from Jon Wagner / SNYGiants Sr Columnist
After seeing them come off of a tough, last-second loss on national television to their hated division rival Philadelphia, one would think it a safe bet that the New York Giants (2-2) should have no trouble getting back on track at home against the AFC’s only remaining winless team, the Cleveland Browns (0-4).
One look at the Giants’ recent history in such situations however, says a smart bettor might want to take Cleveland along with the nine or so points New York is favored by, and that Big Blue fans shouldn’t be too overconfident about a game their team should easily win.
Although they are clearly the better than the Browns on paper, the Giants, far too many times, have produced some head-scratching, uninspiring, and downright flat football while playing down to lesser opponents under head coach Tom Coughlin, even though their often well-prepared, ultra-professional leader has at other times, motivated his team to overcome seemingly insurmountable odds, including his directing of a pair of unimaginable Super Bowl championship runs.
Coughlin can never receive enough credit for the latter, no matter what the Giants do for the remainder of his tenure in New York.
To be fair though, Coughlin also has to take some blame for the many times his team has largely underachieved, even in much bigger spots than what will be on the line this against Cleveland this Sunday at MetLife Stadium.
While the Super Bowl victories and a possible Hall of Fame career are what the 66-year-old Coughlin will be ultimately be remembered for, there are plenty of dumbfounding examples of the Giants simply failing to show up for entire games or at least parts of games under Coughlin, when the opposite would have been expected of them:
2005: New York clinched its first division title under Coughlin in his second year as the Giants’ head coach with 30-21 Saturday night New Year’s eve road 30-21 victory in Oakland. However, that was followed the next week with a completely lackluster effort against the fifth-seeded Carolina Panthers, as the Giants committed five turnovers and managed only 109 total yards to become the first team to be shut out at home in the playoffs since the Tampa Bay Buccaneers lost to the Los Angeles Rams in the 1979 NFC title game. Eventual two-time Super Bowl MVP Eli Manning’s first playoff start featured three picks, but even worse, New York’s defense let a running game featuring average NFL running backs DeShaun Foster and Nick Goings outgain a rushing game anchored by Pro-Bowler Tiki Barber by a ridiculous 223-41 yards on the ground.
2008: Even though they lost wide receiver Plaxico Burress when he shot himself in the foot and figuratively did the same to his team, and subsequently lost three of their last four games to close the regular season after an 11-1 start, the Giants, still as the NFC’s top seed, somehow failed to play with the fire needed to beat long-time, hated division rival Philadelphia, which needed a tie against Cincinnati just to squeak into the playoffs as a six seed, with a 9-6-1 record. Despite being on their home field, the Giants let the Eagles take the game to them and lost, 23-11.
2009: In probably New York’s most egregious no-show of the Coughlin era, the Giants inexplicably showed no heart during a game in which they instead had several good reasons to play with the most passion and intensity possible. Bouncing back after another tough home loss to the Eagles with a dominant 45-12 win on Monday Night Football in Washington, the Giants once again took Carolina for granted at home. This time, New York seemed disinterested, as the entire team unraveled and appeared to become completely demoralized by a red zone turnover on the game’s opening drive. Although it was the last home game ever at Giants Stadium, with the playoffs on the line in Week 16, New York allowed backup quarterback Matt Moore (in place of the injured Jake Delhomme) to lead the Panthers to a 41-9 embarrassment of the Giants. The defeat dropped New York to 8-7 and out of the playoffs before New York completely raised the white flag on its season with a pride-less 44-7 loss in Minnesota to end the year with a .500 record after an impressive 5-0 start. The ending was maddening enough for team president and co-owner John Mara, whose grandfather Tim Mara founded the franchise in 1925, and whose father Wellington Mara, helped build Giants Stadium, admit that the year felt more like a 2-14 season.
2010: The Giants’ 2010 season is most remembered for The Collapse against Philadelphia, but even that could have been survived if New York had taken an earlier game more seriously. Coming off an easy 41-7 victory in Seattle (the Giants’ fifth straight win, to improve to 6-2), New York allowed the 1-7 Dallas Cowboys to come into its own building in Week 10, with Jason Garrett making his NFL head coaching debut, and with third-string quarterback John Kitna starting, take a shocking 19-6 halftime lead, and stun the Giants, 33-20. And, then of course there was that inexcusable Meadowlands Meltdown, during which one half of one quarter of one game became the difference between a two seed plus a first-round bye for New York, and the Giants missing the playoffs entirely. That came during Week 15, when a 31-10 lead with less than eight minutes left, incredibly vanished, as the Eagles scored the game’s final 28 points over that span, including a game-winning 65-yard punt return by DeSean Jackson, who taunted the Giants on their own field by running along the goal line before walking into the end zone as time expired.
