This was the year that things were supposed to be different in the second half of the season for the New York Giants. But they are running out of time and raising the question of whether fans are in for just another anguished re-run.
New York's 41-17 meltdown loss to Minnesota last Sunday brought back all the bad memories of how the Giants saw promising years go down the drain over the second half in two of the last three seasons.
"I told the team (Sunday), 'This is the real test right now,'" coach Tom Coughlin said. "'It's not about the fact that a man gets knocked down. It's what he does after he gets back up.'"
The Giants (7-4) still are in strong position to win the NFC's first wild-card spot, but they are 1-2 since mid-season and face a road game Sunday at Chicago (5-6), a team fighting for its playoff life. The Giants haven't won a playoff game since 2000, when they won the NFC championship and were crushed by Baltimore in the Super Bowl.
Coughlin is in his fourth year as the Giants' coach. The team is 23-9 in the first half of the four seasons and 9-18 in the second half. Those collapses were all but forgotten when New York went on a six-game winning streak before midseason, and general consensus held that Coughlin's change to a softer approach with the players, which included a night out bowling at training camp, would make all the difference in the second half of the year.
"If that's the case," cracked Shaun O'Hara, the team's veteran center, "then we should go bowling once a week."
Perhaps they should.
In 2005, the Giants started 6-2, then had a respectable 5-3 second half. One more victory would have meant a first-round playoff bye, but instead they were consigned to the extra game -- and were shut out in their first-round game.
In 2006, a 6-2 start gave way to a 2-6 second half. Injuries played a role, but the fuss created by Tiki Barber's in-season retirement announcement and his lingering feud with Coughlin also appeared to affect the team in a negative way; it took a final game victory to earn a wild-card spot and save Coughlin's job.
"We always make it hard on ourselves," said tight end Jeremy Shockey. "The roller coaster goes down and it comes back up."
"We need to play at a higher level," Coughlin said.
No kidding. There is angst in the Big Apple because Manning, in his fourth season, still does not look like the franchise quarterback the Giants thought they were getting when they traded for his rights after San Diego chose him with the first pick of the 2004 draft.
Manning's passer ratings -- 55.4 as a rookie, followed by 75.9, 77.0 and now 75.0 (ranked 24th in the NFL) -- have been pedestrian. Six of the 23 passers ranked ahead of him are quarterbacks who came into the league the same year Manning did, or later -- Ben Roethlisberger, Jay Cutler, Derek Anderson, Philip Rivers, Jason Campbell and J.P. Losman.
Critics harp that Manning doesn't show enough pain, and this week they are particularly irked that he seemed to let the horrendous performance against Minnesota slide off him without getting really mad or showing much public emotion. He said he was "just disappointed," but the vocal fans want him angry, or worse.
"That is not going to fix anything," Manning said. "If you (have) a tantrum, it doesn't make anything better. It doesn't correct the last play or the last few that happened. I figure if I start going crazy and getting wild, it is just going to make everybody else go into a tantrum. And I'm trying to keep everybody calm."
"I think he will respond well," Coughlin said.
He'd better. This is, after all, New York, where shades of gray rarely are tolerated.
"You're always under a microscope," O'Hara said. "If you're doing something bad, it's always magnified."
So is the good.
When the Giants went on their six-game run after an 0-2 start, much ink and many bytes were devoted to how this was due to great changes by Coughlin. Nothing is tougher for a coach to do than change his methods late in his career, but it was not unprecedented. Dick Vermeil, for example, softened his tough practice approaches with the St. Louis Rams and won a Super Bowl, nearly two decades after he lost one by, according to many, overworking the Philadelphia Eagles.
The Minnesota debacle was especially disheartening for the Giants because it was so similar to a 2005 defeat that began the second-half downturn -- and a game of which they were reminded repeatedly in the days leading up to this one. Manning also threw four interceptions in that 2005 game, and the Vikings became the first team in NFL history to score on returns of an interception, punt and kickoff in the same game.
"I did not, in my worst moment, think I'd be standing here talking about history repeating itself," Coughlin said this week.
One reason he did not think that was because of the changes he made himself.
Coughlin sat down with beat writers who covered the team and talked about his personality and their jobs, not football, asking for honest feedback in one-on-one exchanges, working to repair his image. More significantly, he mellowed his approach with the players, too.
The bowling night got the most attention, and O'Hara thought it significant that Coughlin not only mingled with the players but also, "he was dancing when he made a strike, not just sitting on a corner."
Coughlin also set up a leadership council of veteran players to discuss team issues with the coach and, for the first time, permitted the players to elect their own team captains. Basically, he showed the players a human side he had hidden in the past.
"I don't know if change is the right word," O'Hara said. "He can only be who he is. To change would be phony. But he let his personality come out. And once you got to know him away from the field, he's a great guy. I think a lot of players were wondering why he wasn't like that around football.
"He's allowed us to get to know him more as a person. He's really made the effort to connect with us ... I think he's allowed the players to have more of a feeling that this is our team."
Well, it is. And right now it's a team on the brink.
Veteran NFL writer Ira Miller is a regular contributor to NFL.com.