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John Mara must decide if Giants are headed in right direction

Giants owner John Mara speaks to the media

Giants owner John Mara speaks to the media in East Rutherford, N.J. (Dec. 30, 2013) Credit: AP

After every Giants game -- win or lose -- team president John Mara walks quietly through the locker room, sometimes stopping to talk to players and coaches but mostly as a silent observer. He rarely speaks to reporters -- there have been no postgame interviews from him this season -- and his expression usually is serious.

Especially after the losses.

This year has been particularly difficult for the son of the late Giants patriarch Wellington Mara. John Mara has always taken losses hard, even if he tries to remain even-keeled about his team. With the Giants (3-6) heading for their fourth season without a playoff berth in the last five years, Mara surely is seething at what is taking place.

It is Mara who eventually will chart the future of the team, and key decisions could be in the offing if the Giants don't turn things around, starting with Sunday's home game against the 49ers. Another loss and the Giants likely would have to run the table to make the playoffs. And even that might not be enough.

Mara, who declined a request this past week to be interviewed about the state of his team, is expected to wait until after the season to make any changes. His decisions will shape the course of the franchise moving forward.

No clear-cut answers

It will not be an easy analysis for Mara, who turns 60 on Dec. 1. He prefers long-term stability at the key positions of head coach and general manager, and there is a chance that coach Tom Coughlin and GM Jerry Reese will continue in their current roles. But it also is possible that Mara will make a change, and that most likely would involve the 68-year-old Coughlin.

But Coughlin's situation is not clear-cut. Unlike the final seasons of the Ray Handley, Dan Reeves and Jim Fassel eras, when it was obvious that changes needed to be made, Coughlin appears as energetic as he was when he joined the team in 2004.

We're talking about a two-time Super Bowl championship coach who is sure to be considered for the Hall of Fame, a man who has lost none of the fire in the belly that you want to see from a coach. In fact, the more the Giants lose, the more urgency you sense from him in his attempt to turn things around.

Coughlin has taken full blame for the team's failure this season. "I'm responsible for everything,'' he told me last week. "And that's OK. I've been there before. It's not going to affect me. I'm going to work the same way. I'm going to be the same coach. I'm going to be the same guy. It should all go right to me. Leave the players alone. We've got to coach the players better and we've got to play better.''

If the players were tuning Coughlin out, it would be an obvious sign to Mara that a change is needed, but that doesn't seem to be the case. And that's why this situation is so tricky. Coughlin clearly has enough energy and still commands respect in the locker room. So if Mara does make a change, part of his reasoning simply might be that after 11 seasons with Coughlin, a new voice is required.

There's potential risk with that decision, because it's uncertain who would take over as coach and whether he could produce as impressive a body of work as Coughlin has.

Mara could consider former Steelers coach Bill Cowher, who left Pittsburgh after the 2007 season. His name has been linked to the Giants before, but he has indicated a preference to remain in broadcasting at CBS.

If Mara were to hire a current NFL assistant coach or an established college coach such as Notre Dame's Brian Kelly or Stanford's David Shaw, there also is a risk, especially for a new coach adapting to the high-stress New York market that Coughlin has managed so effectively.

A roster in flux

Reese has come under scrutiny for his role in shaping the roster in the years since the Giants won the Super Bowl after the 2011 season. A major offseason retooling has had mixed results.

Reese rebuilt the offensive line with three new starters, and the offense has shown gradual improvement after a shaky start under first-year coordinator Ben McAdoo. Reese's drafting of wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr., who has two straight 100-yard receiving games, looks like a smart move at this point. But it comes after another first-round pick, Hakeem Nicks -- a key contributor in the Giants' Super Bowl XLVI title run -- fizzled out in his final two years with the team.

Eli Manning remains a franchise-caliber quarterback and the Giants are expected to redo his contract in the offseason. But Manning is 33 and the window of opportunity for him to direct another Super Bowl run soon might begin to close. The way he has bounced back from a rough 2013 has convinced the team he is not a descending player. But he's not getting any younger, so time is a factor in terms of getting sufficient talent around him.

The defense has been a major disappointment. Ranked 32nd in the NFL in yards allowed, the Giants have allowed at least 423 yards in each of the last four games, a first in club history.

Even if Coughlin stays, Perry Fewell is not expected to return unless his defense makes an unexpected turnaround. But after giving up 350 rushing yards to Seattle last week and generally failing to contain opponents' offenses, an immediate improvement isn't expected.

Reese, who believes in patiently building his roster through the draft but went on somewhat of a free-agent binge in the offseason, likely will remain. He has been with the Giants for more than two decades and is well-respected within the organization.

The injury factor

Further complicating Mara's decision-making problem is a slew of injuries. It started almost immediately with running back David Wilson, drafted in the first round in 2012, who suffering a recurrence of his neck problems early in training camp and was forced to retire.

Middle linebacker Jon Beason, who was acquired in a trade last year and played well enough to earn a new contract, missed the preseason with a toe problem. He started the opener but aggravated the injury and was never at full strength. He now is on injured reserve after surgery.

Wide receiver Victor Cruz suffered a season-ending knee injury against the Eagles last month. Cornerback Prince Amukamara, who was having his best season, suffered a torn biceps earlier this month and is gone for the year.

Rashad Jennings, who was having a solid year with an average of 4.4 yards per carry, suffered a knee injury Oct. 5 and hasn't played since. He is expected to return against the 49ers.

Guard Geoff Schwartz, who suffered a dislocated toe in the preseason and forced the Giants to start rookie Weston Richburg, could return next week.

The Giants also lost defensive backs Walter Thurmond III, who helped the Seahawks win last season's Super Bowl, and Trumaine McBride. And they will be without three more injured players against the 49ers: linebacker Jaquian Williams, running back Peyton Hillis and defensive lineman Cullen Jenkins.

Every NFL team deals with its share of injuries, and even when the Giants won their two most recent Super Bowls, they overcame the absence of some key players. But with a relatively thin talent pool to begin with, this year's injuries have severely impacted their ability to compete against better teams.

So as easy as it may be to blame coaching, the team has never been at full strength.

 

A seven-game season

As Mara continues to ponder what he must do moving forward, the next seven games could impact his thinking. If the Giants cannot stop the losing streak that reached four games in last Sunday's 38-17 loss to the Seahawks, and if the team performs miserably the rest of the season, he might feel there is no alternative but to make a coaching change. Because of his respect for Coughlin's accomplishments, Mara likely would work out a deal in which Coughlin could retire rather than be fired.

But if the Giants become competitive the rest of the way, especially once the schedule eases up after games against the 49ers and Cowboys, Mara might opt to keep Coughlin and continue to rebuild with another draft and more free-agent signings.

Either way, it's not an easy decision, and Mara knows it. The answer will be revealed within the next two months.

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