EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Pain can color the judgment of even the most patient sports team owner, and Tom Coughlin's New York Giants are losing in painful ways.
Sunday's overtime loss to the New York Jets was as painful as they come. It came at the hands of the team to which Coughlin's bosses hate losing the most. And while there was plenty of blame to go around, a heavy chunk of it belonged to Coughlin -- and Coughlin knew it.
"I went for it on fourth-and-2 thinking that was the play at the time, and I still do," Coughlin insisted after the fifth game this season in which his team held a fourth-quarter lead of at least six points and lost. "You can argue all you want."
And it's sure to be argued inside the Giants' building and outside. Coughlin's decision to try for a touchdown (or at least a first down) on fourth-and-2 from the Jets' 4-yard line with 8:50 left in the game and his team already up by 10 was a game-changer. Eli Manning threw an interception, the Jets marched down for a field goal, the Giants went three-and-out and the Jets marched again, this time for a game-tying touchdown with 27 seconds to go. And the Giants lost in overtime when Josh Brown missed a field goal for the first time this season.
Brutal. In a season of terrible losses, this one holds up as the worst. And while yes, his defense needs to be able to stop someone, and yes, his offense needs to be able to pick up a first down to protect a late lead, Coughlin blew this one. The Giants aren't the type of team to fire a coach for clock management, and Coughlin's two Super Bowl rings justifiably make him a coach who doesn't deserve to be fired for such a thing. But at some point, the accumulation of disappointment erodes even the most formidable reservoir of goodwill.
Coughlin is not permitted an endless string of losing seasons, and if the Giants don't finish at least 3-1, this will be his third in a row. Coughlin is not permitted an endless string of stay-at-home Januaries, and if the Giants don't make the playoffs, this would be his fourth in a row and his sixth in the past seven years. The Giants' owners understand that Coughlin is coaching the whole week and not just the fourth quarter on Sundays, and they're not going to fire a franchise icon for poor goal-line decision-making. But Coughlin's bad decision Sunday, in the midst of a season of fourth-quarter hiccups, doesn't help matters.
"I've made a decision to be very aggressive at the ends of games," Coughlin said. "I've done it all year long. I don't have a lot to show for it, but we try to take some of the pressure off of everybody, and had we scored that touchdown, I think we would have taken a lot of pressure off."
I get what he's saying. He's focused on the positive potential outcome. Being up 17 there just about guarantees a win. And as a coach, you want to be able to show your team you believe in them.
But your main job as a coach is to know your team and make the sensible, sober decision -- not the most hopeful one. Knowing he has a defense that can't stop anyone in the fourth quarter -- and surely, by Week 13, he knows this -- you have to see the value of ending an 11:21 second-half drive with at least some points. You also need to understand the value of being up 13 there instead of 10 -- requiring your opponent to score two touchdowns instead of allowing them to play for a field goal. The team Coughlin has is a team that needed those points. Three points might not have eased the pressure on his defense as much as seven would, but they would have eased it some, and they were free.
Coughlin stood by his decision, but it's clear that it will haunt him. And in the larger context, it could end up being part of what costs him. The Giants don't know yet whether they'll make a coaching change at the end of this season. They don't want to move on from Coughlin, but he's not going to coach forever, and they know there will come a time when they must. If this Giants season keeps going the way it has gone for the past month, and the painful losses and bad in-game coaching decisions keep piling up, then that time could come sooner than Coughlin or the Giants wanted it to.