Jim Fassel began with the same steely gaze he has worn since the Giants' meltdown against the Lions Sunday afternoon. But the more he spoke Wednesday, the more relaxed he became, to the point he seemed almost euphoric, seemingly unburdened by his stunning words.
"This is a poker game, and I'm shoving my chips to the middle of the table," the normally conservative coach said. "I'm raising the ante, and anybody who wants in, get in. Anybody wants out, can get out. This team is going to the playoffs, OK? This team is going to the playoffs."
Fassel made his guarantee seven times in a 25-minute news conference at Giants Stadium. Each time he said it, and each time a reporter asked him why he said it, he seemed to enjoy it more. "I am excited," he said. "This is beautiful. I love it. I just raised the stakes, didn't I? Beautiful."
Whether or not Fassel raised the stakes is debatable, because guarantee or not he is certain to be fired if he does not make the playoffs, and perhaps if he gets there and loses in the first round.
But his statement did set him up for ridicule if he does not make it, and for praise as a motivator if he does.
Fassel said his job status had nothing to do with his decision, and said he does not care whether he made things easier for management should he fail. "I just want to win," he said.
The loss to the Lions incensed many fans and added to nagging doubts about Fassel's stewardship within the organization. But Fassel, who has responded well to adversity before, decided he won't go down without a fight.
He called public relations director Pat Hanlon Tuesday night to advise him of his plans. Then he told the players in their morning meeting that nothing short of the playoffs would do. He addressed reporters at 2:35 p.m., then walked through the team offices telling executives what he had said.
"Well, he has the pulse of the team," general manager Ernie Accorsi said. "If he feels that way, that's great. He would know better than me."
Offensive tackle Lomas Brown said he never before has had a coach guarantee a playoff berth in his 16 NFL seasons. "That's cool," he said. "I'm happy he said that. It tells me the man is confident in his team . . . Sometimes the coach can get shaky, but he's holding strong."
Fassel decided to speak out because "it's in my gut. The only regrets I've had in life are when I don't do what's in my gut."
He got on such a roll he scattered metaphors in which he said he is "driving the train," "driving the bus," and "pounding on the horse the whole way around the track." He said an
assistant told him if the players didn't get the message yesterday, they are "brain dead."
"Get off my coaches' backs, get off my players' backs," Fassel said. "If you've got cross hairs, you've got lasers, you can point it right at my chest. I'll take full responsibility."
Fassel recalled something co-owner Wellington Mara said when he was hired in 1997: "This is not an easy job. If it were an easy job, you wouldn't have it."
Fassel promised to be "everywhere" from now on, from sitting in position meetings to "questioning everything that goes on around here."
There are five games left, and they might be Fassel's last five. He intends to make the most of them and decided it was time to ride his team hard. "If anyone gets sweaty palms or is nervous, they don't need to be around here right now, because I love it," he said. "I love this. You know what gets me excited? Pressure."
Why does he think the team will respond? "I believe in my players, I believe in my coaches and I believe in myself," he said.
Finally, someone couldn't resist asking an obvious question: Now that he has gone this far, would he care to say what the Giants will do in the playoffs? Fassel chuckled. "One thing at a time," he said.