A lot of very different things have been said about the New York Giants' Tom Coughlin over the course of his long career, but you have to admit the guy knows how to coach. I mean, this business Wednesday where he somehow played the "nobody's picking us to win" card for this Sunday's game against the 49ers in San Francisco? How does a guy get away with saying "nobody's picking us" on a Wednesday? Nobody has even made their Sunday game picks by Wednesday.
Ah, but Coughlin is shrewd. He knows this no-respect thing doesn't have to be rooted in truth to work where he needs it to work. The fact that there's no legitimate proof that people don't think Coughlin's defending Super Bowl champs are a good team is a minor and irrelevant detail. You can say anything you want, and in this case Coughlin knows the precise effect his outlandish claim Wednesday will have.
He knows the people who cover the team will go to every single Giants player they can find and ask them what they think about this outrageous lack of respect the world supposedly has for their roster and its accomplishments. He knows this becomes the dominant story of the week in his locker room. And although it might not get the headlines that Mark Sanchez, Tim Tebow and Raul Ibanez are getting in New York today, that doesn't matter. It will work where he needs it to work -- in the heads and hearts of his players.
That's important this week. The Giants are 3-2, which is fine, but you can make the case that they've been muddling along. The wins are against the Buccaneers, Panthers and Browns, and the losses are potentially damaging division setbacks to the Cowboys and the Eagles. There are all kinds of injuries at key spots, and though the pass-rushers are healthy, the pass rush is curiously absent. The Giants have only eight sacks this season. Only five teams in the league have fewer than eight, and not one of them is famous for building two recent Super Bowl titles on a dominant pass rush.
The Giants need something to wake them up. As great as many of the players in their locker room are, that room isn't overloaded with self-starters. Justin Tuck is the poster child for that room -- a tremendous player when motivated, but not always motivated. Tuck gets down about bad games. His mind wanders a bit. He starts to feel sorry for himself. He's a thoughtful guy who has acknowledged all of this, so it's not as though I'm just sitting here ripping him about it, but it happened last season, and it seems to be happening again. One of Coughlin's great strengths as a coach is that he knows his team well, and right now he almost certainly sees a team that needs something to wake it up a little -- to make it mad, because when the Giants play mad, the Giants play great.
This week, facing a trip to San Francisco to play a team that might well be the best in the league, Coughlin can't afford to have his players moping and muddling. With no certainty about whether Hakeem Nicks or a slew of other very important players will be healthy enough to play Sunday, Coughlin can't afford to have his healthy players at anything less than their best. So he must find a way to turn up their intensity level, and he knows from vast experience with this group that the "no respect" idea is a technique that works.
The Giants responded to it all of last season, throughout their playoff run and right through the Super Bowl. They proclaimed, after February's victory against the New England Patriots in Indianapolis, that no one had picked them to win the game, even though this was patently false. And when they arrived in training camp this year, it started right up again. Giants players talked constantly about a league-wide lack of respect. Tuck complained that all of the experts were picking the Eagles and the Cowboys to win the division, when about half of the experts picked the Giants and I don't know anyone who picked the Cowboys. It works with this bunch. It's something that gets their attention, gets their back up, gets them to play with greater intensity and focus and anger than they're inclined to do without it. Coughlin knows this, and that's why it just happened to come up this week.
The Giants can obviously go to San Francisco on Sunday and win. This would not be some kind of huge upset. They nearly won there in the regular season last season, and they did win in the NFC Championship Game. Both times, the Giants played a tougher, more determined and more physical game than they play most weeks. The NFC Championship Game was as nasty and physical a game as any two NFL teams played all year, and the Giants were tougher in the end. They know they have this in them. It's going to be difficult to muster the same kind of intensity this week for a game whose winner does not automatically go to the Super Bowl. But Coughlin knows he needs at least some of it in order for the Giants to deliver the type of effort this game and this opponent and this venue will demand of them.
If the Giants play Sunday the way they've played for most of this season, they could get blown out. If they play the way they're capable of playing when they feel the world's against them, they will make life very difficult for the 49ers and could beat them. And if they do beat them, watch next week for NFL Films video of Coughlin in the postgame locker room telling his team, among other things, that no one thought they could. Won't matter for a second that it wasn't true, because it will have worked.