Giants president and co-owner John Mara has a critical decision to make on whether coach Tom Coughlin should be back in 2016 or whether it is time to move on after 12 seasons.
But before Mara comes to a conclusion on that all-important issue, he has to answer one fundamental yet vexing question: Just what exactly is his team?
The 6-8 Giants have lost six games by a combined 15 points and seven by a combined 21 points.
Are they a team in transition that is potentially on the rise after all those narrow defeats, which included down-to-the-wire losses to Carolina and the Patriots, both of whom were undefeated at the time they played?
Or are they a team that with better game management from the coach and his staff could have turned a handful of those losses into wins and thus be in control in a watered-down NFC East?
Has Coughlin done a credible job with a severely limited roster — especially on defense, where you can count the number of quality players on one hand?
Or has the coach failed to regularly seize opportunities in all these close games and thus contributed to one mind-numbing close loss after another?
It is an incredibly complicated calculation that the 61-year-old Mara must resolve about his 69-year-old coach, and the outcome will have a major impact on what happens moving forward.
The feeling here: There are enough positive indicators from this team, despite its many shortfalls and despite the disturbing number of close losses, to maintain continuity and allow Coughlin to stay on the job. If he can get some roster help in the offseason, when salary-cap constraints will melt away and give the Giants adequate flexibility to add significant pieces on defense, there is no reason to think the Giants can’t be a playoff team, especially with quarterback Eli Manning’s continued improvement in the West Coast offense.
Whatever decision Mara comes to, it carries varying degrees of risk. If Mara fires Coughlin or recommends that the coach retire, the move no doubt will be popular among a large segment of Giants fans who believe Coughlin’s time has come. He hasn’t been to the playoffs since 2011, the year the Giants won their second Super Bowl title during his tenure, and there certainly is merit to the idea of a fresh start. But change alone does not guarantee success, and there are few available coaches with the resume Coughlin himself boasts.
Two potential candidates with Super Bowl championships — Jon Gruden and Bill Cowher — have not coached in several years and appear content to continue as broadcasters. Likely candidates such as Bears offensive coordinator Adam Gase, Panthers offensive coordinator Mike Shula, Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott, Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan and possibly even Giants offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo have a collective zero years’ experience as NFL head coaches. (Shula was head coach at Alabama from 2003-06.)
That doesn’t mean one of them, or another candidate with no previous head-coaching experience, can’t succeed here. Just look at Todd Bowles, who has done a terrific job with the Jets this season after compiling an impressive background as a college and NFL assistant.
Potential candidates who previously have been head coaches include Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, Jaguars offensive line coach Doug Marrone, Seahawks offensive line coach Tom Cable, Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson and Jim Schwartz, who now works in the NFL office. But none of them is without drawbacks.
McDaniels was fired less than two seasons into his tenure as the Broncos’ head coach. Marrone resigned as the Bills’ head coach in 2014 after two seasons and wasn’t hired for a top job this season. Cable went 17-27 in three seasons with the Raiders. Jackson was 8-8 in one season before being fired by the Raiders. Schwartz was 29-51 in five seasons with Detroit.
Despite his repeated denials, Alabama coach Nick Saban, who was nearly hired by the Giants in 1997, has been rumored to be ready to return to the NFL. But Saban bombed with the Dolphins in two seasons before returning to the college ranks. Among his biggest mistakes: choosing Daunte Culpepper over Drew Brees as his quarterback.
All of this doesn’t mean Mara can’t justify moving on from Coughlin. Coaches do run their course, and it is possible that Coughlin has done just that. But the answer here is not obvious, and for that reason, the smart move for Mara might be to allow the Coughlin era to continue.
Think of it this way: Almost every time a coach outlives his usefulness in a particular job, the signs are obvious. Just go back to some of the Giants’ coaches post-Bill Parcells. Ray Handley was in over his head from the start and had to go. Dan Reeves had a terrific start in 1993, but repeated run-ins with the front office, a declining record and Reeves’ own lack of interest told you it was time for him to go after his fourth season. Jim Fassel got the Giants to the Super Bowl in 2000 but had lost his team by 2003.
Rex Ryan? It was obvious he couldn’t continue as the Jets’ coach after last season. Andy Reid’s time had come after a 4-12 record with the Eagles in 2012. Same with Norv Turner in San Diego. Gruden and Cowher were burned out in Tampa Bay and Pittsburgh, respectively.
With Coughlin, the signs are not nearly as obvious. He still is passionate about coaching. His players remain loyal and play hard for him. You look for the telltale indications of a man who is ready to go, and they’re just not there.
You want to criticize Coughlin for not doing a better job to prevent wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr.’s meltdown last week against the Panthers? Fine. The coach should have pulled him — at least briefly — from the game and gotten in his face after Beckham delivered a cheap shot for which he ultimately was suspended. But take the broader view here: Coughlin has presided over Beckham’s swift emergence as one of the league’s best playmakers, so one misstep shouldn’t cloud the coach’s overall handling of his star receiver.
Another major advantage of maintaining continuity: Manning, who has flourished in his first two seasons in the West Coast offense, wouldn’t have to throw away that progress by learning a new system brought in by a new head coach. Do you really want to have a 35-year-old quarterback learn another offense, especially after he has looked so good in this one?
You wonder, too, what kind of season Coughlin might have had with a more talented defense. That’s not on him, because he doesn’t pick the players. General manager Jerry Reese’s roster has been beset by injuries to key defenders such as Jon Beason and Johnathan Hankins, but there is little depth, especially along the defensive line.
Reese’s overall body of work is credible and shouldn’t result in his ouster, but the Giants clearly need upgrades on defense. There could be some internal changes in the scouting department, and an offseason with plenty of salary-cap space could give Reese the means to retool on defense the way Jets GM Mike Maccagnan did before this season.
Whether Coughlin will be the beneficiary remains to be seen. This one’s all up to the owner, who faces the biggest and most complicated decision of his tenure.
Your move, Mr. Mara.
THE COUGHLIN ERA
Super Bowl wins