EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- This was about 45 minutes after the New York Giants had lost 23-0 to the Seattle Seahawks on their home field Sunday. Through with his postgame speech to the team, his media obligations and his check-in with the medical people on his injured players, Giants coach Tom Coughlin walked into the locker room by himself.
On his way back to his office, Coughlin stopped between the lockers of veteran defensive linemen Justin Tuck and Cullen Jenkins -- two men who'd just got done throwing their huge bodies around in whatever vain effort they could make to keep their team in the game despite a complete lack of offense. The conversation was quiet, and private, interrupted only briefly when linebacker Jon Beason stopped to shake his coach's hand on his way out. Looking for answers, Coughlin was alighting briefly on an oasis of competence before he himself got ready to head home.
"Not very well," he'd said a short time earlier when asked how he was taking this 5-9 season. "Not very well."
Sunday's loss ensured Coughlin's first losing season since 2004, which was the first for both him and Eli Manning with the Giants. The two have had great success together, doubling the franchise's supply of Super Bowl trophies, and for that reason I continue to believe that Coughlin will get to coach the team as long as he wants to coach it. But watching the way this season has gone, and looking ahead to the rebuilding challenge that awaits the Giants in this offseason and maybe the next, I also think it's fair to wonder how long that will be.
Make no mistake here: There has been no indication from Coughlin or from anyone close to him that he intends to retire at the end of this season. The odds are still extremely in favor of him returning in 2014. That's where your money should be if you're betting this, and Sunday didn't change that.
But the totality of the circumstances could, and it would be hard to blame Coughlin if it did.
I don't believe Coughlin has given any serious thought to whether he'll come back for 2014. When asked, he swears he hasn't -- that his focus is entirely on the next game -- and I think we all have enough history with Coughlin to take him at his word on that. But a month from now, two months from now, once the in-season intensity has faded and there's time to look over the big picture, it wouldn't be crazy to think a 67-year-old coach who just had his first losing season in the past nine and has only made the playoffs once in the past five might start thinking about whether he can or wants to do this anymore.
He was obviously and visibly upset after this game. He lauded the effort put forth by his defense and his special teams, but he called the performance of the offense "pathetic." Manning, to whom Coughlin's career will forever be tied in history for very good reasons, had thrown five interceptions to match his career high and raise his league-leading total to 25. Coughlin cannot explain the turnover problem the Giants have had this year, only acknowledge that it has crippled them.
"We're depending on our best people to try and win, and we didn't win," Coughlin said. "The ball was thrown up, and our guys have to fight for the ball."
He's not naming names, but wide receiver Hakeem Nicks' flop of a contract year has been an obvious burr in Coughlin's saddle, and there surely were plays Sunday on which it appeared Nicks could have fought harder for the ball. Coughlin made a non-specific reference to the offensive linemen's poor performance, noting "a couple of spots" where they had an especially poor day in protection. His team is outmanned, which makes it tough for him to sell his usual message about responsibility even to his players. Safety Antrel Rolle interrupted Coughlin in the postgame while Coughlin was telling the team he, as its coach, was to blame for the performance.
"He can't coach heart," Rolle said later. "He can't make a player have passion about this game, and that's what we were lacking out there today."
Coughlin likely would tell you otherwise. His greatest coaching achievements have resulted from his ability to get the absolute most out of his players, from a heart and execution standpoint, when it mattered the most. He has been unable to do that this year, and it vexes him.
So it is fair to wonder how he'll evaluate this in a couple of weeks, when it's all over and there's no more opponent film to break down and he sits and thinks about what he wants to do. People close to Coughlin always say the same things about his purported retirement plans -- that he has no hobbies, nothing that's calling his name as a post-career activity, and that he'll coach until he feels he can't do it anymore.
It is not for me or you or anyone else to tell Coughlin when that will be, but it's fair to wonder. In spite of Manning's lousy year, the Giants are set at quarterback, and that could be enough to bring a coach back. But they need a ton of work at almost every other position -- the kind of work that could take multiple seasons to really fix things. Does Coughlin want to wait around through multiple rebuilding years? Does the status of veteran guard Chris Snee, who is Coughlin's son-in-law and could be a salary-cap cut this offseason, play into whatever decision he may feel he needs to make?
These are fair questions, and the only one who even might have answers to them at this point is Coughlin himself. You still have to think he's back in 2014, but the way this season has gone and continues to go gives you reason to wonder how badly he'll want to return.