Giants' faith in Coughlin hasn't gone unrewarded

PHOENIX -- As a film producer, New York Giants co-owner Steve Tisch counts the 1983 film "Risky Business" among his best-known creations.

The title also applies to what NFL teams face when deciding whether to retain moderately successful coaches.

Tom Coughlin posted a 25-23 regular-season record without winning a playoff game during his first three seasons with the Giants. Some players groused about a coaching style they considered autocratic and outdated. The lack of playoff success seemed more damning than the .521 win rate.

Although it's impossible to know whether the Giants would have reached Super Bowl XLII without Coughlin, their decision to keep him increasingly appears prescient, if hardly based in science.

"I think it's probably more art and more humanity than formulas or any kind of practical science," Tisch said.

A dozen coaches in NFL history, including Coughlin, have won between 50 and 53 percent of their regular-season games without claiming a playoff victory over three seasons. Eleven of those coaches kept their jobs, but only one of them before Coughlin -- the New York Jets' Joe Walton in 1986 -- won a playoff game in his fourth season.

Coughlin has won three this month, advancing to a Super Bowl for the first time in his 11 seasons as an NFL coach.

"We had an expectation going into this season that we wanted Tom to try some things very differently, which he agreed to do, which clearly he did," Tisch said.

Coughlin's hard-line approach appealed to the Giants when they sought a replacement for Jim Fassel, who wasn't known as a disciplinarian. But the modern NFL player, empowered by free agency and increased contract guarantees, can render a dictatorial approach ineffective.

The Giants asked Coughlin to loosen up, open his door and listen to the players on some of the little things.

The formation of an 11-player leadership council that acts as a liaison between Coughlin and the locker room has come to symbolize the new approach, which linebacker Antonio Pierce described as "actually letting you know he smiles and has cheek bones."

Coughlin put it more formally: "They've responded in the best interest of our team and have gone forth to communicate with the rest of our team so that everyone was aware of not only what we were doing, but why we were doing it."

The decision to retain or release a moderately successful coach can be a difficult one.
Other coaches fitting Coughlin's general profile have produced mixed results when given additional time, according to Frank Labombarda of the Elias Sports Bureau.

The Denver Broncos posted a 21-20 record under Dan Reeves from 1981 to 1983. They made one playoff appearance during that span, losing big.

Reeves' Broncos finished with a 13-3 record in 1984. And while they fizzled in the playoffs that year, Reeves took Denver to three Super Bowls over the next four seasons.

The Cincinnati Bengals matched Coughlin's 25-23 mark from 1984 to 1986, their first three seasons under Sam Wyche. They failed to earn a playoff berth during that span, and they went 4-11 under Wyche during the strike-shortened 1987 season. But Wyche guided the Bengals to a Super Bowl in his fifth season.

Mike Holmgren's Seattle Seahawks won half their games over his first three seasons, beginning in 1999. They finished 7-9 in 2002 before winning four consecutive division titles from 2004 through this season and reaching the Super Bowl in 2005.

Other teams facing similar predicaments came out ahead by cutting their losses after three seasons.

The San Diego Chargers advanced to the AFC title game this season after firing Marty Schottenheimer following five seasons without a playoff victory. Schottenheimer had improved upon the 24-24 record of his first three seasons, but postseason failures precipitated his departure.

The Washington Redskins finished 24-24 and without a playoff victory in their first three seasons under Jack Pardee. They brought back Pardee for a fourth season in 1981, missing the playoffs with an 8-8 record. Joe Gibbs then won three Super Bowls as the Redskins' coach, establishing Hall of Fame credentials.

"There are so many factors that impact a team's ability to win," said Robert Kraft, owner of the AFC champion New England Patriots. "Coaching is of course critical, but there are so many other things that go on. I think if you feel you have a good leader, continuity is very important in this business."

Kraft would know. He parted with a first-round draft choice in landing Bill Belichick from the New York Jets, only to watch his new coach post a 6-14 record over his first 20 games with New England.

"I can just tell you that my support for him never wavered," Kraft said.

The Patriots can claim a fourth Super Bowl title in seven seasons with a victory over the Giants on Sunday at University of Phoenix Stadium (6:18 p.m. ET, Fox).

But the Giants are already winners in another sense.

"I think our support for Tom clearly has paid off," Tisch said.

Mike Sando covers the NFL for ESPN.com.