It’s Coughlin’s Time to Say Goodbye, Gotham

December 18, 2013 by Don Banks
The Giants have bottomed out in 2013 at 5-9, facing potentially the worst record in Tom Coughlin's New York tenure. (Carlos M. Saavedra/Sports Illustrated)
The Giants have bottomed out in 2013 at 5-9, facing potentially the worst record in Tom Coughlin’s New York tenure. (Carlos M. Saavedra/Sports Illustrated)

It’s probably the first time I’ve ever considered him the voice of reason, no matter the topic, but I’m starting to think Lawrence Taylor got this one exactly right: All good things must come to an end, and this year that rule applies to even Tom Coughlin’s time in New York.

Don’t make the mistake of shooting the messenger because it was Taylor, the controversial and at times erratic Hall of Fame Giants linebacker, who made the case for ending Coughlin’s New York reign after 10 mostly successful years. Instead, consider the message, which I thought Taylor delivered the other day with the necessary respectful tone, and a clear-eyed sense of reality for where things stand in New York.

“Tom Coughlin has done wonders for the Giants,” Taylor told the New York Post. “Personally, I don’t know if I could play for him, but the guy is a winner, he is a fighter. But I think it is time for him to take his talents on the road. He’s done all he can do for the Giants. If he wants to coach, I think he needs to take his philosophies to another team.

“After a while, the players just stop listening. I respect the man, but it’s time. As much as I like Coughlin and the job he has done, it’s time for a shakeup.”

Taylor’s was not another fire-the-coach rant, delivered in anger and devoid of perspective or recognition of past accomplishment. Instead, it was the realization that even the best coaches, even those with two Super Bowl rings on their resume, eventually run out of answers and reach their tenure’s expiration date.

Taylor believes Coughlin is at that point with the Giants, and I find myself agreeing with his argument. Not all NFL divorces have to be ugly or messy—think Peyton Manning in Indianapolis—and Coughlin deserves considerable say in how the end game plays out. But it does look like change is needed in New York, and the only question is, will anyone who really matters recognize it and act?

The Facts

* The Giants missed the playoffs in four of the past five seasons, with only the surprise 2011 Super Bowl run—as a 9-7, No. 4-seeded team—breaking up that drought. Albeit in spectacular fashion.

* Since starting the 2012 season at 6-2, the Giants have gone just 8-14, the worst record in the NFC East in that span. Since winning the Super Bowl in February 2012, New York is 14-16 overall.

* While five of Coughlin’s 10 teams in New York made the postseason, the only years the Giants won any playoff games were in 2007 and 2011, the two Super Bowl seasons. That’s making the most of your two best opportunities, but it also speaks to the reality that the Giants under Coughlin have had success in fits and starts.

* New York started this season 0-6, its worst getaway since 1976, and the 5-9 Giants need to win both of their final two games in order to avoid the franchise’s worst season since 2003, Jim Fassel’s last season coaching the team.

* The Giants offense is in obvious need of some re-vamping. New York is the only NFL team to have been shut out this season, and it has happened twice, including last Sunday’s 23-0 home loss to Seattle. Quarterback Eli Manning’s play has slumped considerably, with his 25 interceptions leading the NFL this season. The key to a Giants resurgence is fixing Manning’s game, much like rookie Chargers head coach Mike McCoy was able to do this season for Philip Rivers, Manning’s fellow member of the 2004 quarterback class. And just making offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride the sacrificial lamb isn’t going far enough.

Make no mistake, the Giants have grown stale under Coughlin. As they stumble home this season, at 5-9 and just two losses shy of the worst record in his decade in New York, I can’t help but think that Coughlin has already done his best work with one of the league’s flagship franchises—twice, in fact—and the odds are decidedly against him ever reaching that pinnacle again.

While it can never be easy or enjoyable to leave on a down note, especially for a coach as driven and competitive as Coughlin, I’m convinced a year too soon is always better than a year too late when contemplating an exit. Think back to Andy Reid’s last two years in Philadelphia and what a dismal coda they were on his 14-year stint with the Eagles. According to friends in the know, even Reid in time recognized that his stay lasted a year or two longer than it should have, tarnishing some of his great work.

Coughlin will be 68 next season, and is entering the final year of his contract in 2014. It’s not the Giants’ style to make Coughlin work the final year of his deal without an extension of some sort, and I can’t see them going that route. But are they willing to add a year to his contract out of respect for his body of work, knowing he might never see 2015 in the job? Would 2014 represent a victory-lap season in that case, and do those ever turn out being a sweet, sentimental ride? 

The Giants would never try to force Coughlin into retirement and the gold watch route, and they shouldn’t. He deserves the appreciation and respect of the franchise for both his years of winning, and the way he has won. But it’s time for someone to have an honest chat with one of the legendary coaches in Giants history, about where things realistically are headed in New York. Isn’t it better to get started now on planning the Giants’ future, rather than holding on to the team’s recent and glorious past any longer? 

Those who know Coughlin say he’ll never walk away and give up on coaching. It’s all he knows, and all he lives for, and it occupies his time and energy like nothing else. But like Taylor suggested, maybe there’s another team out there that would kill to have a dose of Coughlin’s coaching, even if it’s just for the short term. I can think of two teams in the NFC East alone that could use his winning touch (isn’t that right, Washington and Dallas fans?) 

If the prompting is skillful enough, Coughlin could make it his call to leave the Giants, take the high road out of town, and step aside to make room for a fresh set of eyes and ears, which is what the franchise most likely needs now. It could be done quietly, and in the Giants’ way, but it could be a case of letting Coughlin decide his work with the team is done, while the afterglow of New York’s second Super Bowl title two years ago is still relatively fresh in memory.

Coughlin was the right man at the right time for the Giants, for most of the past decade. He brought a much-needed discipline to a veteran team, then learned how to be more flexible and help that club get over the hump and earn the game’s grandest prize. Twice. But a new approach does seem required. And his impact has been lessened by time, and the natural inclination of players to grow unfazed by a coach who grows too familiar.

Not many coaches or players get to experience it, but the best exits in the NFL are the ones where you leave on your own accord. Coughlin shouldn’t go because he has to go. He should go because the signs say his time is up, and his work in New York is done.

For the Giants, it’s time for a change. Because it’s true, all good things must come to an end.