- Johnette Howard, ESPN.com columnist
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By Monday, his voice had ticked up again to its familiar, animated pitch. But the look on Tom Coughlin's face Sunday was no longer defiant, no longer angry, no longer the look of an undaunted coach who had no doubts he could lead the Giants out of the thicket and back from this latest disaster, too.
As Coughlin stood at the podium after the Giants' second straight collapse -- this one a 45-17 loss to the Green Bay Packers that ruined the Giants' chance to clinch a playoff spot, perhaps fatally -- Coughlin didn't talk in his usual punched-up, declarative sentences about how and what the Giants will do next to stay alive in their season finale.
This was different.
He said, "I'd like to see us win a 10th game."
Coughlin is much too good a coach to mock because the Giants are on the precipice of missing the playoffs for the second straight season after yet another late-season swoon. He is not incompetent, and the players on the Giants' roster aren't all dogs.
There is a middle ground where whatever combination of strategy and motivation it takes to win in sports gets out of whack over time, and sometimes is even irreparably broken.
Coughlin isn't the first championship-winning coach to reach that hard-to-pinpoint impasse where things just stop working. But judging from the mystified remarks coming from him and his players, that odd purgatory is precisely where he and the 9-6 Giants seem to be now. And it could cost Coughlin his job.
"We had destiny in our hands tonight, and we came out and played like we didn't have anything to play for," Giants defensive lineman Justin Tuck said after Sunday's game.
But how could that happen? The late Chuck Daly, who won two NBA titles with the Pistons, spoke a lot in the fractious months before he was forced out in Detroit about his strong belief that players sometimes get to the point where they just need to hear a new voice.
Pat Riley spoke about the same phenomenon in 1995, just weeks before he left the Knicks after four seasons. Jeff Fisher seems to have reached the same point with the Tennessee Titans, and Mike Shanahan -- who left Denver because ownership finally decided he had overstayed -- could be hurtling toward the same conclusion at warp speed in Washington, where the Giants play this coming Sunday. The Redskins have had a controversy-filled season.
Riley acknowledged even before he quit New York that the problems in his last Knicks season were "fatiguing" and sometimes "defused my energy for coaching." He conceded that getting the Knicks to keep taking a leap of faith with him might have backfired when, after doing all the grunt work he asked of them, those teams didn't find uninterrupted title runs at the end of the rainbow. "Maybe doubt creeps in," Riley said.
Riley noticed his exhortations to win what he called "statement games" -- games like the two the Giants just played against Philly and Green Bay -- "fell on deaf ears more [my last] season, for some reason."
The Giants know the feeling. Coughlin had warned his players about the need to play a 60-minute game against the Eagles two weeks ago, and his players even parroted it back to the media all week -- only to go out and watch Philly roar back with 21 fourth-quarter points. Before playing Green Bay, Coughlin harped on the Giants' need to eliminate turnovers, same as he has all season. Yet the Giants committed six anyway, to push their league-leading total to 41.
So it's not a lack of strategizing or anticipation that is costing the Giants games right now. But it does look like self-doubt. Over their past 68 minutes of play, the Giants have surrendered a staggering 73 points -- more than a point a minute.
"The players are unsure about how this all came about, as much as any of us are," Coughlin said during a late-afternoon conference call he held Monday as he and the team were still waiting to see whether they'd be able to fly from Wisconsin back to snowbound New York.
The Giants' players like and respect Coughlin. It's not just something they say when they've got a crowd or a tape recorder stuck in front of them, like center Shaun O'Hara did Sunday when he called the resurgent talk about Coughlin's job security "garbage" because "there's nobody better out there." When Coughlin made his way down the line as the Giants' players were doing their on-field stretching a week earlier for the Eagles game, one player after another ignored the pregame handshake Coughlin offered and hugged him instead.
So again, where have things gone wrong? You actually could make an argument that -- given an inconsistent Eli Manning, and a wide receiver corps and offensive line that have been riddled with injuries, plus having to install a new defense this season -- Coughlin and his staff actually coached their butts off just to get the Giants to 9-4 and the brink of the NFC East title before their meltdown against Philly. In fact, Giants defensive lineman Barry Cofield, one of the wiser heads in the locker room, did kind of say that after the Green Bay loss.
"We've been taught the right way to do everything; we just haven't been doing it," Cofield told the New York Daily News. "You keep having games like this, you have to ask, 'Are we good enough?' You can't keep going out there and having bad performances and keep saying, 'We'll get it right.'"
The Giants began 2010 without much expected of them. For a stretch by midseason, they were playing as well as anyone in the league. And so now they look like they are worse than they should have been. But what is the real Giants team?
This one: The season is down to one game, and the Giants are now 9-6 with a thud. Barring a godsend chain of events -- a win in Washington this Sunday, plus either a Green Bay loss to Chicago or two losses by the New Orleans Saints, starting Monday night against Atlanta -- there will be no postseason trip. And that would skyrocket the chances there will be no next season for Coughlin in New York.
So Coughlin still twists. The Giants again run hot and cold.
See the problem?
It's nothing we haven't heard around here before.
Tom Coughlin sounded different Monday, perhaps aware the end is near.