There is no in-between for Tom Coughlin.
Either he coaches his way out of a third straight 0-2 start and puts his team in realistic contention for a playoff spot. Or the Giants will be forced to look for another coach to take over next season. That's the cold, hard reality of life in the NFL, and Coughlin knows it.
He's staring down the barrel of a season with no playoffs for the fourth time in five years, and in a market as demanding as the one he works in, he understands that's not good enough. Even if there are legitimate reasons for the Giants' early season malaise.
It is still far too early to call for Coughlin's ouster, and there is every reason to believe that regardless of whether the Giants come out of their funk or not, Coughlin will be here through the entire season. That's the way the Giants do things, and that's the right way to go about your business. If Ray Handley was allowed to finish out his second miserable season then surely a man who has delivered two Super Bowl championships and could end up in the Pro Football Hall of Fame won't be fired or asked to retire before January.
But Coughlin also knows he's coaching for his job, and that the only way to continue is if he gets his team to start winning again. And stop his team from finding ways to lose in such woeful fashion as the last two weeks. In losing to the Cowboys and Falcons, the Giants became the first team in NFL history to start off a season by blowing double-digit fourth-quarter leads in consecutive games.
Coughlin understands major improvement needs to be made, but he cannot be faulted for at least considering the glass-half-full theory that the Giants were at least in position to beat two teams whose combined record is now 4-0.
"We'll continue to be positive, and we'll continue to utilize our meeting time with positive reinforcements," Coughlin said Monday. "Sooner or later, we just have to settle down and play the way we're capable of playing when the game is on the line."
The sooner the better for a team that is already confronting its first crisis of the season. It is a crisis of confidence, and for a team with as many new and young players as the Giants, it is urgent that Coughlin steers them toward a path of success as quickly as possible.
Coughlin presided over a team in 2013 that started 0-6 and nearly cost him his job then. Were it not for an improved performance over the next 10 games, when the Giants went 7-3, the coach might have been replaced. There was another six-game losing streak in the middle of last season, and Coughlin's status was again in question until he won three of his last four to finish 6-10.
A third straight losing season will almost certainly lead to a coaching change. Coughlin understands he has to start getting some wins on the board quickly.
He has the disadvantage of a short week to prepare for Thursday night's home game against Washington, but this is about as must-win a scenario as you can get this early in the season. With the NFC East seemingly wide open now that Cowboys stars Tony Romo and Dez Bryant are out several weeks with injuries and Chip Kelly's roster makeover has the Eagles struggling at 0-2, there is certainly reason for some optimism. But we've seen this movie before: In the previous two losing seasons, the Giants continually referenced the notion that the playoffs were still within reach even as the losses mounted.
That act got old the more the Giants lost, and they can't afford to rationalize away their misfortune by telling themselves that everybody else is struggling, too. The Giants need to stop checking out their NFC East opponents and start examining themselves. Take care of your own business, and the rest will take care of itself, regardless of what's happening in the division or conference.
The Giants have legitimate shortcomings, starting with the absence Jason Pierre-Paul, whose loss cannot be overstated. But even without Pierre-Paul, they were in position to beat the Cowboys and Falcons in the fourth quarter.
But games are won and lost in the NFL in the fourth quarter, and Coughlin, Eli Manning and the rest of the players haven't been up to the challenge. There is still plenty of time to get things corrected and make this a meaningful season. But if the coach can't come up with some answers quickly enough and the Giants stumble to a fourth straight season with no playoffs, he knows he'll be out of chances.