The Annual Pursuit of Quitting on Tom Coughlin

It’s that time of year again in New York. Immediately after the Giants were blown out by the Saints on Monday night, the whispers started to circulate. The dominant storyline of their post-Super Bowl era reared its ugly head on yet another Thanksgiving weekend. Just three weeks after the Giants had upset the mighty Patriots in New England, a three-game losing streak and a hopeless thrashing in New Orleans led Giants fans and media members to that one fatalistic conclusion: The Giants have quit on Coughlin.

Of course, the Giants have a long, storied tradition of quitting on Tom Coughlin. It’s one of their favorite pastimes. When Coughlin eventually does leave the team, expect Big Blue to somehow find a way to raise “giving up on their head coach” to the rafters in an emotional halftime ceremony. (The Jets will counter by honoring “losing their swagger” during a subsequent home game.) We want to pay tribute to the Giants’ consistency in giving up, though, without having to wait for that fateful day. Let’s review the Coughlin era’s remarkable history of abandonment.

2004

In Coughlin’s first season with the team, he famously fined players for showing up two minutes early to a meeting, noting that “Meetings start five minutes early.” The team started 5-2 before losing two straight, at which point Coughlin benched starting quarterback Kurt Warner for rookie Eli Manning. The Giants went on to lose six additional games on the trot, extending their losing streak to eight, before winning the final game of the year to finish 6-10.

The first mention we can find of the Giants quitting on Coughlin comes from New York Daily News beat writer Filip Bondy, who wrote after a 28-7 loss to the Eagles on the weekend after Thanksgiving that the Giants ” … had quit against the Eagles in the second half, the same way they’d quit on Jim Fassel last season.”

While Bondy noted that the Giants ” … rolled over and played dead,” his comments paled in comparison to what anonymous Giants players told the New York Post after Week 16:

    “Guys absolutely hate Tom Coughlin,” one Giant told the Post. “He’s not the type of coach we’re going to go and put everything on the line for. Guys don’t play for him; we play because we have to play and you’re not going to win that way.”

    “We will not win here when he’s the coach,” another veteran added.

    “Honestly, they might as well fire him now,” one player told the Post. “The players on this team have quit on him. That’s a very strong word, but mark it down: this team has quit on him and quit really caring and quit listening to what Tom Coughlin has to say.”

    “Most guys are just hoping that either they’ll be gone or he’ll be gone after this season,” another Giant said. “Guys just tune him out, ignore him and don’t care what he says. They just want to play the season out and get it over with.”

Sadly for that anonymous player, things were just getting started.

2005

An 11-5 season and surprise NFC East divisional crown muted the quitting talk for most of the season. In fact, Daily News writer Ralph Vacchiano even noted after the regular season that the team had rallied behind Coughlin, noting that he had “won over his skeptical players” and that “there’s nothing they wouldn’t do for their coach.” Despite the good vibes, the Giants capitulated at home in the first round of the playoffs, suffering a disappointing 23-0 loss at the hands of the Carolina Panthers.

Even after the solid season, though, the quitting narrative still popped up; in his column about the loss, New York Times writer John Branch led by writing, “For their first home playoff game in five years, the Giants were greeted by an enthusiastic, towel-waving crowd. But the cries of support slowly turned to boos of disenchantment, and the white giveaway towels represented little but a slow surrender.”

2006

The Giants go 8-8, but as per their custom, they start 6-2 and finish 2-6. They lose in the first round of the playoffs to the Eagles. Talk of quitting abounds.

We start in September, where Courier-Post (Southern New Jersey) writer Kevin Roberts has his suspicions about the 1-2 start.

    “They quit on coach Tom Coughlin last year, and the clean slate they started with this season got some stuff on it pretty quick. The effort the Giants rolled out on Seattle Sunday was absurd. And after the game, Jeremy Shockey ripped Coughlin and the coaching staff. There’s trouble brewing there.”

