THE HEALING beganat a blackjack table, of all places, in a banquet room at Giants Stadium in themiddle of baseball season. A June minicamp had come to an end, but New YorkGiants players and coaches were instructed to convene for one last meetingbefore going their separate ways. Seated at the table, carrying neither awhistle nor his familiar scowl, was coach Tom Coughlin, waiting for face cards.It was a team-only casino night, the first in Coughlin's four-year tenure andan uncharacteristic off-season overture from the coach to his players.
The gamble paidoff big. "It gave us a chance to see him as something other than just CoachCoughlin, standing at the podium, giving a speech," defensive back R.W.McQuarters says. "It gave us a chance to bond. We relaxed, we had fun, weput football to the side. We were just guys."
Since then theGiants have found common ground with their coach, created magic in a seasonthat began in peril and, on Sunday, crushed the Super Bowl hopes of hated rivalDallas on its own field. Four months ago New York was best known for anexasperating quarterback and a coach trending toward lame-duck status. Againstthe Cowboys at Texas Stadium, facing tall odds and playing on weary legs, theGiants scripted a remarkable afternoon that culminated in a 21--17 victory anda berth in the NFC title game at Green Bay.
Even as Dallasmounted one last drive, reaching the Giants' 23-yard line with less than aminute to play, New York linebacker Antonio Pierce pulled his teammates closefor final instructions and some late inspiration. "Nobody gave us achance," Pierce reminded his mates. "Nobody thought we would behere."
January 21, 2008
With 16 secondsleft and the Cowboys facing fourth-and-11, Tony Romo whistled the ball towardreceiver Terry Glenn in the end zone. When McQuarters stepped in front andintercepted the pass, the visitors' sideline erupted; Coughlin and his mencelebrating the Giants' first trip to a conference title game since the 2000season.
"What I thinkyou are seeing is the team concept to the nth degree," Coughlin said of his12--6 club afterward. Added John Mara, the Giants' co-owner and president,"I'm proud of the way the players have responded to him and the way he'sresponded to them. It's a good locker room right now."
What has coalescedfor the Giants on the field this season is a quarterback playing without worry,a defense running downhill and special teams staking the offense to a shortfield. First-year general manager Jerry Reese found important contributors onboth days of last April's draft, from cornerback Aaron Ross in the first roundand receiver Steve Smith in the second to running back Ahmad Bradshaw, a stealin the seventh.
Nevertheless, it'sCoughlin's transformation that has had perhaps the most impact. After going8--8 and losing a wild-card playoff to the Philadelphia Eagles last season,Coughlin (following the suggestion of ownership) revealed a softer side to goalong with his iron fist, forming a leadership council of veterans who have thepulse of the locker room. A man who'd thrown heat his entire career learned tomix in a changeup. "My whole philosophy has been to communicate with theplayers better," Coughlin says. "I share my thoughts with [theleadership council], they share their thoughts with me, and they take themessage to the team."
Says defensive endMichael Strahan, a council member, "He's changed toward us, and our viewhas changed toward him. He has always wanted to win, but it used to beimpersonal. Now it's personal. He does have a sense of humor, and you know hecares about you."
Mutual trustproved critical after New York opened the season with a 45--35 loss at Dallasand a 35--13 defeat at home against Green Bay. In Week 3 the Giants were inanother hole, trailing the Washington Redskins 17--3 at halftime, only to rallyand win with the help of a late goal line stand. "Everybody still believedin each other," Ross says, recalling the mood at halftime againstWashington. "The coaches didn't show any weakness or change theirmessage." Adds guard Chris Snee, "You could look back at that goal linestand and say it really turned our season around."
The Cowboys hadtwice decked the Giants on the way to the NFC East title. But in the thirdmeeting it was New York that delivered the knockout. After Romo lit up theGiants for eight TDs in the regular season, keeping many plays alive with hisfeet, the Giants added several blitzes to their pressure package. They sackedRomo twice in the fourth quarter and harassed him to the point that thedefensive line could hear him as he tried to make adjustments. "I think hewas getting a little worried," said defensive end Osi Umenyiora. "Hewas telling Marion Barber to chip [block] me."
Afterward, theGiants dressed amid laughter, Pierce asking for popcorn with butter and salt, areference to Dallas wideout Terrell Owens's oft-mentioned snack recommendation.McQuarters walked off clutching the football he'd snagged from Romo, planningto give it to his son, Rylan Wynter, who turned eight on Sunday. One afteranother the Giants followed him toward the team buses, their ninth straightroad win behind them, underdogs chugging north toward Lambeau with a possiblefinal stop in Glendale, Ariz.
"I heard wewere supposed to be scared," Snee said, lobbing one last volley toward theCowboys. "There was no one scared in this locker room, and there will be noone scared next week."