Tom Coughlin is partially responsible for two of the best sports days of my life. And since I’m not married yet (Hi, Brittni) and since I haven’t had a child yet, it’s hard not to say Coughlin is partially responsible for two of the best days of my life, not just my sports life: Feb. 3, 2008 and Feb. 5, 2012.
When the Giants hired Tom Coughlin on Jan. 6, 2004 with a four-year, $11 million deal, the team was coming off a 4-12 season, was two years removed from blowing a 38-14 third-quarter lead in the playoffs against the 49ers and three years removed from getting blown out in Super Bowl XXXV. At the time of the hiring, John Mara said the Giants were a franchise “in trouble.” For as bad as this season went, with a 6-10 record, and six losses to the Cowboys, Falcons, Saints, Patriots, Jets and Eagles that should have been wins and two more losses to the Redskins and Panthers that could have been wins, the Giants aren’t in the same kind of “trouble” they were in nearly 12 years ago. This 6-10 season could have been as good as 12-4 and could have easily been 9-7, which would have landed the Giants a home game for Wild-Card Weekend this weekend. But it wasn’t. Bad decisions, choices and clock management resulted in the Giants’ third straight losing season and it resulted in Tom Coughlin being fired on Monday.
It’s nice to think that Tom Coughlin really did decide that at the age of 69 and after four straight playoff-less seasons it’s time to go into John Mara’s office and tell him he’s resigning as head coach of the Giants. But it’s also nice to think that growing up a fat man from the North Pole left all of the presents under the tree and a giant bunny put plastic eggs full of candy around the house and a tiny fairy was in the business of trading teeth for money. If you believe John Mara that this was Tom Coughlin’s decision then you probably also believe the national game broadcasters who think Craig Dahl has been a valuable part of the Giants’ secondary all season because of a tackle he makes on Monday Night Football. Coughlin didn’t want to leave the Giants and the only job he’s had for the last 12 seasons, but he also didn’t want to have the word “fired” officially attached to the end of his Giants coaching career and the front office certainly didn’t want a stain on the resume and reputation of the head coach that brought them two championships and their only two since the 1990 season.
I have had a love/hate relationship with Coughlin over the last 12 years, which began when I was 17 years old, but there was only one time I truly thought he should be fired. That was in the last few weeks of the 2011 regular season when it looked like the Giants would miss out on the playoffs for the third straight season after losing their first playoff game in 2008 despite being the best team in the league. I thought that even though the Giants had won Super Bowl XLII, if they missed the playoffs in 2011, it would have meant one championship in eight seasons with three straight playoff-less seasons and even though some fan bases would do unimaginable things for that kind of success, it felt like the Giants could have and should have accomplished more. Maybe a new head coach and coaching staff would get the Giants to realize their full potential consistently and not just once every few years and make them a true annual contender.
After their Week 9 win in New England in 2011, the Giants were 6-2 and the idea of a second-half collapse, which would be their third in as many years, seemed impossible. But then they lost to 49ers, Eagles, Saints and Packers and suddenly were 6-6 and it was happening once again. At 6-6, they trailed the Cowboys by 12 in Dallas in Week 14 with five minutes and 41 seconds left and the Cowboys looking at running out the clock and clinching the division, and that’s when it all changed. Tony Romo overthew Miles Austin to win the game and then with a chance to force overtime, Dan Bailey’s field-goal attempt was blocked by Jason Pierre-Paul after Tom Coughlin’s timeout caused Bailey’s first successful attempt to not count.
The Giants still lost the following week to the Redskins with an embarrassing effort similar to the one they produced against the Redskins near the end of this season, but it didn’t matter. Beat the Jets in Week 16 and the Cowboys in Week 17 and they were in. Victor Cruz’s 99-yard touchdown saved them against the Jets and they routed the Cowboys in the season finale on Sunday Night Football to return to the postseason. The second-half collapse streak had been broken and a month later they were Super Bowl champions again. Super Bowl XLVI was the last time the Giants played a playoff game and it was the last time Tom Coughlin would coach a playoff game for the Giants unless there’s some Joe Gibbs-like return planned for the future.
