EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - Before the season had even begun, the retired star running back had blamed the coach for forcing his early retirement. Two games in, with their offense error-prone and their defense seemingly unable to stop anybody, the New York Giants were 0-2.
They come to Philly this week with two of their running backs injured; one, Derrick Ward, with a season-ending broken fibula, the other, Brandon Jacobs, with an iffy hamstring that has curtailed his practice this week. They come to Philly with the usual doubts and criticism surrounding their quarterback, the team's first-year general manager Jerry Reese calling Eli Manning "skittish" after a four-interception performance against Minnesota two Sundays ago.
And yet they come to Lincoln Financial Field with an 8-4 record, the lead dog in a wild-card race filled with three-legged mongrels.
Perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not, their feisty coach, Tom Coughlin, has yet to even lash out at inquisitors, not even an "open your ears." Coughlin has yet to have an open-aired beef with any of the outspoken stars still in the locker room, too, hasn't even torn into Manning for his maddening up-and-down play.
As surprising as the Giants are this season, the bigger surprise might be their team harmony, especially this late in the season. Gone, along with Tiki Barber, is the open questioning of Coughlin's coaching, some of it anonymous, some of it not. Michael Strahan has been a model citizen. Jeremy Shockey has become a diligent blocker. Said Manning, "Last year we were kind of going through rough times and we kind of added to the fire every week with something new. We've done a better job with that this season."
These days Coughlin speaks often of being "upbeat" with his players, even amid some of the messy, penalty-filled games that have pockmarked the Giants' surprising season. These days, his politeness to the press borders on excessive, like when he apologized yesterday for beginning his answer before a reporter finished his question.
Warm and fuzzy? It's hard to see Coughlin, weaned as an assistant under Bill Parcells in the 1980s, morphing that far. The next joke he tells might be his first. The next belly laugh at his or his team's expense may be, too. He's a serious sort still, and he suffers fools - a synonym in coaching circles for media - less than gladly.
But give the old dog credit for trying. After a late-season flop last year and another first-round exit from the playoffs, Coughlin sought counsel not from his coaching peers, but from the fools who dared to question both his tactics and demeanor. Over the spring, he met privately with 11 reporters who regularly cover the team, asking how he could improve his relationship with them, and his communicative skills in general.
It produced a more patient and cooperative coach. Not just with the media, but with his own players. "I think honestly we've got a tighter group of guys this year," fifth-year wide receiver and special-teams player David Tyree said. "There's no dissension. Nobody's attacking each other. That's been a difference."
Coughlin named team captains for the first time in 12 seasons as an NFL head coach. He also installed a 10-player leadership group to improve communication to, in his words, "Make sure we are all on the same page and that our voice is one, and that everybody understands what we are doing and why we are doing it.
"In the past there may have been something very clear to me," Coughlin said. "As I have expressed it to the team - they may not have understood it that way."
"He made the changes necessary that got us excited about coming here and preparing," said Tyree. "I think he's a little bit more accessible. And the guys aren't afraid to maybe kid around with him, joke around with him. As long as we're doing our job and in line . . . "
So he has a sense of humor then?
"Oh, definitely," Tyree said. "You might not catch it for the first couple of years, but . . . "
Coughlin was hired as the Giants' coach in 2004. He was nearly fired as their coach after last season, when they ran off to a 6-2 start but finished 8-8. Each week, it seemed, the Giants' coach was thisclose to bursting into flames on the sideline, and each week it seemed his brutal postgame assessments were must-see TV.
That's gone now. The team that comes to Philadelphia this Sunday is a much more resilient team than a year ago, more together, able to sustain big injury hits to a slew of skill-position players, able to weather the slow, painful progression of Manning as a quarterback.
It's a calm place, the Giants' locker room these days. As placid, really, as its revamped coach.
"I think as a whole we've grown up," Manning said. "We've learned from the experience, with everything that happens in New York, or wherever you are, you've got to be careful with how you respond to things and what you say. You've got to deal with it within the team and not go outside of it." *
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