EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Afterward, John Mara paced.
There’s a small break room between the players’ and coaches’ changing areas at MetLife Stadium, and that’s where Giants brass hovered late Sunday afternoon. Mara, the team’s co-owner, wearing down the carpet. Jerry Reese, the general manager, and a few other personnel executives leaning against a counter, hands in their pockets, staring down at the floor. Near silence permeated the locker room, where 53 players passed to and from the shower like zombies.
When you’re facing questions that make your stomach drop, sometimes it’s easier to say nothing at all.
Are the Giants facing another January without a postseason?
Is this Tom Coughlin’s last stand?
Maybe these are related. Maybe they are not. But after the 23-20 overtime loss to the Jets on Sunday that dropped them to 5-7, the Giants had the look of a team confronting the possibility that the answer to both questions could be “yes.”
Having the good fortune of playing in a division that may very well be won by a team with a losing record, the Giants are still alive for the postseason, in a three-way tie atop the NFC East. But they have the tougher remaining schedule compared to Philadelphia and Washington, with games against the 12-0 Panthers and 8-4 Vikings. Their first order of business is getting out of their own way, and that’s something at which they’ve failed for much of this season.
The latest excruciating example was Sunday’s loss, the fifth time this season that the Giants have given away a lead in the game’s final two minutes (tying a dubious record, according to NFL Network). While his boss paced after the game, Coughlin was in the next room, explaining his decision to go for it on a fourth-and-2 at the Jets’ 4-yard-line with a 20-10 lead and under nine minutes left, rather than kicking the field goal.
“I thought that was the play at the time,” Coughlin said afterward. “I still do.”
If the Giants had converted, and scored a touchdown, they would have held a 17-point lead, a likely insurmountable three-score margin. But Eli Manning’s throw to Rueben Randle, on what wasn’t a particularly crisp pick route, was intercepted. Without the Giants earning any points in that situation, the Jets were able to force the game to overtime with a touchdown and a field goal.
Coughlin rolled the dice there, an aggressive streak the coach has surprisingly displayed this season. One way to look at the decision is that Coughlin put the game in the hands of his best player, Manning. He trusted his two-time Super Bowl MVP quarterback to complete a two-yard pass, more than he trusts his defense to not give up two touchdowns, which is not an unreasonable proposition given the defense’s late-game struggles this season. But because his decision backfired, he seems desperate.
Coughlin would no doubt shudder at that word, but desperation—or whatever you want to call it—often has served his teams well during Coughlin’s 12-year tenure in New York. Famously, he was on the proverbial hot seat in 2007 and 2011 and each time led his team on improbable Super Bowl runs. But has the every-four-years, coach-on-the-brink magic run out? And what does it mean for his future, if so?
The Maras and Tisches will no doubt consider Coughlin and Reese separately at season’s end. There is a long tradition of separating church and state—the coaching staff and the personnel department—in the Giants organization, dating to when George Young was hired as the team’s first general manager, in 1978. That fact often rankled former coach Bill Parcells, but Wellington Mara, John’s late father, strongly believed that the three-party system of owner, personnel department and coaching staff best served the organization because of the checks and balances in place. And his belief has proven to be right, to the tune of four championships in 36 years.
The tricky part is: Have the Giants missed the playoffs three years running, and finished under .500 two years in a row, because of a lack of talent or because of coaching? Odell Beckham Jr., last year’s No. 12 overall pick, has made everyone look good. Jason Pierre-Paul’s July 4 fireworks accident did the opposite.
Reese has had hits in the draft like Beckham, Pierre-Paul and the 2007 rookie class, all eight of whom contributed during the Super Bowl XLII run. But an accumulation of missed picks, particularly in the mid-rounds, has left the Giants grasping in the past few years to plug holes through free agency rather than building from within. Since Reese took over in 2007, only five of his draft picks have signed long-term extensions with the team, and one is a long snapper. (Pierre-Paul likely would have been the sixth, were it not for his accident.) But the Giants’ reputation of valuing continuity is reflected in the fact that they have employed just three general managers since 1978. Regardless of this season’s outcome, there’s a good chance they will allow Reese to stay and rebuild the team, whether with Coughlin or not.
It would not be the Giants’ style to decide on Coughlin’s future until the dust settles on the season. Parting with him is not something they want to do, particularly the Maras, who have deep love and respect for the coach their father hired before he passed away. He’s a future Hall of Famer who, at age 69, has shown a tremendous willingness to adapt, whether it be embracing a new offensive system, substituting Friday practice with a recovery day or commissioning a study to better understand his millennial players. The Giants’ ideal scenario has been to have Coughlin lead their team until he’s ready to retire, and then either transition to an in-house successor or lure someone on a short list of candidates who fit the Giants mold. It’s hard to imagine them making a change without a clear plan for who is next.
Where Coughlin could be testing the team’s patience is not simply the Giants’ 5-7 record, but the fact that the string of blown fourth-quarter leads reflects on game management. Change one late-game decision at Dallas or against the Patriots and Jets, and the Giants might have a couple more wins and be in the driver’s seat in the NFC East. And game management falls back on the head coach. By Monday morning, more than 2,000 fans had voted in a New York Daily News poll about Coughlin’s future, with 80% voting, “Yes, Fire Him!”
Polling the locker room Sunday afternoon, none of the players openly questioned Coughlin’s decision to go for it on the fourth-and-2 play near the goal line.
Running back Rashad Jennings: “It’s always the right decision, if we execute.”
Offensive lineman Justin Pugh: “I love the fact that if we go and do what we need to do, we score that touchdown, the game is over.”
Defensive tackle Cullen Jenkins: “As players, we had too many mistakes. Too many blown opportunities. Too much stuff that players control.”
The Giants had a goal-line situation earlier in the game, after a Jets fumble, when the same crowd now calling for Coughlin’s head booed his decision to kick the field goal. The third-down play was a handoff to second-year running back Andre Williams, whose disappointment at not punching the ball in from the 1-yard line was palpable. But the play never had a chance.
“I got the ball, it got very muddy in the A-gaps, everybody was on the floor, so I knew I had to slide out to the left,” Williams said. “I saw the left tackle, he was facing me, so I knew something wasn’t right. I wanted to move outside but there were people at my feet. So I just held onto the ball and didn’t want to turn it over. I don’t think we handled the pressure off the edge the way we needed to. They always look to me to make the goal-line play, and I want to, and I know I am built for it, but when it breaks down like that, it kind of waters down the confidence in our ability to make those plays. So next time, they might not be as confident to run it.”
The next time the Giants were near the goal line, they passed the ball. From there they had a series of missed opportunities to close out the game, some of which Coughlin recapped in the postgame locker room. And, as he often does after losses, he put the responsibility on himself in front of his players.
When he did that, cornerback Prince Amukamara had a flashback. He recalled the 2013 season, when the Giants started 0-6, and Coughlin put the blame on himself. Former Giants safety Antrel Rolle screamed that day, “No, coach! It’s not on you! It’s on us.” That memory made Amukamara, who gave up the game-tying touchdown near the end of regulation to Brandon Marshall, want to step forward and do the same. “But that’s not my role,” Amukamara said. No one else spoke up, either.
“A lot of guys know that it is on us,” Amukamara said on his way out of the locker room. “I don’t know if we have to say it, but I think we know.”
Nevertheless, the eventual outcome of this season may be left on Coughlin. Sunday afternoon, the Giants looked like a team in mourning. A lost game, yes. The next four weeks will determine if they’ve lost a season—and, possibly, a coach.
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