By Dan Graziano | ESPN.comAP Photo/Bill KostrounKevin Gilbride has been a member of Tom Coughlin’s coaching staff for the past 10 years.
But while I still think the strong likelihood is that Coughlin returns to coach the Giants in 2014, I’m not all the way to 100 percent certain yet, and there are a number of reasons you shouldn’t be, either.
First of all, no one actually said Monday that Coughlin would be back coaching the team next year. Mara and GM Jerry Reese both said they wanted that to be the case, and Coughlin did, as well. But all were careful not to say with certainty that it would work out that way. There are meetings yet to come about the length of Coughlin’s contract, which has only one year left on it, and the makeup of Coughlin’s coaching staff, which could be a major sticking point before this is all said and done.
I’ve spoken to multiple people in recent days who are close to this situation, and they have said they have found Coughlin to be unusually pensive and quiet about his situation lately. They also said that it would be very difficult for Coughlin if the team told him it wanted him back but that he had to make changes to the coaching staff. One of the people said there was “no way” Coughlin would agree to fire offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride.
And that last part could be a major sticking point. Mara was crystal clear Monday in assessing blame for a 7-9 season he called “as disappointing as any in my memory.”
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“I think our offense is broken right now, and we need to fix that,” Mara said. “We can’t go into next season with the same personnel.”
He didn’t explicitly mention Gilbride, though he made some other pointed comments that could have been directed at the offensive coaches, including, “I’m not sure why it took us three years to figure out that Jerrel Jernigan can play.” Mara spoke about the need to make the reconstruction of the offensive line the top offseason priority. And out of respect to Coughlin and the meetings they’re all planning for later in the week, he declined to be specific about whether he expected or would demand coaching changes.
“I certainly have my opinion, and I’m sure Jerry has his and Tom has his,” Mara said. “I’d like to think that, at the end of the day, we’re all going to be on the same page. I don’t think it will come to that.”
But it could. If Mara’s opinion is that the offense is stale and stalled and that Gilbride must go, how far will Coughlin go to stand up for a coach who was on his original 1995 Jacksonville Jaguars staff and has been on his Giants staff for every one of his 10 seasons here? If Mara insists that Gilbride must go, would Coughlin quit before agreeing to fire him? And if Coughlin insists that Gilbride must stay, would that jeopardize his chances to have his contract extended beyond 2014?
Mara could certainly tell Coughlin that he has the right to construct his own coaching staff but that the blame will fall on him if it fails again. He acknowledged that the Giants, as a rule, don’t let their head coaches work on one-year deals, but he also said that could change.
“That has been our philosophy in the past, there’s no secret about that,” Mara said. “Whether it continues or not has yet to be decided.”
Basically things sounded more ominous Monday about the Coughlin situation than I expected them to sound. I think there remains a chance this could still come to a head and that the end result could be a change at head coach for the Giants. I think the chance is a slim one, but I believe it exists. And I think Coughlin does, too.
“Everybody wants to know what’s next for me,” Coughlin said. “I hope it’s coaching the New York Giants.”
He did not sound like a man who was wavering. He was defiant in his defense of his record, which includes only one playoff appearance in the past five years. “How long ago was 2011?” he asked, referring to the Giants’ most recent Super Bowl team. “Did the [defending champion] Ravens make the playoffs this year?” And he expressed clear support for his coaching staff without naming specific names.
“Everything will be evaluated, but I have great confidence in this group of men we have as a coaching staff,” Coughlin said. “And I believe in them very strongly.”
The problem is, it had been nine years since there was a losing season around these parts, and when losing seasons happen people demand change. NFL team owners demand change. As Coughlin spoke Monday, news was rolling in about head coach firings in Detroit, Tampa Bay, Washington and Minnesota, to go with those that already had happened in Cleveland and Houston. Coughlin has two Super Bowl titles and thus is something of a “made guy” in NFL coaching circles. He’ll get to coach the Giants as long as he wants to coach them. But what if the landscape and the power structure shift just enough that he can’t coach them on his terms? Will he then decide it’s not worth it anymore?
Mara was asked whether and when it might be time to talk to Coughlin, who will be 68 next season, about what comes after him — to make a “succession plan” of sorts for an inevitable coaching transition. Mara said it was a worthwhile thought, though not a realistic one.
“I’ll probably have that discussion with him, but I’m not sure what value there is there,” Mara said. “I don’t know how much longer he wants to coach. I’m not sure he knows how much longer he wants to coach. It’s very tough to have an exit strategy in the National Football League.”
Which means things almost can’t help but end ugly, no matter how great they have been in the past. Whenever it’s time for Tom Coughlin to not be the Giants’ coach anymore, the parting is likely to be awkward and uncomfortable. And while I still don’t think it happens this week, it would be a mistake for anyone to hear what was said Monday and assume it can’t.