The Giants should have been back in the playoffs when they were 6-2 before yet another second-half collapse in 2012. They should have found a way to beat the Cowboys in 2013 after overcoming an 0-6 start to the year and they should have found a way to keep their three-game winning streak going that got them to 3-2 at the beginning of 2014. They should have found a way to win the NFC East this season given the state of the division. But each time, the Giants failed, the same way they did in 2009 after starting that season 5-0 and the same way they did in 2010 after starting that season 6-1.
The playoff losses to the Panthers in 2005 and Eagles in 2006 will always hurt. The second-half collapses will always be devastating. The Miracles at the New Meadowlands will cause me to lose sleep forever. The opening nights in Dallas in 2013 and 2015 will forever have me asking, “Why?” The divisional round playoff loss in 2008 as the No. 1 overall seed in the league following Plaxico Burress’ nightclub catastrophe will always leave me wondering, “What if?” But I won’t think any of the bad times when I think of Tom Coughlin and his Giants teams from 2004-2015. Without the bad times, the good times aren’t as good.
Instead, I will think of the Giants going to Tampa Bay and dominating the Buccaneers during Wild-Card Weekend in January 2008 as I watched from Mohegan Sun. I will think of watching R.W. McQuarters intercept Tony Romo to clinch the Giants’ win over the 1-seed Cowboys a week later with my friend Red in Jillian’s in Boston, as the only two people in the whole bar. I will think of Coughlin’s frozen face in Green Bay watching and Lawrence Tynes’ third attempt at beating the Packers in the NFC Championship Game finally go through the uprights the following week. I will think about sitting in St. Leonard’s Church in the North End of Boston on the morning of Super Bowl XLII asking God to please let the Giants upset the Patriots in Super Bowl XLII and avenge the Yankees’ collapse from October 2004. I will think about not being able to breathe watching Eli Manning escape to find David Tyree in XLII. I will think of feeling like my house burned down when Randy Moss scored to give the Patriots the lead and then feeling like I had just won the Powerball when Eli Manning found Plaxico Burress wide open in the corner of the end zone and all the beer showers that followed. I will think of walking down Hanover Street in Boston the following morning and feeling like Will Smith in the opening scene of I Am Legend.
I will think of Tony Romo missing Miles Austin and Coughlin’s timeout forcing Dan Bailey to kick that field goal once again and Jason Pierre-Paul blocking it. I will think of Victor Cruz scoring a 99-yard touchdown with the Giants backed up to their own 1 with the season on the line. I will think of worrying about which Giants team would show up on Sunday Night Football against the Cowboys and then relaxing when the Giants took a 21-0 halftime lead. I will think of watchingJulio Jones and Roddy White being shut out and the favored Falcons being run out of MetLife out on wild-card weekend. I will think about the Giants going to Lambeau and embarrassing the 15-1 Packers and Aaron Rodgers at home, including Eli Manning’s end-of-the-first-half Hail Mary to Hakeem Nicks. I will think about watching Eli Manning take a beating from the 49ers during the NFC Championship Game, nearly throwing up from anxiety 17 times during overtime, watching Lawrence Tynes kick the Giants to the Super Bowl again and celebrating like Theo Fleury in the 1990-91 Stanley Cup Playoffs. I will think about watching Tom Brady commit that intentional grounding penalty for a safety to start Super Bowl XLVI, Eli Manning finding Mario Manningham with a perfect throw and unbelievable catch down the sideline and Ahmad Bradshaw mistakingly falling in the end zone. I will think about jumping around and yelling when Tom Brady’s Hail Mary fell out of reach from Rob Gronkowski’s fingers as if I had miraculously held the winning Powerball ticket for the second time in four years.
That’s what I will think of when I think of Tom Coughlin. Because without Tom Coughlin, I don’t have Feb. 3, 2008 and Feb. 5, 2012. So while this is goodbye to the man who led the Giants to two championships and kept Tom Brady and Bill Belichick from two more, it’s also thank you. Thank you and goodbye.