EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Today's New York Giants-Philadelphia Eagles game was made possible by a coach who was set up to fail. Midway through the season, he lost his best player for good, his team began losing, the city began grumbling, his job came into question and everything was on the verge of collapse. All those forecasts about making the playoffs died quickly, like a New Year's resolution to hit the gym.
Andy Reid found a way, though. The better ones do. He plugged in a replacement quarterback with a weak arm, tweaked his game plan, changed his clipboard and challenged his players.
Instead of accepting disaster, which was widely assumed once Donovan McNabb went down, the Eagles shook up the NFC East and all conventional thinking. Rather than finding excuses for losing, the way the Giants do, Philly listened to Reid and believed him when he said the season wasn't over, it was only beginning.
That's why Reid should be coach of the year over the two boy wonders: Eric Mangini of the New York Jets, who had a healthy quarterback and enough sick-looking opponents, and Sean Payton down in New Orleans, blessed with Pro Bowlers Drew Brees, Will Smith and Jammal Brown.
Reid had to adjust his approach on the fly, without much time to prepare, the hardest task in the coaching biz. This is what separates the good from the average, or more bluntly, Reid from Tom Coughlin.
While East Rutherford burned all around him, Coughlin did not find a way, and the Giants reached the postseason mostly despite him, not because of him.
Like Reid, Coughlin was handed a joker from the bottom of the deck. He lost Michael Strahan, the Donovan McNabb of his defense. There were plenty of other injuries to various parts of the team. And the bad luck spilled onto the field, where Mathias Kiwanuka didn't wrap up Vince Young.
Coughlin had unexpected issues, agreed. But again, this is where coaches earn their large paychecks. This is where they can make an impact. They can't tackle or pass or run the football, but they must plug holes and inflate confidence when all looks lost and the bandwagon is broken.
Given how the Giants ruined a 6-2 start with too many bad and unforgivable losses and needed the mediocrity of the NFC to slip into the playoffs, we can all conclude that Coughlin's job should be and is on the line.
The question now is: Does he make the decision to fire him a tough one or an easy one? Does he go to Philly and beat Reid, or do the Giants take yet another foot in the behind?
What Coughlin needs to do, for the first time this season, is surprise us. Make us notice his coaching. Shake up the playoffs. Do a better job of dealing with weakness: Cover his team's, exploit the other team's. Instill faith, belief and confidence in a locker room lacking all three. Remind his players, over and over, that they're playing in the NFC, where everyone's got problems. Most of all, do for the Giants what Reid did for the Eagles.
That's really what this season, and Coughlin's employment, comes down to: his performance in a game nobody expects the Giants to win.
He took one step forward when he stripped the play-calling responsibilities from John Hufnagel, something that should've been done long ago, back when Tiki Barber was feeling "insignificant." Now Coughlin must get radical with a defense that gave up nearly 400 yards and almost blew a 27-7 lead to the Washington Redskins. The Giants can't pressure the quarterback or defend against the pass or stop the run when it counts. Good luck, Coughlin.
Reid was hearing about his job when the Eagles were 5-5 when McNabb went down. Then they were slapped around by the Indianapolis Colts. They have won every game since, after Reid gave up the play-calling duties and balanced an offense led by Jeff Garcia, who couldn't keep a job in Cleveland last year. They passed the division leaders along the way, leaving the Giants and Dallas Cowboys choking on exhaust, and won the NFC East.
"We're a little bit like zombies," Reid cracked. "Back from the dead."
"Dead" is a fair description of the Giants right now and Coughlin's chances of coming back next season. Too many bad mistakes and losses and, to be fair, injuries have us checking for a pulse. To rise like Lazarus, or even Andy Reid, will require a big game from someone in particular. Will we see Coughlin or coffin?