EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The New York Giants' players were a little nervous when they gathered, three Tuesdays ago, for their weekly meeting with head coach Tom Coughlin. Two days earlier, they'd been embarrassed at home by the Washington Redskins in a loss that put their playoff hopes in jeopardy. Their experience with Coughlin told them that he could be a little harsh in these types of situations, and they braced for the worst.
But Coughlin surprised them by going positive. His speech that day was about the opportunity that lay in front of them. Two games, against the Jets and the Cowboys. Win them both, and you're division champs. You're a group of young, talented men that have the world by the tail. It's the week before Christmas. Relax and have fun out there. There's no better spot to be in than December in the NFL with a chance to make the playoffs.
Coughlin says it wasn't the first time he's ever gone positive with his message to his team, but he admits it runs counter to his stern reputation. So why did he do it this way this particular time?
"Because I know the team," Coughlin said Wednesday. "I know the people."
He also knew what time of year it was, and that factored into the decision to set an upbeat, supportive tone. Knowing his team was effectively playing playoff games from that point forward, Coughlin decided to see if he could build an emotional wave for the Giants to ride into the postseason. It worked, and as a result the Giants go into Sunday's wild-card playoff game against the Atlanta Falcons in their strongest mental state of the year.
"That's why he's been coaching as long as he has," Giants safety Deon Grant said. "He knows what to say and when to say it. A message like that, I'm not sure it would have been heard the same if he came out with it in the middle of the season. But he knew the message was right for the people he was talking to and for the time of year it was."
You look for reasons to believe your team has an edge at this time of year, and the Giants have some things going for them. They have a quarterback who's been through this before and won a Super Bowl, and who's playing as well as he ever has. They have that defensive line healthy and wreaking havoc on quarterbacks. And they have a 16-year veteran head coach who's also won a Super Bowl and who's proved once again that he knows which buttons to push and when.
"We responded, didn't we?" said Giants guard Chris Snee, who in addition to playing for Coughlin is also married to the coach's daughter. "We came in with a lot of enthusiasm and a lot of energy the past two games, and it showed. That's something that's got to stay with us throughout this whole playoff stretch, and I think it can."
This is one of the benefits to having a veteran coach who's been in a variety of situations. He has perspective. He can assess a lot of different options, weigh them against the circumstances and his own experience, and choose the appropriate course of action. Contrast it with Cowboys coach Jason Garrett, who's been a head coach for a year and a half and couldn't get his team fired up for the game against the Giants that decided the division title. Garrett may have said the wrong thing, may have not said enough. Heck, he may have said the right thing and his team just didn't respond to it. But Garrett's first failure under pressure is the first clinking penny hitting the bottom of his empty piggy bank of experience. Coughlin's piggy bank is hernia-inducingly heavy, and that appears to have paid off for him in the form of a division title.
"It speaks a lot for Coach Coughlin," said Giants safety Antrel Rolle, whose relationship with his coach has had its trying moments over the past two years. "Guys are going out there and fighting for him, fighting for this team. It speaks a lot about him."
Three weeks ago, the story in New York was about whether Coughlin was at risk of losing his job if the Giants missed the playoffs for a third year in a row. He's only signed through 2012, which is about as close to lame-duck status as NFL head coaches get, and much was being made of his second-half record since becoming Giants coach. But Coughlin doesn't suffer nonsense, and there was no point in getting caught up in any of that. Rather than worry about what might happen if the Giants kept losing, Coughlin thought about how great it would be if they won -- just two more games, both at their home stadium. Then he brought that message into a team meeting. He pulled Justin Tuck aside and told him it was time to start thinking positive instead of moaning about all of his nagging injuries. He set an enthusiastic, supportive tone at exactly the right time, knowing it was the right thing for his particular team.
"I think he's had this team the whole time," Snee said. "The road was bumpy, but when it came to gut-check time and we had to win two games, we delivered. He's never for one moment allowed us to think the coaching staff has lost belief in this team, and we've believed in them the whole time."
That's good coaching, folks. The kind of coaching that makes you think a guy deserves a multiyear extension this time, instead of just the one year. But Coughlin's not worrying about that right now. He's working on making sure he makes the right moves to extend this Giants' playoff run as far as he can. Based on what we've seen over the past month, it might be foolish to bet against him.