- Ian O'Connor, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The players owe Tom Coughlin this one. Oh, yes they do. Sunday afternoon, the Eli Mannings and Justin Tucks and the rest of the core New York Giants need to pay back their head coach for calling the most difficult audible of his distinguished football life.
Coughlin altered his entire being following the 2006 season, embracing a sort-of-kinder, sort-of-gentler approach with the players and the media. If you think this was a move that came easily to him, then you never spent five minutes inside Coughlin's bunker, waiting for a sudden attack of humanity to temper his draconian rule.
Coughlin's boss, John Mara, told him to quit making a tough job tougher. The former Giants fullback and current team official, Charles Way, told Coughlin, "Coach, you ought to let the players see you the way you are with your grandchildren," and Major Tom decided to bench the drill sergeant within.
Soon enough Coughlin was establishing a leadership council of veterans in his locker room to ease the disconnect between player and coach. Soon enough he was trading in a training camp practice for a team bowling outing, and laughing along with the tackles and linebackers who mocked his talent for finding the gutter.
In the end, Coughlin's willingness to lighten up ranked among the chief reasons his Giants won an epic Super Bowl.
Coughlin pushed the right psychological buttons in 2007, putting his players in position to create an indelible event. Three years later, his team should pay him back.
At 64, the old man could use a hand at FedEx Field. It looks like Coughlin has to beat the Washington Redskins to save his job, and it's on Manning, Tuck and their fellow beneficiaries from Coughlin's makeover to help him save it.
It never should have come to this, of course, not when the Giants were half a quarter away from controlling the NFC East. They allowed Michael Vick to turn that half a quarter into his very own Olympic Games, and then they made Aaron Rodgers and Mike McCarthy feel as big as Bart Starr and Vince Lombardi in Green Bay.
Coughlin has to take a hit for the back-to-back meltdowns, no question about that. If the Giants miss the playoffs, his failure to use the proper personnel to guard against Philadelphia's onside kick will be recalled as the first wintry tremor that roared into an avalanche.
But playoffs or no playoffs, John Mara's Giants don't fire 10-6 coaches, especially 10-6 coaches responsible for delivering what Mara called "the greatest victory in the history of this franchise," the 17-14 victory over the unbeaten Patriots.
John Mara's Giants might fire 9-7 coaches, especially 9-7 coaches responsible for a series of late-season collapses, including one last year that left Coughlin with an 8-8 record that Mara said felt like a 2-14.
So forget about Chicago's motivation, or lack thereof, to win in Green Bay -- the Falcons and Eagles didn't help the Giants, and it's unlikely the Bears will buck that trend. Sunday isn't about stealing a longshot bid to the tournament.
It's about playing a credible brand of football.
It's about saving a coach worth saving.
Go ahead and compare Coughlin to his Redskins counterpart, Mike Shanahan, who spent most of the season trying to run his two most significant players out of town. Shanahan was more interested in winning his power struggles with Donovan McNabb and Albert Haynesworth than he was in actually fielding a winning team, which explains why he sounded surprised Wednesday that Coughlin was the one coaching for his job.
"You just kind of scratch your head," Shanahan said. "[The Giants] have one heck of a football coach that's won very consistently and just won the Super Bowl a few years back
"If they watch the [Philadelphia] game film and they watch Michael Vick in a few of the plays, you just have to laugh as a coach and say, 'How does a human being make those plays?' He's the only guy who could bring a team back like that. I don't think I've seen a comeback like that with one player being the difference in as many years that I've been in the league."
Shanahan noted that Rodgers made some spectacular plays in Green Bay, too, and that "the people in the profession know what a great job [Coughlin] does."
But still, without any help from the injured Hakeem Nicks and Steve Smith, Coughlin needs to score enough points against Washington to return for his eighth season as Giants coach, a notion that his Pro Bowl son-in-law, Chris Snee, called "absurd."
Absurd? Possibly. True? Probably.
"Playing for his job?" Snee sniffed. "Two weeks ago no one was saying that. Now two weeks later everyone changes their viewpoint of the guy?
"It's absurd, but I realize that it's the profession we're in and that could be a possibility. If we win this we'll have 10 wins. He wasn't the reason we collapsed in the fourth quarter against Philadelphia. He wasn't the reason why we played like we did against Green Bay, but somebody has to take the blame."
Manning, with his 24 interceptions, deserves his fair share. The quarterback again praised his coach's preparation, but when asked if speculation about Coughlin's status represented another source of motivation to beat Washington, Manning came up a few yards short.
"We always go out there and give your best," he said. "And you want to play well for your coaches and you want to have them have success, and yourself have success, no matter what the scenario."
Sorry, but Manning should feel a greater desire to help Coughlin than that.
"All he's asking from us," Eli said, "is to lay everything on the line."
It isn't too much to ask. At the close of the 2006 season, Coughlin made a painful concession for the betterment of his team. Despite the fact that he'd taken the expansion Jacksonville Jaguars to two AFC title games, and despite the fact that he'd led the Giants to a pair of playoff appearances in his first three years, Coughlin agreed to shed his despotic skin and communicate in a more compassionate tone.
Wednesday, a million miles removed from the winner's stand in the Arizona desert, Coughlin didn't sound despotic or compassionate. He sounded vulnerable.
He talked about playing for pride and honor, usually a tough sell in the NFL. Last week, Coughlin admitted it's been "really difficult to ignore" the calls for his job, but maintained he wanted to deflect attention from his players in an unforgiving marketplace.
"I want it on me," Coughlin said. "I want it on me."
For the sake of the old man, it's time for the Eli Mannings and Justin Tucks to say the same thing.
The Giants must give their best in order to help save Tom Coughlin's job.