If the Carolina loss in 2009 topped the list as the New York’s worst defeat under Coughlin, simply because it was the final game ever at Giants Stadium, with a playoff berth on the line, then the Harry Houdini act by Philadelphia a year later was a very close second in terms of disheartening defeats for Giants fans under Coughlin. The team’s punishment for letting that one get away was to see the same team that New York beat by 34 points in Seattle, host a playoff game as the first NFL division winner with a losing record (7-9) – a full three games worse than the 10-6 Giants – while New York sat home and also watched Philadelphia host a playoff game as a three seed with the same 10-6 record as the Giants. Ouch!
2011: Yes, even in Coughlin’s second Super Bowl, the Giants had a pair of awful losses and a very fortunate win against far lesser opponents. First, in Week 5, borderline NFL-caliber backup quarterbacks Charlie Whitehurst and Tavaris Jackson guided the Seattle Seahawks to a 36-25 road upset of New York, which wasted a 420-yard passing performance from Manning, his career best at the time… Two weeks later, the Giants, at 4-2, were again in trouble at home against a duo of mediocre-at-best quarterbacks, Moore (again) and Steve Slaton, as New York needed a 10-0 fourth quarter to rally for a narrow 20-17 victory over the 0-7 Miami Dolphins… In Week 11, the Eagles (just 3-6) once again, and you guessed it, another backup quarterback at the Meadowlands, surprised the 6-3 Giants, who let Vince Young guide an 18-play, fourth-quarter touchdown drive, replete with several third-down conversions, to beat New York 17-10… Three weeks after that, the Giants saved their season with an exhilarating comeback win in Dallas, which would have figured to lead to a bunch of momentum for New York, right? Uh, nope, not exactly. The next week, the lowly Washington Redskins, who only went 5-11 on the season, completed a two-game season series sweep of the Giants with a 23-10 win at MetLife Stadium.
2012: Compared to some of the above defeats, there was certainly less shame in losing a close game to the Dallas Cowboys in Week 1 this season, but the way in which the Giants lost that contest, to again play lifeless, even while kicking off the NFL season on national television, at home, against another hated division rival, to begin the defense of their Super Bowl title, after ending the season of that same rival while winning the NFC East during the final week of the regular season a year ago, was unfathomable and continued a disturbing trend.
Even though Coughlin has led his current team to five playoff appearances in his first eight seasons in New York, it seems that as long as the Coughlin tenure lasts with the Giants, the pendulum of success or failure has no limit to how it might swing in either direction, from game to game, or from season to season.
Coughlin’s Giants are always capable of doing things like providing the five-win Redskins with forty percent of their season’s victories, or ending the AFC’s top seeded New England Patriots’ 20-game home winning streak, and then beating the Patriots again for a Super Bowl title – all of which New York did last season.
The losses like many of the ones mentioned above are type that had a lot of media members and fans alike calling for Coughlin’s job (understandably so) on several occasions over the years – that is until the Giants became just as resilient, hardworking and overachieving as they had at other times, been unfocused, undisciplined and underachieving.
The two Super Bowl titles are validation enough that Coughlin’s job should remain secure for probably as long as he still wants it. However, to defend their latest NFL championship, the Giants, at just 2-2, with an apparently brutal schedule over the final three-quarters of the current season, don’t appear to have the luxury this time of either having a good first half while trying to hold on during a bad second half (as they have routinely done under Coughlin), or the opportunity of turning it on late, as they did in their two Super Bowl runs under their Coughlin.
With long-time veteran kicker Phil Dawson showing last week (three straight makes of at least 50 yards each in a loss in Baltimore) that he still has plenty left, New York can’t afford to take yet another poor opponent like Cleveland lightly, and certainly, with trips to places like San Francisco, Dallas, Cincinnati, Atlanta and Baltimore, and home dates with the likes of Pittsburgh, Green Bay and Philadelphia still looming on this year’s schedule, the Giants can’t afford to play down to anyone else for the rest of the season.
Too often, even though Coughlin had repeatedly stressed the importance of each regular season game, he would later say he didn’t understand why a good practice week and solid preparation didn’t translate well to game day.
That can no longer be the case this season.
This year, as defending champions again, and with a very tough slate of games remaining, the margin for error is less for Coughlin’s players.
And, the time for Coughlin to truly insure that they always perform with a Giant sense of urgency begins now.