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Introspective Coughlin Changes for the Better

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By Leonard Shapiro
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, January 30, 2008; 9:04 PM

PHOENIX -- Much already has been made here this Super Bowl week about the seeming transformation of Giants head coach Tom Coughlin, who looked at himself in the mirror during the offseason -- at the urging of several club executives, including the team owner -- and did not especially like what he saw.

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The man who once asked his Jacksonville Jaguars assistant coaches not to wear sunglasses on the practice field because it might be taken as a sign of weakness, decided to take a kinder, gentler approach in 2007 after nearly getting fired following an 8-8 season in 2006.

In the offseason, Coughlin met individually with the beat reporters covering his team to try to correct what had become an almost intolerable adversarial relationship. He took his football team on a bonding bowling party during the dog days of training camp and reportedly eased up on the summer and regular season practice workload. He even tried (and more than occasionally failed) to stop ranting like a maniac on the sidelines.

His self-induced attempt to change for the better obviously has been greatly appreciated by some of the players he had alienated with his tough guy approach in recent years, and clearly this Super Bowl team played hard for Coughlin. The Giants overachieved all season, winning ten games on the road after an 0-2 start, a stunning feat in its own right that included two remarkable playoff wins in Dallas and frigid Green Bay.

Now he must convince his players they really do have a fighting chance Sunday against the mighty New England Patriots, though it should not take any screaming or all that much arm-twisting to get his point across. After all, the Giants held their own in the regular season finale against the Patriots before eventually succumbing, 38-35, in a game that also helped win over scads of still skeptical Giants fans, many of whom were chanting from the Meadowlands stands for his dismissal at the end of the 2006 season.

Going into their Dec. 29 game against New England, the Giants already had clinched their playoff spot, and a win in that final game would not have changed the opponent or the site of their opening round game. Coughlin easily could have taken the going-through-the-motions approach some of his colleagues -- including Jon Gruden in Tampa Bay and Wade Phillips in Dallas -- had employed in their regular season finales.

It blew up badly for the rusty and out-of-sync Bucs and Cowboys when they were unceremoniously bumped out of the postseason in the first week. But Coughlin's team played hard and with great passion against the Patriots that final Sunday in Week 17. Their quarterback, Eli Manning, kept completing passes and gaining more confidence. The Giants also found out up close and personal that New England has its vulnerable soft spots, and perhaps may not be quite as invincible as a 13-point spread Sunday might indicate.

Give Coughlin lots of credit for most of the team's good fortune this season, and also give some more to retired General Manager Ernie Accorsi for deciding not to fire his coach at the end of the 2006 season.

The Giants had finished 8-8 to barely scrape into the playoffs and were beaten in the first round. Accorsi, who had announced at the start of the year that he would be stepping down to smell a few flowers, decided that a lame-duck GM really shouldn't make a fire-the-coach move on his way out the door.

His successor, Jerry Reese, seconded the motion not to dismiss Coughlin when he got the job, but Reese also had some heart-to-heart talks with his coach during the offseason about trying to get in touch with his kinder, gentler side.

Coughlin is a smart guy, a terrific nuts and bolts, Xs and Os whiz and a proven winner at every level of the game. Maybe he also was stung by some very public offseason criticism from retired Giants running back Tiki Barber, who said he objected to Coughlin's my-way-or-the-highway demands, and that they took away some of his own joy for the game, making it that much easier to walk away.

Make no mistake, The Wicked Witch didn't suddenly wake up one morning as Snow White, by any stretch of the imagination. Coughlin can still be cranky and rough around the edges. He's still a stickler for detail, still has his rules, still is considered a disciplinarian and still can often be seen emoting and more than occasionally swearing on the sidelines.


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