Several close friends of mine are getting married in the next few months, allowing me to endlessly entertain the fantasy of what it would be like to have New York Giants head coach Tom Coughlin in charge of organizing one of their bachelor parties. This would, in my conception, be a highly memorable affair. Here is the way I imagine it going down:
Exactly 36 hours prior to the commencement of the revelry, a multi-hundred page ringed binder is hand delivered to each of the invited guests. On the cover, printed in bold type, is the title: “Stag Party 2006: Rules And Regulations Primer.” Underneath this heading are a few key inspirational phrases, something along the lines of “Team,” “Preparation,” and “Achieve.”
Coach Coughlin expects attendees to arrive at the initial meeting place well on time and in a state of full readiness to debauch. If the party is supposed to begin at 4 pm, then he would like to see everyone on hand and at least partially hammered by 3:45. Failure to arrive until after 4 o'clock means a fine. Arriving more than twenty minutes late and you spend the entire party running gassers.
Following a chalkboard diagram and some film work, Coach leads us in an inspirational group prayer before we head over to the strip club. Although there is a highly disciplined and organized air developing around the party, certain veterans are becoming increasingly irritable with Coughlin's insistent micro-management. “Coach, we know how to put a dollar in a woman's garter,” one of the team leader's complains, as Coughlin pushes him aside in order to demonstrate the ideal technique. Later the coach forces everyone to purchase additional lap dances even after they have had several already and are exhausted to the breaking point. Team morale begins to suffer, and an air of out-and-out insubordination is seen to be developing. Then, in a shocking act intended to consolidate his authority, Coughlin makes an example of one of the most popular partygoers, telling him to clear out his locker and go home. When the victim complains that he wasn't issued a locker and is too intoxicated to drive, the rage emanating from the coach is palpable.
Finally, just as the entire enterprise appears perched on the precipice of utter collapse and open rebellion, Coughlin begins to loosen the reins. At the all-night steakhouse he abandons his prearranged seating chart and allows invitees to decide where and with whom they would like to sit. First-time bachelor party attendees are now allowed to order the cocktails of their choosing instead of being limited to the “rookie menu” which consists of only wine coolers and daiquiris. The revelers are astounded as Coach Coughlin even makes an attempt at a humorous toast, adding as a postscript: “I'm proud of how hard all of us have worked tonight, and I'm proud to have every single one of you at this party.” Unfortunately, the guest of honor is suddenly overcome by the emotion of the occasion and emits a loud sob, a disruption for which he is immediately sent outside to run gassers.
In a league replete in its coaching ranks with Type A personalities and would-be Drill Sergeants, Tom Coughlin may well rank as the most hilariously buttoned-down character of all. His litany of team rules famously transcends any conventional notions of a 'tightly run ship' and veers off into directions verging on the pathologically controlling. For instance, it is said that under his regime members of the Giants may not wear white socks outside of their hotel after 7pm on road trips. In his first season in New York, Coughlin famously fined team leader and future Hall Of Famer Michael Strahan $1,000 for showing up at 8:23 for an 8:25 meeting. This sort of inanity, combined with a reputation for sadistically long and violent practices, has understandably prejudiced a large number of players around the league with respect to the notion of playing under him, and in 2004 a large Sports Illustrated poll of current and former NFL players voted him the worst coach in the league by a significant margin.
But while he may be the most incorrigible, Coughlin is not the worst coach in the league, by a longshot. I'm no Giants fan, but I have long suspected that he might in fact be one of the best. Unlike some of the other would-be General Pattons currently holding head coaching positions around the NFL — take Marty Schottenheimer for instance — the private impetus towards strict conservatism has never negatively manifested itself in Coughlin's actual game planning. Instead his teams have always tended to feature exciting, aggressive offenses, beginning with his winning tenure at Boston College with Doug Flutie as his quarterback, and continuing with his improbable success leading the Jacksonville Jaguars to the AFC Championship game in only the second season of the franchise's history. In Jacksonville, Coughlin's inventive schemes helped make major stars out of lightly regarded scrap heap items like Mark Brunell, Jimmy Smith and Keenan McCardell. Those first Jaguars clubs were fast-moving and freewheeling in the extreme, revolving around Brunell's uncanny athleticism and scrambling ability. Compare this brand of football with the excruciatingly dull dink and dunk philosophy espoused by his Giant's predecessor, popular “player's coach” Jim Fassell, and it becomes readily apparent that maybe there is some merit to Coughlin's draconian Tsarist tendencies after all. (Watching Jim Fassel run his watered-down iteration of the West Coast Offense is a grim and barbaric ordeal, unfit for all but the most repugnant of moral trangsressives. God forbid Fassel ever get another coaching job — I fear I will end up like Oedipus.)
As demonstrated by Bill Cowher's long-awaited breakthrough last year, a coach of serious intelligence and commitment who hangs on long enough is very likely going to make it to and perhaps even win a Super Bowl eventually. Coughlin has been close a couple of times already and coming off a strong 11-5 regular season last year, and with an improved defense and a blossoming star at quarterback, I have a feeling this might be his year. The Giants have impressive talent on both sides of the ball, and no team in the conference has a clear-cut advantage over them entering the season.
The lynchpin on offense is of course the maturing Eli Manning. Despite a profound anxiety to see him fail, if only to avert this dangerously accelerating notion of Eli, Peyton and Archie comprising the “First Family Of American Quarterbacking,” I am now quite sold on the immutable reality of his status as a top-flight quarterback for the next several years. The youngest Manning's casual authority running the offense and penchant for last-minute heroics are the things of long and fruitful NFL careers. A secondary focal point is Tiki Barber, the championship-caliber tailback who is equally adroit at running and catching passes out of the backfield, and who appears to be getting better with each passing season. This is particularly astonishing when you consider the amount of time Barber seems to devote to his future broadcasting career — he is on TV so frequently one wonders if he might not have been happier being born Sid Caesar — but hey, whatever works. The receiving corps is led by moody and gifted Plaxico Burress, who is always cranky about something, but nevertheless pouted his way through a career season a year ago. And then there is Jeremy Shockey, the pass-catching tight end whose penchant for outlandish antics immediately compels him to the top of any responsible sports fan's list of hugely mortifying spectacles, but who nevertheless remains a uniquely effective weapon in the open field. (Shockey and Coughlin are uproarious in their effect on one another and should really contemplate starting an off-season vaudeville-style comedy duo. As a rule, Coughlin ruefully refrains from public comment on Shockey's flowing golden locks and flamboyant on-field capering, but any close observer can easily detect the vast reservoir of repressed embarrassment lurking just beneath the coach's surface. His slow burn is delightful and appears carefully practiced.)
The Giants’ defense is improved too, especially in the secondary, where Sam Madison and R.W. McQuarters were signed to shore up the cornerback position and intimidating Will Demps was brought in at safety. The centerpiece of the unit remains the two star ends Osi Umenyiora and Michael Strahan, and the high-profile addition of Lavar Arrington might help and is unlikely to hurt. This team will have to keep their heads above water during a murderous early stretch of schedule that could easily leave them with no better than a .500 winning percentage after ten games. But a late-season hot streak which lifted the Giants into the playoffs would make for an unpleasant task for any team forced to face this dangerous collection of talent, and could easily lead to a very orderly parade come February.