Brian Daboll should not feel the weight of Tom Coughlin’s 15-year-old decisions and be bullied by history into playing his starters in Sunday’s game against the Eagles.
It’s not just me saying that.
It’s Coughlin, too.
The situation the Giants find themselves in this weekend compared to the one Coughlin’s team faced in the 2007 regular-season finale — a playoff berth clinched the week before, a wild-card seeding already locked into place, a playoff game the following week and a regular-season finale against a team still competing for something significant — is remarkably similar.
But while the two-time Super Bowl-winning coach insists on calling himself “just an observer,” Coughlin said by phone this weekend that he has faith in Daboll to make the right call . . . even if it runs counter to the legendary one he made against the undefeated Patriots.
“Brian has done a great job with his team,” Coughlin said. “His team has bought in. They’re playing hard. The coaches have done an outstanding job and they have really taken their athletes and improved them and they are playing really well. Brian will make the right decision about all of that.”
He wouldn’t go into what the right decision is, exactly. “You’re not going to get me to say that,” he grumbled in his familiar grouse that time has not assuaged.
But while the situations are alike, Coughlin did point out the key difference. The Eagles on Sunday are playing for a division title, the top seed in the NFC postseason and a first-round bye. Important stuff. The Patriots were playing for football immortality.
“We’re talking about 15 years ago and a circumstance and a situation,” he said. “We did the right thing. Whatever Brian does, I’m sure it will be the right thing, too.”
There is no denying the special place that 2007 season holds not just in Giants lore but the story of football itself. Each of the steps on that year-long journey to the Super Bowl are epic stories in their own right, from the goal-line stand against Washington that earned the team its first win after an 0-2 start right up to the iconic catches by David Tyree and Plaxico Burress that helped win them the trophy. Coughlin’s latest book, “A Giant Win,” gathers them all together.
The one chapter that has always stuck out among them is the Dec. 29 game against the Patriots, when Coughlin made the defining decision of the season. The Giants had just beaten the Bills to clinch their postseason slot, and all anyone wanted to know was whether he would play his starters the following week.
“That question has always kind of ticked me off,” he said on the phone.
It still was one he had to answer, if not publicly, then to his players. To himself.
“I’m reflecting [on the Bills game] and trying to put my thoughts together, but it came to me that I’m the head coach of the New York Giants, the flagship team of the National Football League, the red, white and blue,” he said. “And I am a historian. I said, ‘I do not want people to look back in history and think that the New York Giants, playing against a team that was 15-0 going for 16-0, would not put their best foot forward, that the New York Giants would not go forth with every bit and ounce of energy we had to try to win the game.’ That was the decision. I put it to our team right away and they bought into it right away.”
The Giants lost that game, 38-35, but Coughlin won the debate. They stood eye-to-eye with the best team in football, a test that would come in handy when they met again in Super Bowl XLII.
“Coming off the field, we had a sense that we could play with them,” Coughlin said. “That was why we played the game the way we did. Coming off the field listening to some of the Patriots players talking about how good they thought we were. I don’t know if it was ever said or if somebody planted it in my mind that we might one day meet again.”
The Giants did have two starters injured in that regular-season game. Center Shaun O’Hara and linebacker Kawika Mitchell were unavailable to play in the next week’s wild-card game in Tampa. But if Coughlin had any doubts about having made the right call, they were alleviated the next morning when he walked into his office and found a voicemail from John Madden.
Madden called the game “one of the best things to happen in the NFL in the last 10 years” and said “there is only one way to play the game.”
“We’ve gotten too much of ‘well, they’re going to rest their players and don’t need to win, therefore they won’t win,’ ” Madden said. “Well, that’s not sports and that’s not competition.”
Fifteen years later, Coughlin said he is still moved by that message. He’s relistened to it so often that he can recite most of it from memory.
Will Coughlin call Daboll on Monday morning with similar thoughts? Probably not.
Indications are Daboll is leaning toward giving some of his key players a bit of a breather. Daniel Jones, Saquon Barkley, Dexter Lawrence, Andrew Thomas — the Giants would be lost in the playoffs if any of them was not as fit as possible. And Daboll, remember, is a coach who already has been burned by one aggressive personnel decision, losing Adoree’ Jackson to a knee injury in November when he had the cornerback step in to return punts. Jackson is only now returning to practices.
There are plenty of precedents to show it is smart to be cautious in these scenarios, that playing the long game is the wise move. There are some, too, that insinuate it is best to keep pressing the accelerator and trying to maintain momentum into the postseason. The Giants could very well face the Eagles again in two or three weeks.
“It’s only right if it works, right?” Daboll said of the possible answers. “If you do one thing and it doesn’t work, or you do the other thing and something happens, you’re wrong no matter what. if you go out there and lay an egg, it’s the wrong decision. If you win, it’s the right decision.”
But there is one big precedent from the Giants’ recent past that speaks louder than all of them.
It’s the $2,007 question that Daboll now faces.
“You make the decision that you think is right for your team,” he said. “We’ll do what’s best for the team.”
That, ultimately, is exactly what Coughlin did.