New York Giants' fans know the situation their favorite team will be in Sunday when it faces the Baltimore Ravens. Win or face possible playoff elimination. Win their final two games, the Giants go to the playoffs. Fail to do that, they will likely go home without reaching the playoffs one season after winning the fourth Super Bowl in franchise history.
This is an old, sad, familiar refrain for the Giants. This marks the fourth season in a row the the Giants have had their playoff hopes determined in the season's final couple of weeks. In 2009 and 2010 they played themselves out of the playoffs. Last season, of course, they pulled themselves together and went on a memorable Super Bowl run.
The Giants should not be in the position they find themselves in today. They are too good to be an 8-6 team fighting for their playoff lives. Beyond the question of what will happen this season, though, is the looming question of why this always happens to the Giants under the direction of Tom Coughlin.
One theory is that Coughlin's intensity simply wears his players out mentally.
Coughlin, 66, is intense. No one disputes this, and it is often cited as one of the his greatest attributes. He has high standards, an unwavering work ethic and a much-publicized affection for punctuality; five minutes early is, in Coughlin’s world, just barely on time. "His passion and his consistency — that’s what makes him good," defensive end Justin Tuck said.
A potential downside to that sort of leader, though, is an increased possibility of emotional fatigue.
Antonio Pierce, a Giants linebacker from 2005 to 2009, said that despite Coughlin’s reputation as something of a drill sergeant, he is adept at giving players the necessary rest. The bigger strain from Coughlin, Pierce said, is mental. Trying to follow his rules, live up to his expectations and match his passion is difficult over a 17-week regular season, making players more prone to a collective letdown.
"He never beat us up physically," said Pierce, who also played in the N.F.L. under Marty Schottenheimer, Steve Spurrier and Joe Gibbs. "I was never physically tired from Coach Coughlin. I was tired mentally. I was drained from how to put my socks on, all the rules. I was tired from feeling like I had to be up all the time."
Fast starts (at least five wins in the first half of each of his nine seasons with the Giants) and erratic finishes have been the hallmark of Coughlin's Giants' tenure. Two glorious finishes, a couple of ugly ones and a few finishes along the way that left you feeling like the Giants had a team that should have accomplished more. Along that line, 2008 when Plaxico Burress shot himself and the Giants' hopes of repeating, and 2010, when the Giants were 9-4, lost two of three to end the season, finished 10-6 and missed the playoffs come to mind.
The New York Times points out that these swoons have been a hallmark of Coughlin's career, not just his Giants' tenure. The Times points out that nine times in Coughlin's 12 seasons as an NFL head coach, including four with Jacksonville, his teams have endured stretches where it has lost at least four of any five games.
Coughlin preaches consistency as much, if not more, than anything else. Yet historically his teams are all over the map from week to week -- great one week, pitiful the next. In the end, though, they nearly always seem to have a chance to get to the playoffs.
Is it Coughlin's intensity that wears on players? Is it the fact that the league's oldest coach and his different-generation players don't always get each other? Is it just coincidence?
Your thoughts, Giants' fans?