Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Giants: about Coughlin

Tom Coughlin rallied the Giants to a Superbowl in 2007 when he had one foot nearly out the door following a weak 2006 season. Giants made the playoffs that year, but all was not right in Giants land and the state of the franchise seemed to be uneven. The Giants had a worse year in 2006 than they did the previous year, going 8-8 after a record of 11-5 in 2005 (which ended with that horrible 23-0 playoff loss to the Panthers). In 2006, they went out in the first round of the playoffs against the hated rival Eagles and even though the game was tied late in the 4th quarter, you never really had the feeling that the Giants could win that game. The advancement of the franchise QB was a bit choppy. The relationship between the players and the coaches was contentious, and that goes for all of the coaches, not just the head coach. The DC, Tim Lewis, was broadly disliked by the players and he did not get a lot out of them; did not coach and get them to develop their skills. The OC Hufnagel was unimaginative and was relieved of his duties late in the year. A team with a lot of uncertainty and almost dysfunction is what the Giants owners were looking at after the 2006 season in deciding the fate of HC Coughlin. They were this close to sending him packing, but he promised to change his ways and they gave him one more chance. So Coughlin became a bit more of a player's coach, communicated with the players more effectively and although he remained firm, he did not use yelling, scolding and screaming as his only means of coaching the players. He also fired the DC, Tim Lewis, installed Gilbride as OC and hired a new QB coach, Chris Palmer. The team responded to all the changes, went on one of the great playoff rolls in sports and beat the favored Patriots for the title in one of the greatest upsets in Super Bowl history. Coughlin was hailed as a brilliant coach and when he followed it up with another great year in 2008, which was unfortunately disrupted by the Plaxico Burress gun incident, and ended with a playoff loss to the Eagles, he was widely viewed as one of the top coaches in the NFL. I would like to take a look at Coughlin now, a few years removed from that unlikely 2007 title and analyze his strengths and weaknesses as a coach.

Whenever we analyze the top coaches and examine their legacy to the sport, we always talk about "the coaching tree" that they planted. The great coaches leave not only championships and playoff wins in their resume but also a cadre of assistant coaches that become successful either as coordinators in other programs or as HCs themselves. For example, Bill Walsh had on his staff future head coaches like: Mike Holmgren, George Seifert, Dennis Green, Sam Wyche and Jim Fassel. Just going through this in my head, without looking it up, I think this group had two Superbowl wins (Holmgren and Seifert), two other Superbowl appearances (Fassel, Wyche) and some very successful season by Dennis Green up in Minnesota. These coaches themselves spawned other successful coaches including John Gruden, Mike Shanahan, Steve Mariucci, Andy Reid and some others. Therefore, I would argue that the most important job a HC has is picking and training his assistants. Parcells had Bellichick, Crennel, Weiss, Coughlin himself and even had Sean Payton down in Dallas after he left the Giants. Parcells was great at picking talented coaches and did a masterful job training them in his philosophy once he got them. I never loved Jim Fassel as a coach, but give him credit in picking his coordinators: two coaches that went on to great success as HC in the league: John Fox and Sean Payton who now have two Superbowl appearances and one title between them.

If you look at Coughlin's record on the Giants at picking assistants, his record is definitely spotty. He picked Tim Lewis as his first DC, Hufnagel as his first OC and both were complete washouts. As I said, Hufnagel was stripped of his duties before year end and Lewis was fired at the end of the year after poor results and a virtual player revolt. Coughlin also took Gilbride as his first QB coach and Manning did not improve his mechanics or his play at all under Gilbride - he blossomed when Palmer came in to be QB coach. Gilbride got shifted to OC and to be fair, his performance can probably be termed competent, though certainly he is not the most imaginative offensive mind in the NFL. Give Coughlin credit for finding Spagnuolo who did a great job following Lewis, but when Spags left for the Rams, Couglin promoted from within and named Sheridan who also was a total bust. Some of the position coaches are pretty good. Flaherty, the OL coach is one of the best in the NFL and I also like Giunta and Merrit, the S and DB coaches. But he certainly does not have a great record picking assistants. Sometimes assistant coaches can get off to a bad start, not have a good fit with the team or players but then excel elsewhere in the NFL. For example, Sean Payton was bumped by Fassel and went on to success. However, Lewis and Hufnagel are out of the NFL now and Sheridan, after being DC with the Giants was hired as an assistant LB coach with the Dolphins. Hear that??? not LB coach, but assistant LB coach. Obviously, he is not exactly highly regarded among his peers.

I also get the feeling that Coughlin is completely hands-off, to a fault, with his assistants when it comes to their game planning. Just like in business, where a manager of managers has to find the right level of involvement to influence direction but not interfere, the HC has to have input to personnel decisions and game planning while not undermining the chain of command and the authority of his assistants. Last year, when Sheridan was clearly floundering with his schemes and his play calls, Coughlin did not step in and guide or suggest ways to improve things. Sheridan leaked to the press that the Giants defense was not physical and there was nothing he could do. Terrible thing for a coach to do - to throw his players under the bus like that - they certainly are not going to be motivated to play for him then. Players were freelancing because they did not trust the play calls which led to more breakdowns and missed assignments. Sheridan's response was to yell more, to become more removed and distant, and to simplify things even more, as if the blown assignments were because the defenses were too confusing. The players were unhappy, but Coughlin did not step in to guide first time DC Sheridan in how to ameliorate the situation. He let him sink and fired him  summarily at the end of the year. This did not reflect well on Coughlin.

That having been said, the NFL is a results oriented league and Coughlin's results have been good. He took over a 4-12 team in 2004 with a rookie QB. If you exclude that first year, where he was remaking the roster and training his rookie qb, he made the playoffs 4 out of the next 5 years, with one title to his credit. He trained that QB into a franchise player and is set up with a pretty good team in 2010. This is a big year for Coughlin. If he fails badly with this talent, his future tenure may be questioned.

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