In all fairness, Jeremy Shockey is entirely incapable of expressing himself in any way without onlookers suggesting that there’s trouble brewing. The hot start quelled most of the quitting talk, but Thanksgiving brought out the worst in the Giants again. After leading the Titans 21-0 heading into the fourth quarter, Vince Young pulled out a miraculous comeback and a 24-21 win for his Titans. Allen Barra of the now-defunct New York Sun noted that the loss ” … jeopardized their season as well as, probably, Coughlin’s tenure with the team — I’ll give him until the end of the season.” And then the Q-word came out: “Individually and collectively, the Giants quit against the Titans. I wish there was a nicer way to say it, but there isn’t.”

Players even commented on the fiasco. Michael Strahan took a shot at Plaxico Burress after the star receiver gave up on a pass in the fourth quarter, saying, “It’s a shame. You can’t give up. You can’t quit, because you’re not quitting on yourself, you’re quitting on everybody. I don’t quite understand what his lack of motivation is in those types of situations. But I’m going to try to see what it is.”

The quitting did not stop. On Christmas Eve, the Giants were booed off the field after a dismal loss to the Saints that saw the fans chant “Fire Coughlin!” for most of the second half. Paul Schwartz of the New York Post didn’t disagree while noting, “In recent weeks, there had been no desire by the Giants ownership to make a coaching change unless the team embarrassed the franchise and quit on Tom Coughlin down the stretch of the season. It is hard to imagine what this flawed team displayed in yesterday’s 30-7 loss to the Saints that doesn’t meet such criteria.”

After the playoff loss to the Eagles, Newsday writer Bob Glauber didn’t believe that the team had quit on Coughlin, but instead that the players had stopped believing in defensive coordinator Tim Lewis, who was fired after the season.

And once the season was over, the team gave Coughlin a one-year contract extension, with the Associated Press news story even getting into the quitting talk about the “embattled” Coughlin:

    “Despite reports that players were tuning out their no-nonsense coach, [co-owner John] Mara said Coughlin still has the respect of the team.”

    “I don’t buy that,” Mara said. “I think there is substantial support for him.”

Newly retired running back Tiki Barber notes after the season in his autobiography that Coughlin “robbed me of what had been one of the most important things I had in my life, which was the joy I felt playing football,” and that “If Tom Coughlin had not remained as head coach of the Giants, I might still be in a Giants uniform.”

2007

The Giants, remarkably, start 0-2, go on a six-game winning streak, finish 4-4, and then roll off three straight road wins in the playoffs before shocking the undefeated Patriots, 17-14, in Super Bowl XLII. You’ve probably heard about it. Unsurprisingly, there is no talk that the team has quit on Coughlin, although Danny O’Neil of the Seattle Times writes before the NFC Championship Game that Coughlin ” … was considered the leader in the clubhouse for the coach whose team was most likely to quit on him this season.”

2008

In a year of post-Super Bowl bliss, there’s no talk of the Giants quitting on Coughlin. The Giants do continue their remarkable trend of struggling in the second half, but they start the season 11-1. Two days before Thanksgiving, Vacchiano notes with the Giants 10-1 that ” … after 3-1/2 years of rubbing his players the wrong way and failing to push their right buttons, it seems that every move Coughlin has made this year has turned to gold. “

That Thanksgiving weekend, Plaxico Burress goes to a New York nightclub and accidentally shoots himself in the leg, ending his season. The Giants then limp to the finish line with three losses in their last five games, and look listless during a 23-11 home playoff loss to the Eagles.

2009

The honeymoon ends. A 5-0 start against weak opposition is followed by a four-game losing streak, and although the Giants remain in the playoff hunt through Week 16, a 41-9 shellacking by a Panthers team with nothing to play for eliminates them from contention.

Everyone seems to agree that the Giants defense capitulated, but the cause is up in the air. The Associated Press’ Tom Canavan describes it as a “no-show effort”, while Steve Serby of the New York Post believes that the defense ” … didn’t try, at best, and quit at worst.” That argument was disputed by defensive end Justin Tuck, who said, “I didn’t see anybody quit. We didn’t play well, obviously, but … heart and quit. … a question of that, that’ll never be an issue with these Giants, I promise you that.” Tuck, coincidentally, was one of the players accused of quitting on plays during the loss to the Saints this past Monday night.

