Before this year, Tom Coughlin never had a player quite like Shane Vereen, an all-purpose back with an uncanny knack for finding open space the way few others can.
David Meggett was that type of player for Bill Parcells back in the late 1980s and early '90s. Brian Mitchell excelled in that role with Washington. Kevin Faulk was the Patriots' third-down back extraordinaire before Vereen took over that role for Bill Belichick.
And now Coughlin has the chance to enjoy the talents of Vereen, who has been a godsend for the Giants' West Coast offense. His importance was exemplified on the final drive of the Giants' 30-27 win over the 49ers on Sunday night.
Eli Manning was nearly out of viable alternatives as he took the field at his 18-yard line with 1:41 to play. With hamstring injuries sidelining Odell Beckham Jr. and Rueben Randle, the Giants were left with no-name receivers Dwayne Harris, Geremy Davis and Myles White. So Vereen caught short passes for gains of 11, 16 and 24 yards to help the Giants get to the 49ers' 20-yard line with 30 seconds to play.
That last play was a beauty.
"The offensive line did a great job,'' Vereen said. "[Center Weston] Richburg did fantastic. As soon as I caught the ball [over the middle], I turned around and I saw Richburg had kicked his guy out. I saw nothing but green grass, and it's very comforting as a running back to see a lot of green grass."
Manning did the rest from there. After a pass-interference penalty drawn by Beckham, who returned late in the drive, got the Giants to the 12, Manning found tight end Larry Donnell in the back of the end zone for a spectacular touchdown throw and catch with 21 seconds left in regulation.
Vereen's value on the drive was incalculable.
"It was a great example of some of the things that he can do in certain situations when the defense may in fact think they've got you in a position where they have the upper hand," Coughlin said. "And someone like Shane can determine that might not necessarily be so."
Vereen may not have been the biggest free-agent signing in the NFL, but he is turning out to be one of the most important.
The Giants targeted him early in free agency, realizing that he could be a valuable piece of the West Coast offense, which stresses quick throws to the running backs. Coming off a Super Bowl win with the Patriots -- he caught 11 passes in New England's win over Seattle, a Super Bowl record for a running back -- Vereen agreed to a three-year, $12.4-million deal.
The Giants already are seeing a return. He has 20 catches for 208 yards and a touchdown and also has rushed for 101 yards on 25 carries.
And get this: Vereen says he's just now becoming familiar with the nuances of offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo's system.
"I just knew I needed to come in and get my role down and get my plays that I needed to learn and get situated and really feel comfortable with that," Vereen said. "Now that I've got that, I'm able to play a little freer."
You can't help but think there's more good stuff ahead.
"I think it's a learning process on both ends," he said. "I still think I have a lot to learn, and I still think there's some things out there that we can improve on."Having grown up in the Belichick school of football, Vereen knows it's unwise to look too far ahead. Coughlin abides by the same one-week-at-a-time mantra.
"Take it game by game, still got 11 more," Vereen said.
Next up: at the Eagles in a game filled with NFC East implications.
"Can't wait for that," he said. "It's going to be a good test for us."
Figure on Vereen being one of the answers.