Does Tom Coughlin Really Have To Be Great?

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Is it surprising that 29 of the 46 Super Bowls—sorry, XXIX of the XLVI Super Bowls—have been won by coaches with multiple Super Bowl wins on their career ledgers? (Or, more specifically and correctly, won by talented teams coached by those coaches) I know that, while I didn't know just what a high percentage of Super Bowl rings had accrued to such a surprisingly small group of coach fingers, the list of multiple Super Bowl winners wasn't necessarily a shocking one.

You and me and every football fan we know is familiar with these names: Chuck Noll, Don Shula, Vince Lombardi, Bills Walsh and Belichick and Parcells, and Joe Gibbs a few other brand names and also George Seifert. The roster of one-time winners, too, is full of what we identify as top-tier names. There are some sore-ish thumbs on this list of oversized foam number-one hands—Mike Shanahan, who won two consecutive Super Bowls at the end of the 1990s, has spent his career since then seeming windburned, stubborn, overdetermined and goofy; Weeb Ewbank, whose Jets upset the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III, retired with a 134-130-7 career record, but is also in the Hall of Fame; Barry Switzer, years after anyone last thought of him, remains embarrassing to think about—but they are surprisingly few. Semi-goofballs such as Trent Dilfer and Doug Williams and Brad Johnson have quarterbacked teams to Super Bowl wins, but no coach of similar inexplicability has won one, and the Bill Callahans and Jim Fassels and Bobby Rosses to have made it all the way to the Super Bowl did not do well there. Callahan was at least able to channel his emotions into his music, but the other also-rans are assistants or retired or otherwise forgotten. There's a tautological aspect to this—it's hard to remain a lightly regarded football thinker once you win a Super Bowl, let alone "or two." Which leads us to Tom Coughlin.

That's Tom Coughlin who coached the Super Bowl champion Giants, and who is at 65 the oldest man ever to coach a team to a Super Bowl win. To the multiply ringed Toms Flores and Landry, we can now and must now add this guy, who has now managed the stunning feat of winning two Super Bowls in the last four years without ever quite seeming un-ridiculous. What are we to do with this? It's not just that Coughlin doesn't seem to be in the same strategic/managerial/conceptual class as virulent genius Bill Belichick (or, if you're Mobute, cuddly imp Bill Belichick), the era-defining organizational mind whose record in Super Bowls against this crimson-faced, notably dimmer fellow graduate of The William F. Parcells Coaching Academy and Opposite-of-Charm School is now 0-2.

It's not just that, although there is definitely that. It's more that, besides Coughlin's endlessly goofable-upon qualities—the goofy rage for order and punctuality, the Apoplectic Jesuit Middle School Administrator mien, all the other stuff Jeff Johnson and I have been making fun of for years—there's not much of a sense of what a Coughlin coached team is, besides more-than-five-minutes-early-for-every-meeting. There's a faint but palpable Parcells Thing going on with Coughlin—an emphasis on aggressive defense, I guess?—but in most respects he lacks both the grandeur and the grandiosity of his forebears. Where Parcells and Belichick's similar authoritarianisms and tendencies towards a win-directed, corporatized cruelty mostly seem like bleak manifestations of their genius, Coughlin just comes off as peevish and flustered. He doesn't seem quite serious enough to be more than a too-intense hard-ass, a jerky teacher about whom some truly mean, truly funny things are written on his classroom's desks.

Players have hated Coughlin like crazy in the past—the recent past, as NFL players voted him the coach for which they'd least like to play just three months ago—and his teams' tendency to look awful, uninterested and incompetent for quarters/games/weeks at a time suggests that mini-burnouts remain an issue for the purportedly mellowed martinet. But "suggests" is the word, there. It's the word here, in general, I think.

A subjective and hindsight-y "suggests" is as close as we generally get to an objective understanding of any of this, given how much of what we are told about football and football teams is sentimental soothsaying. The Giants have an identity, and that identity may or may not have helped them win the Super Bowl, but that identity is not perceptibly Coughlin's, or even obviously Coughlin-related. Instead, their identity is mostly that of Any NFL Team—brash and and proud and trash-talking and, anyway and inevitably, the result of an ex post facto generalization made by reporters and pundits who are for various reasons inclined towards either shit-stirring or mythos, depending on the team's record. But, yeah, a generalization always, in whatever direction, because Eli Manning isn't Brandon Jacobs isn't Justin Tuck isn't Steve Weatherford. Even the Patriots, with their famed message-discipline and corporate culture, are not The Patriot Way. They're a bunch of men whose job it is to play football, and who have worked that job to the exclusion of most everything else for most of their lives; their coaches are similarly oriented and prioritized.

There will be some attempt to try to plug Coughlin into the continuum of great coaches in the weeks and months ahead, and efforts to reverse-engineer some sort of executive genius at work in this unusual season—Will Leitch, in New York, actually got in on that before the Giants even won. But if Coughlin's triumph actually indicates anything, it might not have much to do with The Coughlin Way or Leading To Win or whatever winds up being the topline of the five-figure motivational speeches that Coughlin will give for the rest of his life. What the Coughlin conundrum indicates, I think, has more to do with the light it shines on how little we actually know what it is that NFL coaches actually do, and how little we understand about what—except in cases such as Bills Belichick or Walsh, where there's an obvious and enviable strategic mastery on display—separates the adequate from the great. When you read glowing profiles praising a winning coach's ability to motivate, remember that those profiles and their authors are asking you to believe that this pep talk—millionaire coach to millionaire player, and probably north of the ten thousandth such talk for both parties—is somehow different and better and more effective than the ten-thousands that came before. Tom Coughlin isn't Eric Taylor. Which is fine, because the people he's howling at are grown-ass, well-paid men. Bear Pascoe isn't Tim Riggins, although the fictional character does have the more plausible-seeming name in this case.

Coughlin may indeed be more than the high-motor martinet he has always appeared to be, although it seems unlikely that the myth-humping NFL pundit corps is going to tell us what he actually is—it/he/leadership will be about faith and family and self-discipline and self-belief, because that is most always what it's about. But it's worth entertaining the possibility that Coughlin is, to paraphrase another NFL coaching great, roughly who we thought he was—and that, simple as it may seem, high-strung adequacy really is good enough, provided the players are great enough. This isn't to take anything away from Coughlin's accomplishments, of course. But let's not add anything to them, either.

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