<
>

Come to Jesus

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Michael Strahan grabbed the game ball and silenced his teammates, inspiring 52 sets of eyes to burn into the most powerful personas and presences in the Giants' locker room: the franchise star and the coach, Tom Coughlin. After the first victory of the season, they stood shoulder to shoulder, an uneasy partnership solidified with sport's most traditional tonic. Winning.

"For his first win as head coach of the New York Giants," Strahan said, lifting the ball into the air and then handing it to Coughlin. "Hopefully there are many more to come."

When the Giants had appeared to be on the brink of a revolt, the strangest thing happened: They're on the cusp of a revolution. Coughlin has started to reshape the way his players view him, his values and his rigid ways. And all that begins and ends with Strahan, because everything does on these Giants.

After witnessing the moment the Strahan-Coughlin thaw started after the Redskins game two weeks ago, receiver Amani Toomer said, "Everybody knows how they haven't been seeing eye-to-eye. But the main thing that they have in common is that they both want to win. This showed that winning takes care of everything."

Sometimes, it can be this simple. Strahan called the powers of victory "healing," and understood that the chances of Coughlin and him coming closer together had a lot to do with winning games. Now, New York has won two straight games on the way to Green Bay on Sunday, where they'll have a chance to declare themselves as legitimate playoff contenders. For the Giants, Green Bay and Dallas are back-to-back road acid tests to determine the legitimacy of the season.

Nevertheless, these games should no longer have to bear the burden of defining the bond between the coach and best player. They've come a long way in a brief time, pushed past the furor over offseason workout programs and meeting fines to reach common ground.

"He has everybody's respect as a coach," Strahan says. "If we listen to him, if we follow his plan, we're going to be successful."

For two weeks, the fine leveled on Strahan and two teammates for failing to show up only two minutes early for a team meeting had transformed into a locker room obsession and the spark of a national debate. For all the insistence that Coughlin would never ease back, he did reach out. In the wake of that past week, he was touched by Strahan's gesture with the game ball. It did go a long way toward soothing hard feelings, and maybe, a longer way toward inspiring Coughlin to reach back out to Strahan.

After the team meetings on the eve of last Sunday's victory over Cleveland, Strahan was grateful with the way Coughlin asked about the player's pregnant wife and the impending birth of twin daughters, even sharing stories about his own granddaughter. Suddenly, Coughlin didn't seem so eager to embrace his reputation as an ogre, and behind the scenes, the Giants started to see a softer side of him. He started to show them there was a human being there, someone they hadn't been sure existed beyond the sullen eyes and grim face.

"He's definitely gone out of his way to make more of a connect with his players," Strahan said. "The players appreciate that, and I think that's the reason we're playing as hard as we are for him."

Strahan was downright dominant in the 27-10 victory over the Browns, delivering two sacks and recovering two fumbles. All along, there was an unmistakable truth destined to be discovered: Strahan is everything Coughlin wants out of a football player. He practices hard, plays hurt and performs on game days.

In sports, there's nothing as important for a coach than getting his star players on his side. Because if they're not working for the coach in the locker room, they're working against him. Coughlin's best players with Jacksonville still swear by him, with Keenan McCardell and Gary Walker, two of his ex-Pro Bowl Jags, insisting they would play for him again. "If he can get his core guys to believe, when they bring in other guys around them, the core guys are going to police the whole thing for him," says Walker, the Houston Texans defensive tackle. "But he'll keep cutting down that core, until he gets his guys in there."

Even the players most dissatisfied with Coughlin grudgingly admit he has them incredibly prepared to play every week and that goes a long way with athletes. If a coach is going to be a brutal taskmaster, his hard line has to be backed with the belief he's completely competent. No one disputes his acumen in the Giants' locker room, even if they had found fault with his methods.

"Once you start to respect those rules, understand why they're there, he starts to grow on you," McCardell says. "You start to do things like him, you start to become like him. But it's all a lot easier to see if you start winning."

Three weeks ago, no one would've believed it --- maybe not even Strahan himself. All he knows now is that the Giants have a winning record, and they're turning into a leaner, tougher and sharper team under his iron fist. Suddenly, the franchise player is a Coughlin convert too.

And perhaps it began innocently enough, with Strahan handing the game ball to his coach. To many more victories, he toasted. Many more. Ultimately, Michael Strahan gave his teammates a cue this football season, and finally, they cheered Tom Coughlin in his locker room.

Adrian Wojnarowski is a columnist for The Bergen Record and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPNWoj8@aol.com.