by Christopher Price
Bill Belichick and Tom Coughlin are two examples of why people shouldn’t always make a snap judgment on the abilities of a first-time head coach, especially if they came of age as an assistant under Bill Parcells.
Both Belichick and Coughlin have taken similar routes to Super Bowl XLII: in their initial experience as a head coach in the NFL, the two former Parcells’ assistants both had a dogmatic approach that yielded minimal return, not unlike Parcells himself. In their second go-round as NFL head coaches, they’ve slightly softened their hard-line approach, and that new style has yielded considerable results.
In Jacksonville, Coughlin made his bones as an uber-disciplinarian. The early returns were favorable, as the Jags became the most successful expansion team in NFL history, making two trips to the AFC Championship Game in his first four years in Jacksonville. But the good times soon faded, and Coughlin’s approach soon wore thin.
He was soon hired by the Giants, but the baggage followed him to New York — Giants defensive end Michael Strahan thought to himself “this man is crazy” soon after his first meeting with Coughlin, and described his personality as “robotic.” And in his first three seasons in New York, there was just one season where they finished better than .500, and zero playoff wins.
But somewhere along the way, Coughlin loosened up. During training camp this year, he called off practice and took the whole team bowling. He let the players vote on captains instead of choosing them himself. And he held weekly meetings with an 11-player council to stay abreast of what the players were thinking.
“Instead of just telling these guys, ‘This is how it is,’ you have to say, ‘How’s that working for you?’ “ Giants running back coach Jerald Ingram told reporters. “He hasn’t changed totally. But he’s been able to see that you can do things differently and still be yourself.”
In the end, the new style paid off with Coughlin’s first trip to the Super Bowl as a head coach.
“There are times that I go, ‘Are you going back on us?’” Strahan said with a smile yesterday. “He has really changed. He is smiling, he uses the word ‘fun’ and ‘enjoyment’ and it blows my mind every time he uses it.
“He has come around,” Strahan added. “I think he’s definitely changed – it’s for real and it’s for the better.”
The situation was the same for Belichick, who was frosty with players, fans and media in his time in Cleveland. Tales of his overbearing approach were the stuff of legend, and his micromanaging spread him way to thin, distracting him from the things he needed to focus on as a head coach.
Now, like Coughlin, his approach has paid off. He’s more attuned to the needs of his players. He meets regularly with his captains. He places his full faith in his assistants. He’s still not the warm and fuzzy type, but, like Coughlin, a softer approach with players and staff has paid dividends.
“He’s still consistent about as far as being strict about things and wanting guys to do things right,” Anthony Pleasant, who played for Belichick at multiple stops, said a few years ago when asked about his former head coach. “But he’s not as dogmatic as he was in Cleveland. He’s more willing to give now than he was back then.”
“You learn something every game you coach, every practice, every year,” Belichick said. “Certainly the five years in Cleveland taught me a lot about managing a team.
“I took those experiences and tried to build off of them and improve them through the years — both how to handle the team and probably delegate more responsibility than I did in Cleveland to my assistants and other people in the organization that are involved in the operational and support ends of the game.”
FIVE THINGS TO LOOK FOR
1. How the Giants try and defend Randy Moss. The Jaguars and Chargers were able to take away the outside deep threat that Moss brings to the game by jamming him right off the line, playing physical with him and forcing him inside. Expect the Giants to at least try and do the same thing. If they do, expect the Patriots to try and be creative in their use of Moss — maybe some more reverse plays, or putting him in motion.
2. Ellis Hobbs. The diminutive cornerback had some issues against Plaxico Burress when the Patriots faced the Giants in December — including a 52-yard pass play from Eli Manning to Burress on the Giants’ second play from scrimmage — and New York will likely stay far away from cornerback Asante Samuel. Because the Patriots usually don’t match their cornerbacks man for man, but to either left or right side of the field, it’ll be interesting to see if the Giants make it a priority for Burress to find Hobbs. (Of course, that all goes out the window if Belichick shakes things up. As we know, the Patriots’ head coach has a knack for making some surprising decisions in big games, like the debut of the 2-5 defense in Super Bowl XXIX.)
3. Kevin Faulk. The veteran defensive back has become an invaluable part of the New England offense in this year’s playoffs, particularly in the passing game. We’ve mentioned this before, but it bears repeating: this postseason, Brady has thrown 13 passes in his direction, and he’s caught all 13, the best ratio on the team among the regulars. With an aggressive New York front four, he should be called upon to run the screen pass on a few occasions Sunday.
4. The Patriots offensive line against the Giants defensive line. This is where the real battle of Super Bowl XLII will be fought. New York was able to get pressure on Brady in their first meeting, but only finished with one sack on the night. The Giants did hold New England to just 44 rushing yards, and New England had nine plays in the running game where they posted either no gain or negative yardage. However, this time will likely be different. The Patriots have their entire offensive line — plus No. 1 blocking tight end Kyle Brady — healthy. In December, the Patriots were without Brady, as well as Stephen Neal (their best run blocker) and Nick Kaczur.
5. Tom Petty. What’ll he play at halftime? My guess is that he and the Heartbreakers play these three songs, in no particular order: Runnin’ Down A Dream, Free Fallin’ and American Girl.
STAT OF THE WEEK
17,000. As of Wednesday night, the number of results you get if you Google the phrase “How to beat the Patriots.”
QUOTE OF THE WEEK
“There’s a couple guys who can’t grow hair. Their [bleeps] still haven’t dropped, I guessed.” — Patriots right tackle Nick Kaczur, speaking with the Washington Post about New England’s bearded offensive line.
Christopher Price is an award-winning sportswriter who has covered the Patriots since 2001 for Boston Metro. He’s served a contributor to ESPN.com, SI.com, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post and The Miami Herald. He’s written “The Blueprint: How the New England Patriots Beat the System to Create the Last Great NFL Superpower,” and can be reached at [email protected].