- Greg Garber, Writer, Reporter
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By all accounts, Tuesday was a glorious day in East Rutherford, N.J. The sun shone benevolently on Giants Stadium and, finally, the freshening breeze crackled with the coolness of fall.
Inside, fueled by the heat of lofty self-imposed expectations, the Giants struggled to find an equilibrium. There will be no football this weekend, but glowering game faces could be seen in the blue-carpeted halls.
The Giants, who talked openly about reaching Super Bowl XLI in Miami, have lost two of three games to start the season. A furious 17-point rally on Sept. 17 against the Philadelphia Eagles is all that separates the Giants from an 0-3 record.
On Sunday night, the Giants trailed Seattle 42-3 as the fourth quarter began and the 32-point halftime deficit was the largest in the franchise's 82-year history.
Even Ernie Accorsi, the Giants' usually genial general manager, was cranky when asked to assess the team's mood.
"I won't evaluate the team week to week," he said via telephone. "I don't believe in making a state of the union address three games into the season."
Pat Hanlon, the Giants' colorful and cantankerous vice president of communications, was more than happy to communicate the vibe at the stadium.
"Just [expletive deleted] peachy," he growled. "Three weeks into the [expletive deleted] season, man, just hop onto that bus."
When the bye week visits a scuffling team, coaches usually welcome the break. It's a chance to get physically and mentally healthy when things aren't going well. This one feels different. The struggle for control of the New York Giants will play out behind closed doors for the better part of two weeks, before the Redskins arrive on Oct. 8.
It's Tom Coughlin, the old-school head coach who is rapidly becoming an anachronism in the NFL, versus today's thoroughly modern players.
After Sunday's 42-30 loss in Seattle, tight end Jeremy Shockey told the media that the Giants were outplayed and outcoached. "Write that one down," Shockey said.
The tabloid scribes did, and on Monday there were lots of questions at Giants Stadium. Shockey explained his observations, but did not retract them.
"I didn't mean to be a distraction," he said, blaming his "competitive nature."
The word "sorry" did not come up.
Shockey's clearly calculated remarks -- he interrupted a conversation between reporters and tackle Luke Petitgout to air his gripes -- echoed Tiki Barber's harsh comment after last season's 23-0 playoff loss to Carolina. Barber, criticizing the Giants' lack of preparation, also used the O-word, seemingly pointing the finger straight at Coughlin.
"Naturally, I'm concerned," Coughlin said on Monday. "There's nothing to be gained by pointing the finger. If you're truly a team and you're in it together, we win or lose together. We don't make a point of pointing the finger at anyone."
Make no mistake, the Giants are not a good football team right now. Horrible was the word linebacker Antonio Pierce used.
"When you talk about teams that are contenders, they don't beat themselves," Pierce said. "Right now, we're beating ourselves."
The Giants' offense, in pass mode for much of the last two games, has been adequate, although Eli Manning has been sacked nine times. The defense, on the other hand, has allowed an average of 31 points per game and allowed opponents to convert 59 percent of their third-down plays. Against the Seahawks, the Giants committed eight penalties and turned the ball over four times.
Certainly, the Barber and Shockey outbursts were colored by the emotions of losing, and Shockey -- who had four catches for 58 yards on a balky ankle -- never seems to get the ball enough for his taste. But there seems to be more going on here than blowing off postgame steam. After a series of challenges to Coughlin's authority, this one seems to be approaching the critical-mass moment.
Coughlin is a detail guy who thrives on control. What happens when the controlling coach loses control of his players? The quintessential disciplinarian finds himself coaching a horribly undisciplined team.
When Coughlin arrived at Giants Stadium after the 2003 season, his no-nonsense reputation preceded him. In fact, it was just the antidote the Giants' front office was looking for after player-friendly Jim Fassel. Only four months into Coughlin's hire, Giants players filed a grievance with NFLPA, charging that Coughlin had violated the offseason guidelines outlined in the Collective Bargaining Agreement. The team ultimately lost two workout days.
During the 2004 season, much was made of "Coughlin time" -- showing up on time for a meeting wasn't good enough for the head coach. When players, including franchise defensive end Michael Strahan, weren't five minutes early, they were fined for being late.
Wide receiver Plaxico Burress never got off to a good start with Coughlin. After signing with the Giants as a free agent after the 2004 season, Burress elected, along with Shockey and defensive tackle William Joseph, to pass on the Giants' offseason conditioning program. Burress was benched for the first quarter of the season's third game after arriving late at two team meetings. Burress blew off the Giants' final team meeting in January and didn't see the coach for six months.
Before the opener against the Indianapolis Colts, Burress was fined when he didn't return to Giants Stadium after taking his wife to an appointment. On Sunday, Burress was benched in the second quarter after a pass deflected off his hands for an interception and he lost a fumble. Both mistakes by Burress, who was slowed by a back injury, led to Seattle touchdowns.
"He worked hard to try and get to the point where he could play," Coughlin said. "But he didn't play well when he did have an opportunity there."
It is easy to get hysterical after three games; just ask the Buccaneers, Browns and Lions about the alarm rising in their cities. Last season, the schedule was so favorable, the Giants played nine home games -- they were technically the visiting team last September when the Saints played at Giants Stadium after losing their home in New Orleans. There were two games against the T.O.-infested Eagles (both wins) and wins over the Rams, Raiders and 49ers. It all added up to a surprising and satisfying 11-5 record.
This year's first-place schedule had the Giants open against the Colts, in many minds a Super Bowl team, followed by games at T.O.-less Philadelphia and Seattle, a team that nearly won Super Bowl XL. The Eagles lead the division with a 2-1 record, but they are hardly invincible. Still, there are tough games to come against the Bears and road games in Atlanta, Jacksonville and Carolina.
After taking a day off on Tuesday, the Giants return to work for two days, then scatter for three more days off. During that time, Coughlin will ponder ways to rein in his unleashed team. He is in the third year of a four-year contract, and he is no doubt aware that Fassel was fired one year before his long-term deal ended.
Coughlin has 13 games to pull it back together.
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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