- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 18, 2004

As far as bosses go, Tom Coughlin is a lot like Darth Vader — only less warm and cuddly. He forbids jewelry and beards. He hands out fines for showing up early for meetings. He doesn’t allow sunglasses to be worn on the sideline and probably would find a way to keep the sun from rising at all, assuming it didn’t result in (a) life on Earth ceasing to exist or (b) the namby-pamby NFL Players Association filing a grievance.

Speaking of which, forget about Coughlin’s players — the no-shades commandment is directed at his assistant coaches. Thumb-sucking film room lollygaggers.

Still, the New York Giants’ chief inquisitor is going about this discipline kick all wrong, at least if early returns are any indication. Sloppy and loose last season, New York opened the Coughlin era with a thud, stumbling badly at Philadelphia last week. Meanwhile, three Giants are working through the union to overturn fines they received for not arriving early enough for a recent morning meeting. Mollycoddled weak-kneed stepsisters.

Clearly, the club hasn’t taken the ol’ ball-and-chain coach’s hard-sell message to heart. Which can only mean one thing:

Coughlin isn’t being tough enough.

Maybe he’s going slack in his dotage (57). Perhaps the addition of rookie guard Chris Snee, Coughlin’s son-in-law, has convinced him to ease up. Could be Coughlin simply forgot to TiVo “The Junction Boys.” Whatever the case, he could stand to stiffen his resolve. And his rules.

Look, there’s a reason Coughlin commandeered his previous teams in the manner of the angry drill instructor from “Full Metal Jacket” — and it’s not because the coach is a Stanley Kubrick fan, even though the social conditioning techniques in “A Clockwork Orange” would seem right up his alley. Nor would it be fair to dismiss Coughlin as woefully out of touch with the anything-goes norms of modern life. Not in a league that still requires players to wear their socks just so.

Fact is, taskmasters like Coughlin know professional football players aren’t as tough as they appear. Sure, the average NFL player will splint a broken wrist, pop a dislocated shoulder back into place, down enough Vicodin to soothe an entire trauma ward — and that’s just during halftime. But excluding Gus Frerotte, will they literally run through a wall? Give every last ounce of effort? Amputate their own forearms with a dull pocketknife to escape a crushing goal-line pileup and take it in for six?

No, no and certainly not. Yet if you aren’t willing to lose a limb, can you really expect to topple the fearsome Arizona Cardinals? The Coughlins of the league grasp this intuitively, understand players aren’t to be treated like grown men but rather like troubled, unruly children. The sort that only respond to two forms of stimulus: fear and electroshock. And since the latter is illegal in all 50 states and Puerto Rico — blame that prissy union again — teams need an unyielding dose of the former.

Take, for instance, Coughlin’s edict that players must wear collared shirts and dress slacks when on the road, even in hotel lobbies. Overcontrolling? No way. Simply put, the coach despises fumbles. And as any running back will tell you, it’s hard to cover the ball with both hands when you’re feverishly planning out the T-shirt-and-sweatpants combo you plan to wear during a 2 a.m. run to the ice machine.

Blue and white? Maroon and gold? Formfitting? Baggy? The choices are overwhelming, enough to short-circuit the smartest ballcarrier. Coughlin eliminates the distraction, wrenching order from wanton, dangerous chaos.

Likewise, Coughlin’s propensity for fining players who come early to meetings makes perfect sense. On the field, opponents don’t conform to a predictable schedule. OK, there’s 2:45 left on the clock, time to run the halfback counter! Why should film study be any different? Come to think of it, Coughlin secretly ought to switch up his designated meeting rooms as well, then punish players who go to the wrong ones. Anything to keep an edge.

Indeed, one glance at Kurt Warner’s dazed yet seething sideline expression last weekend indicates just how much the Giants have yet to learn about hard work and accountability. Coughlin’s prohibition of long hair isn’t doing the trick, even if Jeremy Shockey has been mercifully quiet as of late. The coach needs to take off the kid gloves; Coughlin’s Laws need amending.

No slouching during meetings is good. Strapping players upright into their chairs like Hannibal Lecter would be better. And pinning open their eyelids, a la the aforementioned “A Clockwork Orange”? Oh yeah. Now you’re ready for some football.

Coughlin forbids players from bending over or kneeling while on the field. Fine. But why should they be allowed to stand in place? What’s tough ‘n’ manly about that? Surely a group of focused, committed athletes can pass the time by jogging in small circles, doing jumping jacks, popping off a couple thousand situps. Honestly, this isn’t competitive Scrabble we’re talking about.

In Jacksonville, Coughlin once fined two rookies who were late to practice because they were involved in a minor car accident. The moral? Drive recklessly and you will have to pay off some sort of ticket. Ho-hum. Players need to realize that serious actions have serious consequences, on and off the field. Should the same thing happen in New York, Coughlin ought to take the offending players, put them in another car and smash it against a telephone pole. Let them suffer some real injuries. Whiplash — and life lessons — absorbed. Bet they won’t speed again.

Of course, some slack-spined milksops likely would object to a sterner, more controlling Coughlin, same as the league and the players association took issue with the coach violating the rules for time limits on offseason workouts. Boo-hoo. Let them whimper. The Giants need all the help they can get, and swaddling Eli Manning in a flak jacket isn’t going to cut it.

Besides, it’s not like Coughlin is actually worse than Darth Vader. Remember: The big, bad movie villain used to choke his underlings. In the real world, everyone knows the only coach who can get away with that is Bob Knight.

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