GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Deep in the bowels of Lambeau Field on Sunday night, America's youngest 65-year-old practically bounced up to the podium, a grin creasing his famously red face as he broke down his latest huge coaching achievement.
When you push yourself as hard as Tom Coughlin pushes himself, you have to revel in nights like this. The New York Giants had just crushed the 15-1 Green Bay Packers, 37-20, to move into the NFC Championship Game, and Coughlin finds himself in the middle of a postseason run every bit as delightfully surprising as the one on which he took the Giants four years ago.
"Just very happy," Coughlin said, and who can blame him? This is a remarkable coaching achievement he's pulled off. His team looked dead in the water just four weeks ago, sitting at 7-7 and in second place after a miserable home loss to the Redskins. The story in New York was about whether he would be fired if the Giants didn't make the playoffs, and the consensus seemed to be that the Giants would have little choice.
Four games and four victories later, such talk has turned preposterous. Coughlin, whose contract runs through 2012, has put himself in line for a multi-year extension. This run with this team is establishing him -- if he hadn't already done so -- as one of the elite head coaches in the game. If he wins his next two games, he becomes a two-time Super Bowl champion and, quite frankly, people are going to start to ask whether he belongs in the Hall of Fame.
"There's nobody outside of this room who believed we could get where we are right now," Giants left tackle David Diehl said. "You go back a month, and it was all, 'Should Coughlin be fired?' But he knew what we had here, and we knew what we had here, and we used all of that for motivation."
The mark of a great coach is his ability to identify the kind of team and the kind of players he has and coach accordingly. Bum Phillips famously said that what made Don Shula great was that "he could take his'n and beat your'n, or he could take your'n and beat his'n." Coughlin is of that school. At a time when so many coaches seem to be slaves to their own system, or seek to have control over roster construction, Coughlin sees his role more simply. His is not to mope and complain that the team didn't do more in free agency, or that defensive starters dropped like flies in the preseason. His is to figure out how to win with what he has. And as he did four years ago, when he tore through Dallas and Green Bay before taking out the undefeated Patriots in the Super Bowl, he has figured out how to push exactly the right buttons with a roster that didn't look playoff-caliber for most of this season.
"The way the leadership part works is, it starts with the coach," Giants safety Deon Grant said. "And what we have here is a coach who knows his team. He knows how to talk to the veterans in this locker room, when to challenge people, when to lighten up. You want a leader who believes in you, and in order to believe in you, he's got to know you."
Coughlin knows his team. He knew, after that Redskins loss, that the way to approach the following week was to build his players up rather than tear into them. They have responded, and are playing with a champion's level of confidence at exactly the right time of year. No fewer than four players in their locker room said Sunday night, "I knew we were going to win this game," and every single one of them was convincing and sincere.
"We've got a lot of confidence right now," running back Ahmad Bradshaw said. "We've been here before, a lot of us, and we've been here together. And I think that helps us a lot."
This really is starting to feel like four years ago all over again, and the reason why is the seasoned, even-keel performance of the leaders who keyed that playoff run. Eli Manning is playing quarterback at an incredibly high level, and Coughlin is delivering the right message during the week and projecting cool, experienced certainty during the games.
"Our coach is always consistent with his message," defensive lineman Chris Canty said. "That's a big deal, because it makes it easy to buy in. Confidence comes from demonstrated performance, and we have people in our building who have some pretty good records."
Sunday was Coughlin's sixth career playoff road win, one short of the all-time record held by a guy you may have heard of named Tom Landry. That's heady company, and it says a lot about the advantage Coughlin gives the Giants at this time of year. To have a coach who's not going to be surprised or thrown off by any situation, who has shown a sincere belief in you and earned your reciprocal belief in him -- that's the kind of stuff that allows a team to keep its head in intense playoff games.
"Success breeds confidence," Coughlin said. "And right now they're a pretty confident group."
That starts at the top, and while he would scoff at the notion, the fact that the Giants are one of the final four NFL teams left standing is a direct result of one of the finest coaching jobs of Coughlin's fine coaching career.