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Tom Coughlin and Eli Manning have been linked at the hip ever since they both joined the New York Giants organization in 2004. It’s hard to believe but they now enter their 11th season with the team in 2014. Clearly time is running down on the tenure of the 67-year old coach and the 33-year old quarterback. But two questions persist: (1) how many more years will each remain with the team, and (2) will they each leave on good or bad terms?
While there were some highlights and two playoff appearances, Act I (2004-2006) of the Coughlin-Manning saga was not well received by audience members, which included fans, media, and even teammates. Coughlin was considered a rules-oriented tyrant who pushed his players too hard, a relic of a by-gone coaching era. Team leaders such as Michael Strahan, Jeremy Shockey, and Tiki Barber questioned his policies and tactics. Coughlin failed to recognize that being constantly rude to the media was not part of his job description. Most troubling, Coughlin’s teams had a nasty habit of starting strong and finishing weak. By the end of 2006, Coughlin’s act had seemingly worn thin with everyone. Barber may have saved Coughlin’s job at the end of the regular-season with a career- and franchise-high 234 rushing yards against the Redskins. Still, Coughlin was forced to dump both his offensive and defensive coordinators, and ownership’s voice of support after a second one-and-done playoff appearance seemed lukewarm at best.
After a couple of poor quarterback performances by Kurt Warner, Coughlin decided to use the final seven regular-season games of 2004 on the development of then-rookie Eli Manning. A somewhat promising 5-4 season quickly turned into a 6-10 disappointment with Eli looking absolutely dreadful at times. The low point came in Baltimore with Eli’s 0.0 quarterback rating performance. What made matters worse was that rookie Ben Roethlisberger, who would have been New York’s pick without the trade for Manning, was helping the Steelers to a 15-1 regular-season record and an AFC Championship Game appearance in his rookie season. With Manning entrenched as the full-time starter in 2005, the team won the NFC East with an 11-5 record, but Eli’s 113-yard, 3-interception performance against the Panthers in the first-round of the playoffs soured many. Support for Manning grew and waned with the Giants frustratingly-inconsistent 2006 season as a 6-2 start turned into a gut-wrenching 8-8 finish and another first-round playoff loss. Shockey demanded the ball more from Manning, and Barber – as we would later find out – considered his quarterback “comical.”
Act II (2007-2011) brought the house down as the New York Giants earned one Wild Card playoff spot, two NFC East Championships, two NFC Championships, and two NFL Championships. One-fourth of the team’s eight NFL titles came during this five-season span. During two of the most thrilling and unlikely playoff runs, the Giants knocked off four #1 seeds and two #2 two seeds, vanquishing teams with records of 13-3, 14-3, 18-0, 15-1, 14-3, and 15-3 in the process.
During this team renaissance, Coughlin and Manning morphed into franchise legends. Coughlin softened his approach and trusted his players more, delegating more responsibility to a players’ council. By showing his more human side and allowing the players to have fun, the team began to understand and respect him more. Just as importantly, Coughlin and his staff out-worked and out-coached most of their opponents, including the great Bill Belichick (not once, but twice). Coughlin became the 13th head coach in NFL history to win two or more Super Bowl titles.
Manning continued to putter along for much of 2007, with other low points coming with his 4-interception day against the Minnesota Vikings and his NFL-record 34 incompletions against the Washington Redskins. But some switch turned on inside Manning, starting with the regular-season finale against the Patriots, as Eli out-dueled Jeff Garcia, Tony Romo, Brett Favre, and Tom Brady in the 2007 playoffs. His performance in -23 degree wind chill at Lambeau Field may have been the best of his career and he followed that up with two 4th quarter touchdown drives against Bill Belichick’s defense, including combining with David Tyree on the greatest play in NFL history. 2008 and 2011 were both Pro Bowl seasons for Eli. In the latter, Manning practically single-handily willed a New York Giants team with a dreadful running game and defense into the playoffs with six 4th-quarter come-from-behind regular-season victories (plus two more in the post-season). Indeed, Manning has become somewhat of a master late-game heroics with twenty-five 4th-quarter comebacks. In the 2011 playoffs, Manning out-dueled Matt Ryan, Aaron Rodgers, Alex Smith, and Tom Brady again. The only players in the history of the NFL to win a Super Bowl MVP more than once are Bart Starr, Terry Bradshaw, Joe Montana, Tom Brady, and Eli Manning.
This brings us to Act III, the final act. If you are a pessimist, the final act began in 2012 and now the only question that remains is how soon will the curtain fall? If you are an optimist, 2012-2013 was an uncomfortable intermission and the Coughlin-Manning duo has one more run in them sometime in the next 4-5 years.
Despite being one of the top three coaches in team history, along with Steve Owen and Bill Parcells, Tom Coughlin once again finds himself on the hot seat. Playing in a weak division, the Giants have missed the playoffs four out of the last five seasons. Massive structural changes were made to the team in the 2014 offseason, adding 35 new players, tearing apart the offensive coaching staff, and converting the vertical passing offense to a hybrid West Coast Offense system. If you are being objective, you could make the argument that the window has already closed on a declining team, suffering from poor drafting, and undergoing a fairly substantial rebuild. Even if the arrow is pointing upwards again on this team, all this change may be too difficult to overcome in the short-term in 2014. The Giants will not be favored to make the playoffs this season. If they don’t, cries for Coughlin’s head will become louder and louder. It may not be fair, but it is the nature of sports culture in the United States.
Though he is not all to blame given the rapid drastic demise of the surrounding offensive talent, Eli Manning is coming off of his worst season as a full-time starter. Many expect him to dramatically rebound in 2014, but what if he doesn’t? What if 2011 was the high point and Eli has lost that edge that all great athletes need? Or what if Eli has been now miscast into a West Coach offense, still lacking a viable left tackle and tight end? Manning will be entering his final contract year in 2015 with $17 million in base salary and an almost $20 million overall cap number. The current $133 million salary cap is expected to rise in 2015, but can the Giants dedicate one-seventh of the cap to a then 34-year old player who is not performing? It’s difficult to see the Giants cutting Eli Manning or allowing him to walk away in free agency after 2015, but it is not an impossible scenario.
Ironically, the two faces of the franchise that arrived together in 2004, the two most important components of a team – coach and quarterback – may also end up leaving the franchise together at the same time over a decade later. It could be in 2015 or 2016. The media and the fans are fickle. Others still carry grudges and are simply lying in the weeds so they can eventually come out and say, “I told you so!” Only years after their departure will fans sit back and reminisce, “Remember the good old days with Coughlin and Manning?”
But the Coughlin-Manning era does not have to end on a negative note. What if there is one more magical run left in these two? One more opportunity to prove they are two of the very best in the game, perhaps both Hall of Famers, and arguably the best head coach and quarterback in franchise history? That run doesn’t have to come in 2014, but they have to do enough in 2014 to make sure that they both still have that opportunity with the New York Giants in 2015, 2016, or 2017.
True Blue New York Giants fans are hoping that Tom Coughlin and Eli Manning get one more opportunity to hold up the Vince Lombardi Trophy. That way, they can both leave on their own terms.