It's December and the New York Giants are under .500, which means it's time for the annual rite of Tom Coughlin job speculation. Is he on the "hot seat?" Is he out if the Giants miss the playoffs for the fourth year in a row? Or if they suffer a third straight losing season for the first time since the late 1970s?
The answer, as of Saturday, is "maybe." And anyone who tells you anything different is making it up. The Giants themselves don't know whether they will make a coaching change at the end of this season. As it so often does, the decision could come down to the way the Giants finish. They could play hard to the end, stay in the race and maybe even steal away with a historically attainable NFC East title. They could also shut it down, become noncompetitive and tune out Coughlin's message, if they want to make it clear it's time for a change.
It could go either way. Coughlin's career offers no evidence that the latter is possible, but this is a very young Giants roster, and it's not out of the realm of possibility that the team could tune out the league's oldest coach if things keep going as poorly as they did Sunday in Washington. If nothing else, this is an incredibly thin Giants roster that might just wear down and be unable to compete the way it did in the first half of the season, regardless of what the coach can do about it.
We can't predict the future, but I do know this: Just because most teams wouldn't abide a coaching run of four straight years without seeing the playoffs doesn't mean Coughlin can't survive the same situation. Coughlin doesn't work for most teams. He works for the Giants. They operate their business a little bit differently, and there are a number of reasons they don't want to move on from Coughlin, even if they finish under .500 again:
1. They're all-in on quarterback Eli Manning, for at least another three or four years. They just changed the offense last year and would have to think long and hard before changing it again with Manning playing at such a high level. A new head coach likely would want to hire his own coordinators, and it would be tough to move on from Coughlin and tell his replacement to run Ben McAdoo's offense.
2. The Giants are not comfortable at this point with the idea of promoting one of their coordinators to the big chair. They believe McAdoo and defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo can be NFL head coaches (Spagnuolo already was, once), but McAdoo is only 38 years old and in his second season as a coordinator. They would like to see him develop a bit more. And while the defensive problems are clearly personnel-driven and Spagnuolo has done a good job in spite of the obvious roster flaws, it's tough to promote a defensive coordinator whose unit just finished at the bottom of the league in yards allowed. I don't think they have a clear idea who they would hire to replace Coughlin from the outside, and if you're not looking to fire your coach, that's one reason you can come up with to talk yourself off the ledge.
3. Coughlin actually is doing a good job with this roster. The Giants view themselves as an organization still digging out from under a run of terribly unproductive drafts, and they look ahead to an offseason knowing they have major needs at safety, pass-rusher, linebacker, tight end, running back and probably wide receiver. Knowing where they are in their rebuild, it's tough to scapegoat a coach for failing to win with a roster that needs this much work.
4. They like having Coughlin as coach. He's a part of the fabric of team history, having helped win one Super Bowl as an assistant coach and two more as head coach. Hiring Coughlin was basically the last thing Wellington Mara did before he died, and while that may sound overly sentimental to those of us outside the family, it matters to Mara's children, who own the team now after their mother died in February. Moving on from Coughlin, whenever they do it, will be a difficult thing emotionally for the people who run the Giants. So again, they're not looking to do it and could very easily convince themselves to keep things how they are.
I'm not sitting here saying Coughlin is a sure thing to be back next year. I don't believe he is, and I think the next five games will have a lot to do with determining his immediate future here.
This isn't a typical coach-on-the-hot-seat situation. Coughlin is a champion coach and possible Hall of Famer. The Giants like working with him, and they like the public face he puts on the franchise. When it is time for him to go, that day is likely to be met with as much celebration of his Giants career as with bitterness and anger. He's not ready to retire, and the organization would much rather see the team finish strong and make this decision easy. If the Giants don't finish strong, don't assume it's going to be easy for them to tell Coughlin goodbye.