Coughlin knows odds stacked against a repeat

ALBANY, N.Y. -- Tom Coughlin breezed into the locker room at SEFCU Arena, creating a significant wake, at precisely 4 p.m. Wednesday.

That would make the Giants' head coach five minutes late by his famously anal-retentive standards. In the wake of last season's surreal run to a Super Bowl victory, perhaps this whole life-change thing is legitimate. Maybe he has relaxed a little.

Maybe not.

"Sorry," Coughlin said, smiling, but not looking at all apologetic. "There are certain professional responsibilities that come with the job."

And then he laughed.

Well, yes. Like defending a National Football League championship. The practice fields at this branch of the State University of New York were quiet Wednesday, but Coughlin had a schedule stacked with personnel meetings -- and a one-hour interview to help publicize his new book, "A Team To Believe In," the story of the 2007 season from Coughlin's perspective.

Coughlin was cordial, introspective and far more relaxed than he has been in recent years. Pat Hanlon, the Giants' vice president of communications, says the change in approach began last year, after Coughlin was retained (barely) and made a conscious decision to enjoy the 2007 season. Coughlin, the last of the old-school dinosaurs to roam the sidelines in the NFL, somehow managed to change his stripes in his 38th year of coaching football.

"As for my role in our success, let's just say that this 61-year-old man was willing to change, and that may have played a small part in
the story," Coughlin wrote in the book's introduction. "I took a hard look at myself and demanded that I improve. I learned to be more patient, to be more understanding. In 2007, I was the same coach I had always been, but with a new approach."

So far in training camp, Coughlin has done his best to distance himself and his team from that championship season. Last year, his T-shirt slogans were "Talk is Cheap" and "Play the Game." This year's theme: "Never satisfied." This is his less-than-subtle way of a pre-emptive strike against the complacency that often afflicts Super Bowl victors.

Coughlin has done his due diligence. He readily ticks off the statistics that underline the difficulty his team will face in repeating. The 2004 New England Patriots, the 2005 Pittsburgh Steelers and 2006 Indianapolis Colts did not fare well in the seasons after their Super Bowl victories. Coughlin even detailed the season-after records of the Giants' two previous Super Bowl winners -- 6-9 in 1987 and 8-8 in 1991.

Maybe it was the 0-2 start, or the halting progress of Eli Manning over the regular season, but the Giants were never regarded as much of a threat heading toward the playoffs last season. Even when they played the Patriots to a virtual dead heat in the regular-season finale, few were excited about their chances. And then they ran the table in the playoffs, winning at Tampa Bay, Dallas, Green Bay and beating the previously undefeated Patriots, 17-14, in Glendale, Ariz.

"Look," Coughlin said, "we had a great year. We had a lot of wonderful things happen. But it's a new year, a new adventure. No two teams are ever the same."

But the doubters are singing a familiar song.

Oddsmakers in Las Vegas see a 9-7 season, and most folks in the business of prognostication don't think the Giants will even be the best team in their division; the Cowboys are widely viewed as favorites for the NFC East title.

Are the Giants being disrespected, as some players suggest?

"No," Coughlin said flatly. "But if I can use it, I'll use it any way I can. Literally the day after the Super Bowl, we were ranked sixth. There's no denying the way people feel about our team. And when you look at it as a competitor -- 'OK, all right, you're telling me again that I'm not good enough' -- so here we go again."

Coughlin reflected on a number of other subjects:

Trading tight end Jeremy Shockey: "Jeremy tried to get all this energy into the right context, knowing his personality, how aggressive he was. The unfortunate thing is the injury. He paid the price to get to the position that we were in, and it would have been nice to take him with us through the playoff run. It didn't happen; it was very unfortunate. When the facts were laid out, most of us -- [Giants President] John Mara said he thought it was time for the New York Giants to go in a [different] direction, and the same thing for Jeremy."

The ankle injury of wide receiver Plaxico Burress: "It was [as] close as you can imagine [to not playing in Super Bowl XL]. I mean, Friday he ran one [practice] route. That's it. We were going to wait until the last minute and, believe me, it was the last minute before the trainers and doctors took him onto the field."

Nearly losing his job: "It was a tough time, because there was all kinds of media speculation. The one thing that really bothered me about it was it became very personal."

The growth of quarterback Eli Manning: "Can you imagine going into the playoffs and not turning it over? One turnover in the Super Bowl -- by a tipped ball. I mean, he took care of the football through the playoffs, throughout the entire playoffs, better than we had ever seen him as a New York Giant."

Rest assured, Coughlin is still Coughlin. In April, he was invited to meet the pope at a private mass to be celebrated in New York. Coughlin, a devout Catholic, declined.

"My mother always said I was the serious one," Coughlin said. "I would have loved to have gone, but we had draft meetings. In the long run, I couldn't walk away from those responsibilities."

Coughlin has a sign just outside the door of his Giants Stadium office that reads: "I AM Smiling." Last season, in the week leading to the NFC Championship Game, he regressed into old-school, drill-sergeant mode in a sprawling session with the media. Toward the end, a reporter asked him if he was having fun.

"Every second," he said, quickly. "Can't you tell?"

On Wednesday, Coughlin described his 2007 mindset with a single sentence: "If this was going to be my last year, I wanted to have some fun and enjoy it."

Well, did he?

"I did," Coughlin said, smiling. "Yeah, I had the time of my life.

"Thanks for asking."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.