New York Giants head coach Tom Coughlin reacts on the...

New York Giants head coach Tom Coughlin reacts on the sidelines during a game against the Washington Redskins at MetLife Stadium. (Dec. 18, 2011) Credit: Getty Images

Someone asked Tom Coughlin yesterday if he gets an extra jolt of excitement from being in the playoffs for the first time in three years. Coughlin, usually straightforward, cautious -- and yes, even downright boring -- at news conferences, suddenly lifted his head, shook it as if he'd just finished a triple espresso latte and said, "How can you say that?"

The media members packed into the team's auditorium let out a laugh that was almost unprecedented at a Coughlin presser.

Yes, the Giants' 65-year-old coach is absolutely, positively more excited now that his team is in the tournament for the first time since the 2008 season and with a chance to win his second Super Bowl. And so are his players, who have come to appreciate their resilient, no-nonsense leader for being able to overcome myriad difficulties to win the NFC East and get a crack at the franchise's fourth Super Bowl title.

And as much as Coughlin relishes the chance to join Bill Parcells as a two-time Lombardi Trophy winner, the respect and admiration from those who play for him is just as rewarding. They have rallied behind Coughlin, whose job tenure was in question until the Giants beat the Jets and the Cowboys, and he is grateful for the loyalty. Even if it took senior vice president of communications Pat Hanlon to tell him of the positive comments coming from the locker room.

"I don't really know the details, because I don't do much [reading] this time of the year," Coughlin said. "But Mr. Hanlon has informed me about a couple of these circumstances. That's why you coach, to be honest with you. That's what it's all about. It's all about the back-and-forth, that relationship with the players, and trying to be the best you can be. I think this is the way you go about it."

Coughlin is an old-school coach who lives by the lessons he took from Vince Lombardi, John Wooden and other great coaches from an era that today's players would hardly recognize. And truth be told, Coughlin probably would have found it easier to retain the autocratic style those men used.

But today's athletes are different, and they don't respond well to a dictatorial approach. It's something Coughlin found out the hard way earlier in his tenure with the Giants, and there was nearly an insurrection by many of his key players -- including Tiki Barber, Plaxico Burress and Michael Strahan -- by the end of his third season in 2006. He sneaked into the playoffs in the final week, lost in the first round, then did some soul-searching before deciding to recalibrate his approach to fit the modern athlete better.

He relaxed some of his rules, communicated more regularly with players and became more approachable. What he wouldn't compromise on was on-field discipline, to which the players were agreeable. After all, the bottom line is winning, and they wanted a coach who would prepare them well for game day. And the more easygoing approach off the field was even more effective; players were willing to go the extra yard because they saw the coach had backed off the mind-numbing critiques and annoying rules.

The following year, Coughlin led the Giants to a Super Bowl victory. Now he's in position for another, albeit more challenging run, especially considering the level of competition in the NFC.

As it turned out, the criticism Coughlin faced during what had the makings of another second-half collapse gave his players an even greater sense of resolve to fight for their coach.

"He's huge," linebacker Mathias Kiwanuka said. "He's obviously a good motivator, he's a good coach, and everybody plays together and plays for him. So we respect him a lot and we're ready to go out there and play no matter what."

Safety Deon Grant said the questions about Coughlin's future and the Giants' ability to extricate themselves from the swoon further tightened the relationship.

"We want to put him in position where he can go out when he's ready to go," Grant said, "instead of everybody else saying it's time for him to go."

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