I have always counted myself a fan of Selena Roberts, sports columnist for the New York Times. She is one of the most incisive sports opinion writers in the business, and often has a special flare for cutting through the spin and the crap of team executives, NCAA administrators and other sports power brokers.
But, I have criticized her before and her column in the Times today is emblematic of what has gone wrong in some of her recent work. In pursuit of a pithy narrative, Roberts seems determined to shove facts in where they don’t belong, lending the feeling of an odd disconnect between her overall argument and the supporting evidence used to substantiate it. She did this in a piece about Arod this summer and she’s done it again with Tom Coughlin today. (I have some sympathy for Arod. I have none for Coughlin).
Roberts’ contention about Coughlin is that, as the title of her column tells it, there seems to be a “mismatch” between the coach and his team. As is usually true of Roberts, I agree with the premise. And, her piece starts out strong:
“The flashpoint for the hostile witnesses inside Giants Stadium yesterday wasn’t a pantomime offense unable to escape the invisible box of its own territory.
And it wasn’t a Giants defense that allowed the Saints rookie Reggie Bush to reveal how a draft-day decision can recast the outlook of a team and a season (ouch). And it wasn’t the Bermuda Triangle effect on Eli Manning’s accuracy or the lost kick in the kicking game or inept scheme in every phase.
Instead, incongruity pushed them over the edge.
They began a chant of “Fire Coughlin” only after yet another disconnect between the gospel of the coach and the sins of his players. In a span of 13 seconds during the third quarter, before a 30-7 blowout was fully formed, left tackle Bob Whitfield head-butted a Saint just before center Shaun O’Hara threw another to the turf.
Two flags. Two personal fouls. And one reason to wish Tom Coughlin gone.”
My Giants’ fans friends and I have been scratching our heads for three seasons now about how sports media continue to characterize Coughlin, with a straight face, as a disciplinarian, given how many stupid penalties and self-destructive plays emanate from this team every week. The upshot is a team whose total is much less than the sum of its quite talented parts, the ultimate sign of coaching failure.
But, Roberts has a tendency to harp on the same character issues that many sports media types do, and it steers her off track in her assessment of the disconnect:
“[Giants management] hired Arthur Fiedler to conduct VH1’s “Divas Live.” A mismatch from the beginning is in full bloom now. Coughlin is a throwback coach trying to direct a team built to win today that is assembled with self-consumed players fixated on tomorrow.
This Giants’ season has been one endless audition for football’s afterlife. Kicker Jay Feely has been clearing his throat, angling for whatever ESPN gig is in his future. Michael Strahan saves his voice for a paid appearance with WFAN. And while Coughlin stares holes into game films, Tiki Barber has been simultaneously breaking down film of defenses and Matt Lauer.”
The implication, of course, is that the Giants are more interested in their off-the-field careers than their on-field performances. But, singling out Barber, Feely and Strahan here is simply off-target. Tiki has always been singularly dedicated to his fitness and his craft. His performance, since Coughlin arrived in 2004, has been Hall-of-Fame caliber, and his transformation from a talented, but fumble-prone back into a superstar who never fumbles is arguably the single greatest accomplishment of Coughlin’s coaching tenure. Tiki’s post-retirement plans are, of course, well known. But, he’s still having an outstanding season and his public remarks about his coach, concerning game-planning, seem entirely reasonable criticisms, not the products of a preening, self-absorbed “diva.” Likewise, whatever Jay Feely’s off-field interests, he’s been a very competent and professional kicker in his two years in New York. And, all anyone needs to know about Strahan, the team’s best defensive player for a decade is that they win about as often as the Detroit Lions when he’s injured.
In other words, I dare say none of the Giants’ problems this season, or since 2004, are attributable to the three players Roberts has called out here.
Roberts also rehearses a variant on the “inmates-running-the-asylum” theme:
“And yet the Giants’ dire predicament right now wasn’t entirely unforeseen. Remember, Coughlin was greeted in his first spring on the job with an anonymous pack of Giants who alerted the N.F.L. Players Association about his strict guidelines. The players weren’t whining but sending a message to Coughlin: We’re in control.”
In Coughlin’s first season, his rules for showing up on time to meetings became famous: unless you were five minutes early, you were late. And, some Giants did complain that they were not aware of this rule. But, there’s simply been no evidence in Coughlin’s three years in New York, that his team has disobeyed him. What’s striking about the Giants, in fact, is that for all of the complaining, there has been no rebellion of any kind. No off-the-field issues, no open defiance of the coach, no refusal to abide by Coughlin’s strict dress code, meeting rules or anything else. The Giants’ players have not, as a group, staged a coup against Coughlin. We know they can’t stand the guy, but there’s no meaningful sense in which they’ve substituted their own authority for their coach’s authority. Roberts is simply substituting a larger narrative about the contemporary athlete for an accurate assessment of how the Giants’ organization has been running since 2004.
To be fair, part of Roberts’ claim here is that Coughlin cannot relate to his star players – that for his disciplinarian routine to work, he needs a bunch of no-names like he had when Jacksonville was an expansion team:
“These Giants weren’t Coughlin’s Jaguars, a ragtag bunch collected on the fly for an expansion team, but a group with a strong identity.
“We really had a bunch of misfits,” the former Jaguar Jeff Novak said during an interview in March 2004. “There were a bunch of guys who were marginal players who would do anything and everything to make a club. I was one of those players.
“With an established team like Tom has in New York, quite honestly, there are plenty of guys who are good enough that, if they’re not happy with him, they can go find a job someplace else very quickly.”
But, then Roberts follows up with this out-of-place rumination:
“Other jobs,other careers. Everyone is leaving Coughlin — even General Manager Ernie Accorsi, already in retirement mode.
Whitfield said: “Tiki is not coming back; our G.M. is not coming back. We’re all in some bit of vulnerability in this league.”
The fact is that life in the NFL is insecure for all but the best players in the league. And, like most teams, the Giants have some stars and a bunch of non-stars, toiling for non guaranteed contracts and one injury away from the end of their careers. And, Whitfield’s quote directly contradicts the premise of the previous paragraph – that there’s no meaningful insecurity for the Giants and, by implication, no motivation to play hard for a guy like Coughlin. And, it should be noted that the only high profile Giant who has really performed poorly these past few weeks (Strahan’s been injured) is the quarterback, who rates barely a mention in the column, though his lack of development has been, arguably, the single greatest failing of the Coughlin era.
Roberts is right: Coughlin seems to communicate very poorly with his team. But, it’s not because his star players are prima donnas who don’t care about what happens on the field because they’re too busy preening for other careers. And, it’s not because the players have somehow usurped Coughlin’s authority. There’s simply no evidence for that. And, it’s not because, somehow, back-up lineman like Bob Whitfield, forced into a major role because of a season-ending injury to Left Tackle Luke Petitgout, don’t feel the pressure of the unemployment line to get them to play hard.
Not everything that has happened this year is Coughlin’s fault. The team has been, even relative to the harsh standards of the NFL, slaughtered by injuries this year. And, though the Giants have impressive front line talent, the overall talent level, especially on defense, is not great. And, then there’s the historic trade for Eli in 2004, not Coughlin’s responsibility, which may cost the franchise for years to come. But, Coughlin’s own failings are straightforward enough – his inability to coach his team in such a way that they don’t continue to make costly mistakes. There are plenty of stars on teams like the Colts, Chargers and Ravens, and somehow their coaches have found a way to coax efficiency and intelligence out of the performances of those teams’ stars and non-stars alike.
Roberts has gone fishing for a larger moral of the story here – and it just doesn’t fit the facts.