A team has to be pretty bad for a coach to be fired in midseason. But what is most surprising this year is how good those teams have looked after such drastic moves.
The Giants saw firsthand what a change at the top did for the Cowboys, losing to their NFC East rivals last month in the first game of interim head coach Jason Garrett's career. The Cowboys rattled off three wins in four games under Garrett and are a Roy Williams fumble away from being 4-0 in the post-Wade Phillips era.
This week, the Giants will face another interim-coached opponent when they travel to Minnesota to play Leslie Frazier's revitalized Vikings Sunday. That team has gone 2-0 since it dismissed Brad Childress.
"I don't see a defeated team," Giants defensive tackle Barry Cofield said of the Vikings. "I see a team that's won their last two games, and we've already seen how different a team can look after a new coach comes in and re-energizes their team."
No one is accusing either Garrett or Frazier of sabotaging their former bosses to get a head-coaching gig. But the vast differences in energy, playing style and enthusiasm on the field make just about everybody who has watched these two teams in before-and-after terms wonder where all that good football was for the first part of the year.
"Sometimes it's hard to get up when you don't trust in your head man, and in those situations, from what I heard from both camps, they didn't trust their head coaches," Giants defensive end Justin Tuck said. "That's not saying that the coach is doing anything wrong. Sometimes it's just not a good fit for certain players and certain coaches."
"I think there's a sense of urgency," Giants defensive tackle Rocky Bernard said of players under an interim head coach. "For teams, it's probably easier to get rid of the coach than to get rid of all 53 players. But you know what comes next. After the coach goes and stuff's still not going the right way, it's the players. So you turn it up a notch."
Sometimes the new coach brings not only a new energy but a new game plan. Both the Cowboys and Vikings have found success offensively by going back to running the ball. The Vikings have averaged 39.0 carries in the last two games, their two highest totals of the season with 38 and 40. They averaged 26.3 in the first 10 games.
The big change, though, seems more visceral than statistical.
"As you watch on film, you've seen in the last two weeks, guys are selling out for him, guys believe in him," said Giants tackle David Diehl, who was recruited to play at Illinois by Frazier. "Guys are going to go out there and play relentless football because that's what he expects of you and that's the type of guy he is."
Frazier said he understood that the Vikings needed a change in general when they fired Childress after falling to 3-7.
"Whether it needed to be changed at the top, that's up for conjecture," he said. "I just knew there were some things within our team that needed to be adjusted."
Left unsaid is why he didn't address those issues as a defensive coordinator. Or why the players didn't respond to those calls under the previous head coach.
Whatever the reasoning or rationale, Vikings running back Adrian Peterson has noticed the change.
"You can feel different vibes," he said. "I can see that within the locker room and you can see it from different guys just by me knowing the people I'm around. You can feel it . . . When [Frazier] talks, people open their ears and listen to what he says. So I feel like that alone has motivated a lot of guys."
Peterson said that motivation was "there somewhat" under Childress. And he said he isn't disappointed that it wasn't there enough for them to fulfill the promise of their season a year after reaching the NFC Championship Game. But not everyone shares that lack of disappointment.
Tuck has never played under any coach other than Tom Coughlin, so he has no experience with an interim head coach or a team that doesn't like or trust its coach very much. Even if he did, Tuck said he doesn't think that would affect his play.
"I'm not going to allow my dislike for any individual to hold me back from showcasing my talent," he said.
But he also agreed that it appears that's exactly what happened in Dallas and Minnesota this season.