EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- John Mara was not blowing a whistle or stalking his way around a New York Giants practice field, but he was doing some serious coaching of his own Tuesday whether he knew it or not. Team officials have long noted that Tom Coughlin does his best work under intense pressure, and there was the owner blasting the heat on the kind of frigid December day made for a home playoff game.
No, 6-10 teams do not appear in playoff games, never mind host them. They do make their owners as sick and embarrassed as Mara said he was at the team's practice facility while effectively announcing that his two-time Super Bowl champ, Coughlin, has just received his last get-out-of-jail-free card.
Mara didn't directly say Coughlin won't return after 2015 if the Giants fail to reach the playoffs for a fourth consecutive year, and of course he didn't have to. Mara made it clear by doing the following:
*He raised the possibility he'll ignore team policy and allow Coughlin to coach out the final year of his contract without a safety-net year tacked on.
*He said Coughlin knows "that his legacy is kind of on the line here now." (When's the last time an owner spoke so urgently about the legacy of a coach he called a potential Hall of Famer?)
*He didn't blink when asked if he would describe next season as a win-or-else proposition for a lot of people in the franchise. "I don't think that's an unfair statement," Mara responded.
Following his news conference, Mara was asked in an email if his remarks were designed to apply a full-court press to a coach with a history of navigating his way through those presses and onto the victory stand.
"Honestly," Mara wrote back, "that was the last thing on my mind. The one thing I do not have to worry about regarding Tom is motivation."
Fair enough. But just as he made the right decision in retaining Coughlin and general manager Jerry Reese, Mara also made the right call in establishing the ground rules for his turn at the microphone this time next year.
He rattled some cages and famously called the offense "broken" at the end of 2013, before Kevin Gilbride retired/was retired, and he put everyone on notice -- and not just the immediate targets, defensive coordinator Perry Fewell and special teams coach Tom Quinn -- at the end of 2014. Mara isn't going through this drill for a third consecutive year. He knows he'll come across as weak if the Giants go 7-9 in 2015 and he does nothing but cop to his anger and humiliation before announcing he's bringing everybody back.
But so far, so good. In fact, Mara put on a clinic Tuesday for what an owner should do and say when his product has consistently left his customers dissatisfied, and here's hoping Woody Johnson, James Dolan, and Fred and Jeff Wilpon were among those tuned in. Mara protected the people who deserved his protection -- Coughlin and Reese are the only current head coach/GM combo in the market to have won multiple championships -- and yet he reminded the ticket-buying, PSL-loathing masses that he absolutely feels their pain.
"When I was sitting on the bus after the Jacksonville game," Mara said of the season's defining disaster, "I wanted to fire everybody, from the people in the equipment room through upstairs because that was a low point for me. ... I was just happy that [no reporters] approached me in the locker room after the game because I may have said something that I would have regretted for a long time after that."
The Giants recovered to beat a few losing teams, and the fact that the players didn't quit on their coach and didn't fuel any media calls for his head with anonymous and venomous quotes sold Mara and partner Steve Tisch on the notion that the 68-year-old Coughlin still has the kids' attention and respect. Oh yeah, and Odell Beckham Jr. emerging as one of the very best players in the NFL didn't hurt, either.
Mara also conceded that the team's absurd run of devastating injuries again compromised Coughlin's chances of fielding a winning team. Funny how that's worked out, too, since Coughlin promised on his first day in the Giants' employ to get all of Jim Fassel's banged-up slackers out of their ice baths and hot tubs.
He's going to need some better luck next year, and some healthier bodies to make bigger plays and allow him to reach his stated ambition of coaching into his 70s.
"I'm as sick and disappointed as anybody in the last few years," Coughlin said, "but you know what? How are you going to do anything about it other than fight and swing and get back out there and try harder? What else are you going to do? Are you going to go crawl in a corner? No, I'm not going to do that."
Coughlin joked about Mara's description of him as a "potential" Hall of Famer, hoping for something more definitive, and joked about preferring a contract extension of 10 or 12 years while summoning the name of Walter Alston, the Dodgers manager who managed to build his own Hall of Fame career on 23 one-year deals.
Coughlin was in a cheery holiday mood for a reason: Though Mara was planning on sharing his strong opinions about the defense and other fatal flaws, the owner was also giving Coughlin final say on whether to retain Fewell and Quinn and the rest.
"I think he is more qualified to make that judgment than I am," Mara said.
Another perfect line from an owner who can balance his appreciation of Coughlin's achievements against the reality of back-to-back losing seasons.
"I still believe we can win with him," Mara said. "If I didn't believe that, then it wouldn't have mattered how many Super Bowls he won in the past. It would be senseless to go forward with him."
So the Giants will go forward with Coughlin and Reese, who drafted in Beckham, the most exciting rookie Mara has seen since Lawrence Taylor in 1981. The owner mentioned that Reese followed a couple of bad drafts with a couple of strong ones.
"We need to have another one," Mara said. In other words, nobody gets to hide behind Beckham next year. And maybe that's a good thing.
When asked about it, Coughlin conceded that he has a way of surviving and thriving when "I'm standing on the edge of a cliff." John Mara just gave him a little nudge toward that edge. It's called coaching, whether the owner intended to do it or not.