Coughlin, Giants head into the unknown

Tom Coughlin felt he had something special before things fell apart during the final weeks of the regular season. AP Photo/Evan Vucci

New York Giants coach Tom Coughlin may have taken a page from the Bobby Knight playbook when he advised his critics to kiss his posterior following the final game of the season, but now he needs to back up his tough talk. Coughlin's job security came into question as the Giants lost two key games in December and missed the playoffs for the second consecutive season.

Giants co-owner John Mara had Coughlin's back immediately following the final win over the Washington Redskins and said Thursday that a contract extension will happen "sooner rather than later." But unless you coach for the Steelers and perhaps the Eagles, contract extensions don't always carry a lot of weight. No matter the circumstances, it's hard to imagine Coughlin surviving if the Giants miss the playoffs again.

It feels like the Giants are sort of in football purgatory right now. They were talented enough to be considered a true Super Bowl contender as late as December, but you can't ignore the awful two-week collapse that ensued. It's not like this roster is crying out for a massive overhaul, but it also doesn't feel like standing pat is the best move.

One thing Giants fans won't enjoy is hearing Coughlin talk about how injuries played such a large role late in the season. Every time you try to convince yourselves that injuries along the offensive line and at receiver undermined this team, the world champion Green Bay Packers and their 15 players on injured reserve keep coming to mind. And that's why I think this quote from Tom Coughlin at the NFL combine in Indianapolis Friday was in poor form:

"As I said, there were, at times, during the season, I came away from games saying, ‘Geez, we may really have something.’ And as soon as I said that, then Steve Smith had his midweek problem," Coughlin told reporters Friday. "It is not all about that. Everybody overcomes injuries. There are games where we didn’t play as well. The No. 1 factor I attributed to from Day 1 was the turnovers. You lead the league in takeaways, but you also lead the league in giveaways. It has always been a huge factor for me since Day 1. Had that been more in the norm for our team, then I think we probably win two more games than lose. So that was certainly a huge part of it. But it wouldn’t be fair or honest for us to question or ignore the fact that some of the players were not able to play at the end of the year. The injury factor did take a toll."

I think Coughlin and GM Jerry Reese are still stunned by what happened with Eli Manning last season. This is a borderline elite quarterback who led the league in interceptions. I've been (rightly) labeled an Eli apologist in the past, but there's absolutely no excuse for throwing 25 interceptions. His defenders will point to all of the tipped passes and inexperienced wide receivers, but I'll point you to some of the most careless decisions we've seen from Manning in years. The image that keeps coming back to me is that left-handed attempt that was intercepted by the Titans in a loss at New Meadowlands Stadium. The Giants dominated that game statistically, but they lost their poise in drawing personal fouls and Manning simply gave points away. It's a loss that ended up haunting the Giants at the end of the season.

Following the season, Reese was quite pointed in his comments toward Manning. Given the opportunity to offer an alibi, Reese said the onus would be entirely on Manning to correct his mistakes. The message was pretty clear that the organization expected a lot more from its franchise quarterback. And I believe that message has been received.

Reese will address reporters Saturday at the combine, and I'm sure the topic of Manning will be front and center. He may not be quite as pointed in his comments, but I guarantee you that watching Aaron Rodgers put an offense on his shoulders in a remarkable string of do-or-die games gave Reese and Coughlin even more resolve to make sure Manning lifts his game in 2011.

But what about this little lockout story? For a coach who puts such a premium on communication, it has to drive Coughlin nuts that he may be cut off from his players.

"That would be, or will be, something that none of us in this profession really want," said Coughlin. "Everything we do is always a hands-on approach. You have the constant flow of information back and forth, so that part of it will be the difficult part of it."

Coughlin's defensive coordinator, Perry Fewell, thrives on talking to his players. And there's the belief within the organization that the defense will make a big jump in Fewell's second season. Now the Giants will have a more difficult time monitoring the progress of injured players such as Smith and defensive end Mathias Kiwanuka, perhaps the most versatile player on that side of the ball.

Coughlin was also asked about former Giants receiver Plaxico Burress, who is scheduled to be released from prison in June. Will the Giants welcome him back into the fold?

"You know, I haven’t spent a lot of time thinking or talking about that," said Coughlin. "I anticipated that someone would ask that question. I don’t know that there would be interest on the part of the Giants. I don’t know that there won’t be, but I don’t know if there will be."

So I guess we're clear on that?

Like a lot of teams across the league, the Giants are trying to figure out who they are. And it's not like a lockout's going to help that search.