Coughlin, Fisher no longer dominant

Alan Truex

Two of the most venerable NFL coaches may be about to lose their jobs: Tom Coughlin of the New York Giants and Jeff Fisher of the St. Louis Rams.

Coughlin has brought New York  two world championships in his 12 years, will be forever beloved for defeating Bill Belichick and the not always friendly seaboard rival Boston.

Fisher is a bit less distinguished, but he secured a lofty reputation with a five-year run (1999 to 2003) when he won 70 percent of his games with Tennessee and even made a Super Bowl appearance.   He ran the ball effectively with Eddie George but also passed it well with Steve McNair.

Coughlin is 69 but shows no loss of energy, especially as he prowls the sidelines, constantly fuming at the refs.  His players not only respect but adore him.  Not one has publicly suggested he’s losing his edge.  And that silent testimony speaks volumes in the most mediacentric city in the world.

Whatever, Coughlin has been sadly off his game this season. 

His team has blown five fourth-quarter leads, and his tactical decisions – especially in the red zone – have been instrumental in several of the losses.

The defining moment of the Giants’ season may be a ghastly decision by Coughlin that led to Sunday’s loss to the cross-town Jets.   Big Blue had 4th-and-2 from the Jets’ 4-yard line leading 20-10 midway through the fourth quarter.

Kick a chip-shot of a field goal, right?

Not if you’re Tom Coughlin, always afraid of something going wrong.  He said afterward he had no faith in his defense protecting a 13-point lead for seven minutes.  There’s also the question of his offense, with its sluggish running game, being able to work the clock.

So Coughlin called a pass to the end zone, and Eli Manning was intercepted.  The momentum shifted; the Jets went on to win.

Analyzing Coughlin’s call, CBSSports’ Steve Beuerlein, a former NFL quarterback, said on Monday QB:  “That’s a decision you can’t defend.”

The New York Daily News full-page headline screamed: “Nail in the Coughlin.”

But maybe not.

Playing in the most dysfunctional division in NFL history, the 5-7 Giants remain very much in this potato-sack race in the NFC East.  In fact they’re tied with Washington and Philadelphia for first place.

The conventional wisdom in Manhattan is that Coughlin won’t be fired if the Giants win the division, even if they do it with a 6-10 record that’s entirely plausible. 

Some prominent media voices – Gary Myers of the Daily News, Dave Caldwell of the Guardian – wonder if he should step down and save himself and the organization from an uglier departure.  Caldwell called the coach “perpetually grumpy and seemingly washed-up.”

Sometimes a good organization turns sour even with a smart coach.  Hall of Famer Tom Landry was fired in Dallas.  His contemporary, Don Shula, also bound for Canton, was nudged out of the Miami Dolphins.

The move against Landry paid off with successor Jimmy Johnson rapidly rebuilding the fallen champions.   But cautionary tale here: The uprising against Shula went less well, as Johnson was no panacea in South Florida.  It won’t be easy for whoever succeeds Coughlin, especially if, like Shula, he’s not ready to go.

As for Fisher, there’s less reason to equivocate.  He’s had four consecutive losing seasons with a franchise whose owner, Stan Kroenke, wants to move to Los Angeles even as St. Louis tries to keep the team that’s a clear No. 2 to Cardinals baseball.

Fisher is known for being loyal to his assistants, but this week, for the first time in his career, he fired one with the season in progress.   Frank Cignetti Jr., who tried to construct a deep-passing game with the underpowered arm of Nick Foles, had to be sacrificed.

Fisher said his players were “shocked” by the news of Cignetti’s demise.  “I hope they take it personally, because they need to.” 

Then he made the strongest, most succinct case for his own dismissal:  “Eighteen touchdowns in 12 weeks just doesn’t give you a chance to win a lot of games.”

So in comes Rob Boras, who has been the tight ends coach, to run an offense that ranks 32nd and last in the league in passing, 31st overall.

Fisher, who played safety for the Chicago Bears, builds teams that hit hard, but too often beyond the rules, causing a plethora of penalties that have contributed to the 4-8 season.

Fisher only grudgingly included himself among those deserving blame for the breakdown of the offense.  But unlike Coughlin, who must rely on a general manager (Ted Thompson) to supply him with players, Rams GM Les Snead does not oppose anything Fisher wants.

Which is something of a moot point, because talent is not lacking on the roster, aside from Fisher’s assembling what is arguably the worst 1-2 quarterback punch in the league, with Foles competing against an even weaker arm, Case Keenum’s.

Any team would love to have Todd Gurley running the ball, Tavon Austin catching, running and returning kicks, Aaron Donald stuffing the run and toppling the passer, and Janoris Jenkins in coverage.

A coach should do better than 4-8 with talent like that.

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