Mara does the right thing -- eventually

LANDOVER, Md. -- John Mara did the right thing Sunday night, the only thing that would serve the interests of a franchise that prefers to deal in the currency of stability and common sense.

Cornered by microphones and notebooks in a grim and dimly lit locker room, his back almost literally against the wall, the co-owner of the New York Giants absolved Tom Coughlin of all his venial game-day sins.

Mara declared that his football coach for the first Sunday of 2011 would be his football coach through the final Sunday of 2011 as well, and hallelujah for that. If it wasn't exactly George Steinbrenner hiring Billy Martin all over again, there was a pretty good reason for that.

"In this society everybody wants to fire the coach all the time," Mara barked. "The Yankees got knocked off in the playoffs and everybody wants to fire the manager. Well, we don't do that here. He's going to be our coach."

He is Thomas Richard Coughlin of Waterloo, N.Y., who didn't find his own Waterloo at FedEx Field after all. The Giants defeated a team that actually should fire its coach -- Mike Shanahan's Washington Redskins -- missed the playoffs with a 10-6 record, and then learned that Mara had made public what he'd privately told Coughlin the other day.

He didn't need to beat the Redskins to save his job.

"There was never any doubt that he was going to be back next season," Mara said.

Actually, Mara likely harbored a doubt or three after the Philly follies from two weeks ago; he wouldn't have been human if he didn't. And although the co-owner is among the best and brightest in sports, a decent guy in an indecent profession, Mara made a big mistake allowing Coughlin to spend two weeks in the unnecessary role of tackling dummy for any news outlet (or square-jawed ex-coach with the initials Bill Cowher) that wanted a free shot.

Asked Sunday night why he remained silent, Mara said, "I don't feel like every time there's a headline or speculation about somebody's job status that it's my job to step in and make public statements about it. That's not the way we run our business."

Problem is, Coughlin admitted before last week's Green Bay game that he was having trouble ignoring the speculation about his job, complaining that the issue bubbled to the surface after every loss. The Giants coach expressed more of the same after beating the Redskins. "I do know that every time we lose a game you'd better get your 'for sale' sign up," he said.

Asked if he liked those terms of engagement, Coughlin blurted, "Do I like that? Of course not. Who likes that? Who appreciates that?"

Mara is hardly pressed every hour, on the hour, for votes of confidence in his work force, but this time around his battered coach needed a one-sentence show of public support as much as he did the face-to-face reassurance.

"We still believe in you," Mara told him in their meeting.

Whatever. Coughlin has been saved -- or sort of saved -- three times in Washington. At the end of the 2006 season, Tiki Barber, of all people, rescued his antagonist by delivering the game of his life against the Redskins.

In the third game of 2007, with his 0-2 season already on the brink, Coughlin watched his defense make a goal line stand against Washington that planted the first Super Bowl seed. And Sunday night, when only a 45-3 Redskins victory might've changed Mara's mind, Eli Manning threw a 92-yard touchdown pass to Mario Manningham and the defense came up with four turnovers, softening the bad news out of Lambeau Field and the cruel taunts out of the FedEx Field stands.

"Green Bay won! Green Bay won!" the Redskins fans chanted after the devilish scoreboard operators played the lowlight of Jay Cutler's killer interception.

Yes, the Chicago Bears gave it the old college try, and maybe Coughlin should send Lovie Smith a little note of appreciation for the hell of it. Coughlin knows what all right-minded Giants know:

The Bears didn't cost them a playoff berth by losing to the Packers. The Giants cost the Giants a playoff berth, and in the end, their fatal self-inflicted wounds were suffered in the company of the Eagles on Dec. 19.

"If we play better the last seven minutes in the fourth quarter of that game," Mara said, "it's a whole different story. But we didn't, so we have nobody to blame but ourselves."

The same goes for what could have been in seasons past. The Giants are still living off their epic Super Bowl XLII victory, but they've blown chances to make theirs something of a dynastic run.

If Plaxico Burress doesn't shoot himself and blow a hole through the entire franchise, maybe the Giants repeat as champs in '08. If Coughlin defended Philly's onside kick the way he should have in his last home game, maybe the Giants are hosting a playoff game in two weeks after enjoying a first-round bye.

If the ball had bounced his way once or twice since that night in the Arizona desert, maybe Coughlin would be spoken of in Belichickian tones.

Instead, the Giants coach was left to scratch and claw for his job like he did after the '06 season. Coughlin barely navigated the crushing injuries to his receivers and offensive linemen, including the knee injury Sunday that knocked out Rich Seubert before Seubert asked his teammates to win one for the gimper, and persuaded his players to play hard far more often than not.

One year after his team's gutless performances inspired him to rant and rage for the cameras, Mara said he was won over by the Giants' effort, and by their respect for the coach. After the co-owner roamed the locker room and practice field, studying the players' body language, "I knew that they wanted [Coughlin] back," he said.

Like his father, Mara is big on stability and consistency. A few consecutive disappointments, he said, "doesn't mean you blow the whole thing up."

So Tom Coughlin wasn't blown up Sunday night, and rightfully so. That doesn't mean the Giants should ever forget another promising season left in a pile of rubble and ash.

Ian O'Connor is a columnist for ESPNNewYork.com. You can follow him on Twitter.

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