I never thought I'd say this, but it seems like coach Tom Coughlin has run out of motivational tools. This is a man who wakes up thinking about T-shirt slogans and his favorite John Wooden quotes, but at some point words can only take you so far.
Anyone who had a front-row seat to the Giants' Super Bowl run in '07 has a hard time completely dismissing the Giants. We tried to bury them before the '08 season based on the retirement of Michael Strahan, the trade of enigmatic tight end Jeremy Shockey and the season-ending knee injury to Osi Umenyiora. The Giants responded by roaring out of the gates and seemed headed for another Super Bowl before the shot heard 'round the Latin Quarter occurred.
The loss of Plaxico Burress and injuries along the defensive line short-circuited the season, but even the most cynical Giants fans believed that quarterback Eli Manning and Coughlin would right the ship in '09. And just like clockwork, a 33-31 win over the Cowboys on opening night at Jerry Jones' $1.1 billion football palace served notice that the Giants had taken their rightful spot among the league's elite.
Sure, the loss of brilliant young safety Kenny Phillips to a knee injury was a setback, but this is an organization that almost seemed to welcome adversity. The Giants jumped out to a 5-0 start after lopsided wins over the Bucs, Chiefs and Raiders. I think players may have been lulled into a false sense of security during those games, and of course, Manning suffered a right foot injury that may or may not have contributed to the Giants losing five of six games.
Now the Giants find themselves in an unfamiliar situation. They had already wrapped up the NFC title when they lost to a desperate Cowboys team at Texas Stadium last December. Running back Brandon Jacobs, who used to be the heart and soul of the offense, missed that game with an injury.
On Sunday, the Giants will be the desperate team. A loss would put them in the unenviable position of needing to run the table to even have a shot at a wild-card spot. A win over the Cowboys would put the Giants back in a position of strength. They'd have a 7-5 record with the Eagles coming to town -- and they'd also own the division tiebreaker over the Cowboys by virtue of a sweep.
But after watching this Giants team play the past six weeks, a win over the Cowboys seems like a pipe dream. Even if you dismiss the disgraceful performance on Thanksgiving to a tough turnaround, it doesn't change the fact that the Giants haven't established any traceable identity. The running game that once allowed them to dominate opponents has all but disappeared. Earth, Wind and Fire is a distant memory as Jacobs continues to struggle and Ahmad Bradshaw and DJ Ware are battling injuries.
In the '07 playoffs, a deep rotation of defensive linemen overwhelmed opponents and took down Tom Brady in the Super Bowl. But for whatever reason, the pass rush hasn't been there this season, allowing quarterbacks such as Drew Brees and Donovan McNabb to expose an injury-ravaged secondary.
Though he claims that his message was misinterpreted by the dastardly New York tabloids, Coughlin erred when he billed a Nov. 8 game against the Chargers as the Giants' Super Bowl. In the midst of a three-game losing streak, Coughlin issued the dreaded must-win -- and the Giants lost. It's a tactic that backfired, and that's why you don't hear Coughlin embracing the must-win questions that are coming his way this week.
"We challenge ourselves every week, and that’s not lacking," Coughlin told reporters Wednesday. "I think that the players know. We point-blank spell out every circumstance for them. I think they know exactly what the circumstances are and who the divisional teams are playing. They’re very well informed and they know what is at stake. We try and make sure that it is very clear to them what has to be done in order for them to win and where the circumstances lie. I expect that we will certainly understand that this week."
Coughlin would agree that at some point players have to grasp the gravity of the situation on their own. You can talk all day about losing an emotional leader such as Antonio Pierce or Manning's nagging foot injury, but come Sunday, the Cowboys aren't going to care about those issues.
At this point, Coughlin's tried just about everything to get his team's attention. Perhaps the prospect of having their playoff hopes buried by their hated rivals will finally do the trick.