Belichick has coached Patriots to within one night of sporting immortality
PHOENIX -- What does it take, at the apex of its cumulative momentum, to derail history?
What kind of plan, and what kind of planner?
On a cool desert evening just hours from now, time runs out on every last element of that discussion, and the whirling, interrogating spotlight frames only one plan, one planner, one man.
Which never seemed terribly likely.
"Everybody pretty much hated his guts," was how linebacker Antonio Pierce described the dawn of the Coughlin era with the New York Giants. "Coughlin is a lot like Marty Schottenheimer; they're old school. And the same thing happened to Schottenheimer. One year with [Washington], he started 0-5 and people were calling for his head. Then he went 8-3 down the stretch. Same as Coughlin, but with Coughlin, the first two years he was
here, nobody could get along with him."
They're not going to think much of him in New England tonight if Coughlin proves worthy of this moment, if the 61-year-old with one of the all-time flintiest of coaching demeanors somehow steers these underdog Giants right through the middle of a coronation.
For 31/2 hours across the biggest stage in sport, Coughlin matches his skill and experience and cauldron-ready temperament against the NFL's acknowledged grand master.
And that's the mirror image of the same question.
What does it take to do the virtually undoable, to win 19 NFL games in one season and lose none, to make the unprecedented your own?
What kind of plan, and what kind of planner?
Bill Belichick, it is apparent from his three Super Bowl championships, from the numbing reality that his New England Patriots have won 23 of their past 24 games, 32 of their past 37, 54 of their past 67, 75 of their last 89, 99 of their past 124, and from the swelling notion that the head coach of the New England Patriots knows five countermoves for each of the five moves you haven't even thought of yet, has become the gold standard of the profession.
Six years younger than Coughlin, Belichick has nonetheless been coaching in the NFL for 33 years. All of it, it seems, is on the instantly recallable software of Bill's brain.
"I think a lot my influences came from coaching three positions when I first started in Detroit," he said the other day. "In '76 I coached the tight ends for Coach [Rick] Forzano. I also worked with special teams and a little bit on the defensive side of the ball with people like Jerry Glanville, Fritz Shurmur, and Floyd Reese. Then in '77 when Ed Hughes came in as the coordinator, I coached the receivers. I picked up some defensive experience the first year in Baltimore and then in Denver in '78 and then spent quite a bit of time on defense at the Giants. I've always reflected back on the time I spent as an offensive coach, whether it was at Detroit or Cleveland as a head coach and even the years I've been here. Coaching on the offensive side of the ball helps you be a better defensive coach and coaching on the defensive side of the ball helps you be a better offensive coach."
So, yeah, the guy knows everything.
Including maybe some stuff he shouldn't know. At least that was the NFL's solemn judicial judgment after the first week of this "perfect" season, that Belichick illegally videotaped the Jets' defensive signals, fining him $500,000, fining the club $250,000, and stripping the organization of its first draft pick in 2008.
"I think we were a little shocked, a little stunned," said linebacker Mike Vrabel on Spygate. "People would say, 'How does it feel to be labeled a cheater?' You wanted to stand up and knock the crap out of them, but we had to deal with it. We fought through it as a team, we got through it together and we haven't looked back."
No one associated with Belichick is very fond of looking back, not even the unvanquished.
"He does a tremendous job of depressing success," said veteran linebacker Tedy Bruschi. "When we have our Monday meetings where we convene to close out the previous game, he'll go over what we did well. That lasts for about two minutes. Then, he'll go over what we did poorly and that lasts for 30 or 40 minutes. There are some games where we did win, but we came away from that meeting feeling like we lost. It's always, 'If you keep doing these things then we'll lose.' That's how coach Belichick does it. Even games that we won by 28 points or more, Coach will focus on the negatives. It's more of what we need to work on. As a team, it's something that helped us get to this point."
So, no, Pro Bowl center Dan Koppen did not misspeak when he uttered this memorable line on Thursday: "Bill does a lot of things he feels the team needs, whether it's praising you when the team wins, or ripping your ass when you win."
The Giants used to get the same vibe from Coughlin, that, even when they won, they lost, but with Coughlin the vibe got near mutinous. New York's management gave him a one-year extension after 8-8 record last season, with the tacit understanding that maybe he'd communicate better.
By the time the Giants dropped the first two games of this season, Coughlin hadn't retreated an inch.
"I want it more intense," he barked on his weekly Coughlin's Corner segment on Giants.com. "I mean what I said. It is not business as usual. I want it more intense. I want it more focused. Obviously, if there's something missing, then let's upgrade all areas."
What was missing was the humanity. The humanity Coughlin exuded away from the game. The humanity he carried so relentlessly into children's hospitals, that he displayed so genuinely to cancer victims, survivors, family members, grandchildren. Everybody but players. That's what needed an upgrade, and that's precisely what happened.
"This is a tricky question because there are times that I think, 'Is he going backward on us?' " defensive end Michael Strahan laughed. "He has really changed, though. He is smiling, he used the word 'fun' and 'enjoyment' and it blows my mind every time he does because I never expected that out of him. When he first came here, I said to myself, 'I have to be here this year, but, after this, I can't play for this man. He's crazy!'
"But he has come around. We as players have come around to him. He still has a five-minute rule [anyone not at a meeting five minutes early is late], still has the no-white-socks-with-your-suit rule. I don't understand why you would wear white dress socks anyway. He has those rules, and we respect them. As a person, his demeanor in the locker room is a lot more at ease. Now, after practice, he isn't going to come in and jump down your throat anymore. He'll say, 'You know what? That's not the caliber of practice we need to have to be champions. We need to come out with more energy and more fun.'
"That blows my mind, but it has worked. I think he's definitely changed -- it's for real and it's for the better."
Coughlin has won 110 NFL games. If 111 comes tonight, mind-blowing will only begin to describe him.
First Published February 3, 2008 12:00 am