suck it up. Win the mental battle and you can win the physical battle. No excuses.

The offseason hasn't been a whole lot better than the 2009 season. We weren't even out of June when receiver Domenik Hixon suffered a season-ending torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee during the team's first practice in its new stadium. Third-round draft pick Chad Jones almost died in a car accident, his season over and career in question. Now Osi Umenyiora's hip is acting up, and if a pronounced limp early in camp was any indication, it's concerning.

Great teams survive the periodic pelting of adversity. And great coaches lead the way.

Kevin Gleason covers the Giants for the Times Herald-Record in Middletown, N.Y.

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