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Kinder, gentler Coughlin is a keeper

We tend to think of NFL head coaches as creatures of habit -- unwavering, unbending, unwilling to change who they are and what they're about.

Generally speaking, they got their jobs because of their ability to convince others to do things their way. Generally speaking, change is expected from their players.

It doesn't always work out, of course. That's part of the reason there have been 21 coaching moves in the league since 2005, including two teams (Atlanta and Miami) that have switched coaches twice in the last two years.

Before getting on the roll that carried them all the way to Super Bowl XLII, the New York Giants seemed destined to push that total to 22. I felt fairly certain this would happen because before the 2007 season, the team's brass urged Tom Coughlin that he needed to change his ways.

Be a little more approachable and open with his players. Be a little friendlier with the media. In other words, be someone he had not been through his previous 12 seasons as an NFL head coach (including nine in Jacksonville) or his three years at the helm of Boston College's football team.

Coughlin change? Are you kidding? This was the guy who had the following standing rule with his players: "If you're on time for a meeting, you're five minutes late." This also was the guy who, at Boston College, made his injured players run -- or, as was the case with one wearing a full-length cast on his leg, crawl -- 100 yards on the premise that "just because you get hurt doesn't mean you get the day off."

In Coughlin's book, approachability had nothing to do with being a successful coach. All he ever needed was a plan and players who would follow it. But after the Giants were bounced from the wild-card round of the 2006 playoffs, Coughlin's second consecutive one-and-done postseason, it was time for a change … in Coughlin's approach.

I never thought he would cooperate, even if it cost him his job. He was nearing his 61st birthday and just seemed too rigid to ever be willing to alter core elements of his gruff, hard-nosed personality.

Yet Coughlin proved me -- along with a whole lot of other people -- wrong. Not coincidentally, the Giants are preparing for their second Super Bowl in eight seasons.

It would be an exaggeration to say Coughlin has mellowed. None of his players would ever tell you that. He still has the same rules he always has had: Late if you're on time for a meeting, no cell phones or baseball caps once the meeting starts, etc. He still runs one of the tighter ships in the league.

It would be equally inaccurate to say that Coughlin has become all warm and fuzzy with the media, although he is noticeably more patient with the press. And that started long before the Giants began winning playoff games.

More than anything, he has improved the lines of communication between himself and his players. Coughlin took a major step in that direction on the first day of training camp when he created a "Leadership Council," consisting of 11 veterans with whom he met weekly during the season in an effort to close the gap that the vast majority of Giants felt separated them from the ears of their head coach.

"That right there let me know that Coach Coughlin was going to try his best to definitely get the voice of the team and listen to his players," defensive lineman Justin Tuck said. "And, in turn, it put a lot of confidence in him from us."

It broke the ice, giving players a sense of comfort they had not previously felt to walk up to Coughlin and discuss issues that had nothing to do with football. Coughlin also has initiated more of those conversations than at any other time since replacing Jim Fassel in New York in 2004.

However, the Giants' Super Bowl run isn't all about a happier locker room. Coughlin has had his share of impressive football achievements since the end of the '06 season, including:

>Eli Manning's development into a consistently effective and highly efficient quarterback (replacing John Hufnagel with Kevin Gilbride as offensive coordinator has helped plenty on that count).

> Replacing defensive coordinator Tim Lewis with Steve Spagnuolo, who promptly became a hot head-coaching candidate after guiding the Giants to the top of the NFL with 53 sacks.

> Overcoming the retirement of running back Tiki Barber and an injury to tight end Jeremy Shockey, who has missed all three playoff games.

> Creating strong momentum for the postseason by playing most of his starters in the meaningless season-finale against the New England Patriots.

> Getting through to Plaxico Burress, who had a reputation for not being coachable when he joined the Giants from the Pittsburgh Steelers, and turning him into a consistent game-breaking force with a remarkably high tolerance for pain.


Relive the Giants' improbable march to the Super Bowl by watching their best plays of the season. More ...

> Amani Toomer's revival as a big-play receiver in his 12th season.

> Turning his players into consummate road warriors, as evidenced by the team's franchise-record 10 victories away from Giants Stadium.

> Beating the odds to win playoff games at Tampa, Dallas, and frozen Green Bay.

> Determining that Lawrence Tynes, hero of the Lambeau upset, should attempt the winning field goal in overtime despite two previous misses because the kicker displayed the right "attitude" by running onto the field without anyone instructing him to do so.

The Giants have another step to take, seemingly their most difficult of all.

If they negotiate this road trip successfully, you can be certain Coughlin and his willingness to change will lay claim to a mammoth slice of the franchise's rich history.

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