PALM BEACH, FL—Tom Coughlin's most lasting victory may not have been his team's dramatic win over the Patriots in the Super Bowl. It may be his decision to play to win in the regular-season finale against the Patriots, which may forever define the Giants' improbable run to the title.
Commissioner Roger Goodell hailed Coughlin on Monday for his decision not to rest his team and allow the Patriots to waltz to their 16th consecutive victory. On a final weekend of the season in which close to half the games saw at least one of the two teams rest their starters, the Giants played all-out and the league would like for Coughlin to have started a trend among the league's other coaches.
"There's no question the league is responding as far as playing every game to win," Coughlin said during Wednesday morning's "Breakfast with the NFC Coaches" at the league meetings. Wednesday is the final day of the meetings and was to see owners vote on a number of proposals.
"I got an emotional voice mail from John Madden about there's only one way to play and that's to win. I played it for our players. That message has been well distributed throughout the league," Coughlin said.
Coughlin told reporters on Wednesday that he began making his decision on whether to rest his players or go all-out during the Giants' return flight from Buffalo in week 16. He made it sound as though the decision wasn't too difficult.
"What kind of message would I send to these people going into the playoffs?" he said. "I felt it would be very inconsistent to talk to my team about doing anything but the best they could do. When I walked into the meeting on Wednesday morning, I told them how we were going to play and they accepted it."
Coughlin's situation was unique because the Patriots were attempting to become the first team in NFL history to complete a perfect 16-game season. The game grew in stature during the week when the NFL bowed to pressure to allow the game to be aired on network television, instead of only on the cable-only "NFL Network."
What if he had decided to rest his players?
"We would not have had the gauge. We would not have had the true sense of playing against what was the best team in football," Coughlin said.
The Giants lost that regular-season finale to the Patriots, but they led the game in the second half, forced the Patriots to rally and, in the process, turned the country's football fans into Giants fans for the rematch between the two teams in the Super Bowl.
"A lot of people are Giants fans," Coughlin joked.
Life has never been better for a man who was mistreated by fate in two AFC title games as Jaguars coach. The Jaguars led 14-10 against the Titans in the 1999 AFC title game, but the Titans scored 23 unanswered points in the second half to cruise to a 33-14 win.
Coughlin began last season on the hot seat in New York. Most thought he had to win a playoff game or he would be fired. He was encouraged to change his heavy-handed ways.
"Let the players see you care about them," Coughlin said of the advice he received. "I've always cared about them."
No one is giving Coughlin advice these days. In fact, the league is taking its lead from him. The league wants more of its coaches to be just like him.
"We decided we would play to win. We wanted to see how good we could play. It was a very good game. Our players realized it was a game we were going to play down the road," Coughlin said.
Another former Jaguars coach, Mike Smith, met with the media on Wednesday morning. Smith, the Jaguars' defensive coordinator from 2003-07, is the new head coach of the Atlanta Falcons and Smith appears to already be popular with the Atlanta media.
Smith was asked: What do you take from your experiences in Baltimore and Jacksonville?
"You gotta have physical and intense football players. That's what you want to instill in your football team. We're going to be physical and control the line of scrimmage," Smith said.
"The team culture and team attitude is important. In Jacksonville, we had a bunch of guys who liked to come to work and enjoyed what they were doing. When you enjoy what you're doing, you're usually good at it," Smith added.