After the season, Mara puts the entire organization on notice, saying, “The status quo is unacceptable.” Tara Sullivan of The Record (Bergen County, New Jersey) points out that the bowling outings and casino nights that signaled the softer side of Coughlin might have caused the younger players to forget about the angry leader underneath, and suggests that Coughlin’s job security is back up for debate.

    Whereas the coach never could admit his team quit in the last two games because he’d indict himself in the process, the owner wouldn’t let him off the hook. “The lack of mental and physical toughness and quite frankly a lack of effort the last two weeks, that’s just something I never expected to see,” Mara said.

2010

The Giants start 6-2 before losing tough divisional games against the Cowboys and Eagles, but they actually start a three-game winning streak on Thanksgiving weekend to go to 9-4. Then, of course, they blow a 31-10 fourth-quarter lead against the Eagles and lose, 38-31, when DeSean Jackson pulls off that punt return. They can still maintain some hope of making it into the playoffs with a win the following week, but they travel to Green Bay and get stomped by the eventual champion Packers, 45-17, ending their hopes of advancing to the postseason.

After the Packers loss, the arguments come back out. Wallace Matthews of ESPN New York decries the Giants’ “shameful collapse” and flat-out states that the Giants ” … quit against Green Bay the day after Christmas.” He also notes that said rollover is a reflection on Coughlin, who Matthews says is “basically, is a guy who yells at his players. A lot.” We yell at bowling outings and casino nights all the time, though!

Following a meaningless Week 17 win over the Redskins, Mara confirms that Coughlin will keep his job for another season. Why? As Mark Viera of the New York Times reports, Mara ” … did not sense that the players had quit on Coughlin. He said the strongest factor in making a coaching change had to do with whether the players were responding to the coach.”

And in 2011, we’re off to another year with virtually the same narrative, fair or unfair. The Patriots win kicked the Giants off to a 6-2 start, marking the fifth time they’ve finished the first half of the season with that exact record. During Coughlin’s eight years with the team, they’ve gone 47-17 during the first half of seasons. That’s a .734 winning percentage, roughly equivalent to that of a 12-win team. During the second half, they’ve gone 24-35, with a .406 winning percentage that serves as the hallmark of something closer to a 6-10 team.

If you’re looking for a logical reason why, you can point to their strength of schedule. Before this season, during Coughlin’s reign, the average Giants opponent during the first eight games of the year had a winning percentage of .448; during the final eight games of the year, the average opponent winning percentage rocketed up to .561. This year, before their win over the Patriots, the Giants started their season with seven games against teams with losing records. The combined record of their eight first-half opponents is an ugly 34-54 (.386 winning percentage). The combined record of their eight second-half opponents is 56-32 (.637). Maybe the Giants aren’t giving up at all. It’s possible they’re just getting overwhelmed by superior teams.

The denials about players quitting on Monday marched out about as quickly as one of the Saints drives, but if the Giants lose by any sort of serious margin to the Packers at home this Sunday, the quitting narrative will undoubtedly envelop the team for a third consecutive winter. Unless the Giants can compete with the Packers and sweep the Cowboys in their two remaining matchups to claim the NFC East title, the Giants may not get a chance to quit on Coughlin in 2012.


Previously from Bill Barnwell:
The Surreal World of Thanksgiving in Vegas
Calling Interference on Pass Interference
All Hail the NFL Freshmen
Ease Up Tampa Haters, Their Schedule Has Been Historically Tough
Vegas & the Packers’ Quest to Go 16-0
Vegas Sportsbook Review: The Wynn
Ultimate Fighting Is Ready for Its Close-Up
Vegas & the Packers’ Quest to Go 16-0
Vegas Sportsbook Review: Caesars Palace
The Hedge, the Tease, and the Life of the NFL Bettor

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Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

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