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Tom Coughlin's exit from N.Y. Giants leaves big shoes to fill

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The time frame in which results are expected in the NFL has shrunk so much that Black Monday has now been overwhelmed by Bleak Late Sunday. The most miserable day of the football calendar -- when 12 teams begin to prepare for the playoffs and everybody else licks their wounds or packs their bags -- has been jumpstarted like a midnight doorbuster sale.

By late Sunday night, the Cleveland Browns and San Francisco 49ers had fired their coaches, joining the Tennessee Titans, Philadelphia Eagles and Miami Dolphins, who couldn't even wait for the final game of the regular season to end before booting theirs. The Titans and Browns have also sent their general managers packing, with Cleveland, incredibly, already creating an organizational structure so bizarre that it will likely eliminate most top picks from their pool of coaching candidates.

That left uncomfortable suspense for part of Monday, as two of the most closely watched -- and highly coveted -- jobs hung in the balance. But by 2:30 p.m. ET, Tom Coughlin had announced he was stepping down from the New York Giants, ending a 12-year stint that included two Super Bowl championships and put him on par with his mentor, Bill Parcells, while making him a strong candidate for Hall of Fame consideration.

Coughlin has seemingly been on the hot seat ever since he arrived in New York in 2004, with periodic calls for his head being followed by stunning runs to ticker tape parades. He was the beneficiary of something that seems to be increasingly rare in NFL executive suites: patience and a commitment to continuity, despite the ebbs and flows of seasons. Coughlin had even been told by his bosses at one point to change his personal style -- his family implored him to let his players see him as his grandchildren do -- and the result was not only success on the field but a fierce loyalty from his players.

But it has been four long years since the Giants last went to the playoffs, in 2011 -- that was a Super Bowl year, too -- and they haven't had a winning record since 2012. Coughlin's departure had been widely expected in recent weeks, as the Giants spiraled to a 1-6 finish in a season marked by a string of agonizing last-minute collapses. He remains deeply respected and loved within the organization not just for his victories but for the steady, dignified leadership he provided. The funereal mood around the team was summed up by quarterback Eli Manning, who seemed to fight back tears while the Giants cleaned out their locker room before they received definitive word about Coughlin's fate. Manning has never played for another head coach.

"We've had a good run, could've been better, obviously, but I appreciate everything he's done for me," Manning said. "I think the Maras and the Tischs know how I feel about Coach Coughlin and the respect I have for him, and I think he's done a great job, and he definitely has not failed. I feel that we, as players, we failed him by not playing to the level that we could."

Coughlin, along with owners John Mara and Steve Tisch and general manager Jerry Reese -- whose job is safe and who will now be involved in his first coaching search -- will meet with reporters on Tuesday. But on Monday, Coughlin released a statement saying he thought it was in the best interest of the team for him to step down, while giving no indication that he is finished with coaching entirely.

"This is not a sad occasion for me," Coughlin said. "I have spent 15 years with this organization as an assistant and head coach and was fortunate to be part of three Super Bowl winning teams. A Lombardi Trophy every five years is an achievement in which we all take great pride."

Coughlin's departure opens the door to perhaps the best job in the NFL, blessed with a franchise quarterback, a star receiver in Odell Beckham, Jr., prodigious salary-cap space and gold-standard ownership, and the Giants could have their pick of top candidates. One concern before Coughlin's exit was that the Giants could lose offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo, under whom Manning has flourished in the last two years, and McAdoo is expected to be among those considered for the head job. Whoever gets it, the expectations will be immense. Coughlin was able to fill Parcells' formidable shoes. Filling Coughlin's will be just as daunting, and this will be the hiring the rest of the league speculates about until it is made.

The other source of speculation on Monday night was about what was happening behind closed doors in Indianapolis, where the Colts announced there would be no update on Chuck Pagano's job status. That job would be the other plum opening, and it was widely assumed Pagano would be fired by owner Jim Irsay after a disappointing season that was also marked by friction between Pagano and general manager Ryan Grigson. But Pagano had said he would fight for his job, and that was apparently what he was doing -- his meeting with Irsay extended into the evening, and there will be no decision expected until Tuesday.

(EDITOR'S NOTE: Pagano and the Colts agreed to a contract extension late Monday, after this piece was posted.)

The Colts' delay Monday, San Diego's decision to retain Mike McCoy, the apparently legitimate candidacy of interim Mike Mularkey in Tennessee and the decision not to fire -- at least not yet -- Jim Caldwell in Detroit created the counterbalance to the rush to judgment that ushered so many of their colleagues out the door. But Coughlin, alone, had the chance to craft his own legacy, and then the opportunity to script his own departure.

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.

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