Tom Coughlin was going to finish the damn game, even though his left leg was begging him to quit. The Giants, coached by Coughlin, were playing the Jets on Christmas Eve, 2011, after Rex Ryan had literally pronounced his team as New York’s finest and had figuratively announced his intentions to run Coughlin out of town.
The Jets’ playoff hopes, the Giants’ playoff hopes, Coughlin’s job — everything was at stake on this rip-roaring holiday matinee at MetLife Stadium. And in the closing minutes, one of Ryan’s guys, Aaron Maybin, put a late sideline hit on the Giants’ D.J. Ware, who went crashing into his coach’s legs.
Coughlin was hurt, badly, and almost collapsed to the field. His face couldn’t mask the pain any more than it could mask his NFC Championship game freezer-burn four years earlier at Lambeau Field. Coughlin was helped to the bench, where he was surrounded by trainers and staffers who were hoping the 65-year-old man would sit the rest of this one out.
But no way was Coughlin about to let his adversary off the hook. Ryan had talked a big game all week, stating his plans to conquer the city and the entire league and barking silly things like, “There’s no way I’m going to be second fiddle.” Ryan also acknowledged that if the Jets lost this intramural brawl for it all, “it’s coming right on top of me.”
Like a ton of bricks.
This was the day the Giants, at 7-7, proved themselves capable of becoming the championship team that will be honored — 10 years later — at halftime of Sunday’s game against the Rams. They had lost five of their previous six games, and were trailing 7-3 late in the second quarter, when Eli Manning took a snap at his own 1-yard line and got the ball to Victor Cruz, who took it to the house on the play that told a tale of two cities — Coughlin’s and Ryan’s.
But as much as Cruz’s 99-yard touchdown changed careers, it was Coughlin’s toughness that drove that Giants team to a second Super Bowl triumph over the Patriots. The Giants took on Coughlin’s personality that afternoon and never lost again. And that personality was captured by Coughlin’s refusal to go down when Maybin’s hit (he was called for unnecessary roughness) sent Ware barreling his way.
Coughlin told people he was proud of the fact that the high-speed collision didn’t knock him off his feet. He staggered away from the point of impact, doubled over and put his hands on his knees, and then leaned backward in agony as he appeared ready to faint. Coughlin steadied himself, hobbled to the bench, and sat there for a few minutes. He then rose and motioned with his hands for people to clear him a path. Coughlin peg-legged it back to the sideline for the blissful final sequences of a 29-14 victory that marked the beginning of the end of Ryan in New York.
When it was over, Coughlin dragged himself toward midfield and forced his beaten opponent to shake his hand. Ryan barely stopped and engaged in a classic Belichick-ian drive-by, and then engaged the Giants’ Brandon Jacobs in a profane back-and-forth. Truth was, the winners weren’t as angry about Ryan’s pregame bluster as they were about the Jets’ decision as the home team to hang dark drapes over the Giants’ Super Bowl logos outside their locker room.
“I honestly don’t think he gives a damn what Rex says or what Rex thinks,” said his Pro Bowl guard and son-in-law, Chris Snee.
Coughlin was asked if he’d made a statement about Ryan. “We won the game,” he said. “That’s the statement.”
In the locker room, a player yelled at the injured coach, “No toughness, no championships.” Coughlin responded, “You’re exactly right.”
His boss, John Mara, said that Coughlin “wanted this game very badly for a lot of reasons,” and acknowledged the Giants were beyond motivated, “given all the noise that’s been coming out of Florham Park.”
On Coughlin’s leg, Mara added, “I think you’d have to kill him to keep him down.” The coach promised to only visit the trainer’s room to check on nicked-up players, not himself, and when asked during his postgame presser how he felt, he said, “Never better. Never better.”
On cue, Coughlin didn’t offer any details on his injury until six months after his Super Bowl XLVI victory, when he told me one training-camp day that he almost needed surgery, and that “the confluence of muscles attached to my hamstring were pulled off, all three of them at the top.”
Family members had urged him to go to the hospital after the Jets game, but Coughlin insisted on going to his daughter’s for Christmas Eve dinner. When he stepped out of the car, he told himself, “This may not have been a great idea.” Of his willingness to keep coaching through the pain, Coughlin said his players “looked at it and respected it, too.”
To earn another trip to the Super Bowl, those players won a violent overtime game in San Francisco during which Manning endured a cruel beating. If Manning’s first championship team was defined by magic and opportunism, the second one was undoubtedly defined by toughness.
Tom Coughlin’s toughness, and the coach’s refusal to fall on that forever Christmas Eve day when his Giants conquered the city on their way to conquering the world.