EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The sport belongs to the player, not the coach, no matter how quickly people kneel before a false football god in a headset. But on any given Sunday, like this one, a game between the New York Giants and Washington Redskins can be shaped by two middle-aged men, one who inspires his team and one who does not.
Tom Coughlin and Mike Shanahan are former Super Bowl champions, figures who command respect. Only Shanahan, the two-time champ, spent a frigid December day making Coughlin, the one-time champ, look like the monument to stability and structure and purpose the Giants fancy him to be.
Shanahan just about lost this 31-7 game before it started. His deactivation of Albert Haynesworth, the $100 million man, advanced a petty feud that started boiling over in the summer, and put Shanahan's own considerable ego ahead of his team's less-than-considerable hopes.
Shanahan claimed his 335-pound defensive tackle wasn't ready to play two days after turning up sick, and three days after practicing as if he were sick. Haynesworth admitted he showed up a minute late to work Friday -- because he was sick, of course -- but swore he arrived at New Meadowlands Stadium ready to get the quarterback.
Really, who cares anymore how this he-said, he-said is scored? In the end, the coach has picked fights with his most important defensive player and his most important offensive player, Donovan McNabb. Surprise, surprise, the 5-7 Redskins have lost four of five and any shot at a postseason bid.
Sunday, Washington played flag football against the Giants, sans the flags, allowing the home team a 21-0 halftime lead.
"It was embarrassing the way we tackled," Shanahan said.
It was more embarrassing the way they didn't tackle.
If Shanahan thought he was pushing a necessary human button by literally and figuratively undressing Haynesworth, his players showed the coach and millions of viewers that he's lost touch with his team.
The Redskins reduced a proud NFC East rivalry into an unwatchable exercise in futility. So turned off by the lack of competitive spirit on the opposing side of the ball, the Giants stopped playing for portions of the second half.
It didn't matter. The offensive line blasted holes through the Washington defense so wide, Haynesworth himself could've carried the ball for a first down or three.
Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw combined for 200 yards and four touchdowns. The Giants were so efficient, so thorough, so hell-bent on winning their second straight win-or-else game, Eli Manning could afford to take the day off.
"They both have somewhat militant styles," Thomas said of the head coaches. "But I feel like Coughlin, he doesn't put a hammer down if you make a mistake. Shanahan was real tough on guys. If you make a mistake or something happens, he just drills you about it.
"Coach Coughlin, he kind of lets it slide. He kind of lets it roll off because he knows you're going to come back and fix it."
Wow, a football player who considers Coughlin understanding, flexible, and maybe even a bit too soft.
"Firm, fair, honest, demanding," Coughlin said of his approach as he stood outside the winners' locker room. "I try to be consistent. No matter how difficult it goes, I try to maintain our course and keep people motivated, and we don't fluctuate back and forth. I try to keep it just the way it's presented to the players originally."
Over the years, Coughlin has had his dust-ups with prominent Giants, everyone from Tiki Barber to Jeremy Shockey to Plaxico Burress to Osi Umenyiora. Coughlin hasn't applied a Midas touch to every single staredown.
But he's never gone out of his way to humiliate a franchise quarterback like Shanahan did with McNabb, refusing to let him run the endgame offense against Detroit and then rattling off a series of absurd explanations why. And as rough and tough as Coughlin has been on the Giants, especially in the early years, he's never spent nearly as much time and energy on stripping a player of his scholarship as Shanahan has spent on trying to strip Haynesworth of his.
"I didn't know that the decision was made until the beginning of the game," McNabb said of Haynesworth's deactivation, "when I saw him walking around in his sweat suit."
That's great. Just great. The quarterback who signed the $78 million extension didn't know that his $100 million teammate wasn't playing in a last-hope game until he spotted him in street clothes right before the opening toss.
Yep, Shanahan was a lot smarter when John Elway was throwing the ball and Terrell Davis was running it. The Washington coach is just starting his $35 million deal, and the Giants' coach is almost three-quarters of the way through his $21 million deal, but on Sunday, Shanahan made his counterpart look so good he might as well have registered as Coughlin's agent.
"Tom has an uncanny way in big spots of getting his team to play," said Giants general manager Jerry Reese. "The players definitely respect him, and nobody works harder than the guy works. You come to the stadium, and Tom's is the first car in the lot every single morning.
"Before we won the Super Bowl, when everybody was saying we have to get rid of Tom Coughlin, I said, 'I don't think that's the right thing to do. If we get rid of the coach, that says we're throwing in the towel and starting over. We need stability.'"
More than anything, that's what Coughlin gives the Giants week after week -- stability at the position of head coach.
Mike Shanahan did a great job Sunday illustrating that very point.