It would have felt so right, the New England Patriots and the Pittsburgh Steelers facing off in the AFC championship game: two worthy adversaries—if not necessarily straight-up rivals—with their enviable old-timey football pedigrees, their future Hall of Fame quarterbacks, their respective large adult scamps, and their conference dominance and stability for more than a decade. Instead, following the Jaguars’ wild and outrageously high-scoring 45-42 divisional-round win over the Steelers this past weekend, the Patriots will play host to a very different breed of NFL franchise.
If the Patriots are Judge Smails, the Jaguars are Al Czervik. Jacksonville’s quarterback is a too-easy punch line, and the team’s very existence is the subject of a running gag on a wacky NBC sitcom. The Jaguars’ teal ’n’ gold vibes serve as an ongoing reminder that the franchise may never fully escape its mid-’90s expansion team roots. Though years of overseas games in London have been useful branding exercises that have yielded, among other things, a British fan club pleasingly called the “Union Jax,” the stateside Jaguars have struggled to cultivate and maintain their domestic fan base. And understandably so: When Jacksonville won this year’s AFC South with a 10-6 record and earned a postseason berth, it ended a nine-year playoff drought.
In other words, the Jaguars don’t exactly boast a work history that would cause much/any worry for the self-assured five-time Super Bowl champion Patriots. But they do employ one man whose résumé might: Tom Coughlin. It is Coughlin, now 71, who was head coach both times the underdog New York Giants defeated the Patriots in the Super Bowl, following the 2007 and 2011 seasons.
It is Coughlin whose familiarity and friendship with Patriots coach Bill Belichick dates back much farther than that: Both men were assistants on Bill Parcells’s 1990 Giants staff when the team won the Super Bowl in a game that featured Whitney Houston singing the national anthem, the New Kids on the Block performing at halftime, and Scott Norwood missing an end-of-game field goal wide right. (In the lead-up to that game, when a reporter asked Coughlin if he’d spare a few minutes for an interview, he suggested getting together at 5:30 a.m.)
And it is Coughlin who Jacksonville owner Shad Khan brought in prior to this season to take on a top-level role as head of football operations for the then-floundering Jaguars; Coughlin who made the elimination of locker room ping-pong one of his early priorities, as he once had in New York; Coughlin who looked during training camp like a man combing a beach with a metal detector; and Coughlin who will now be watching on Sunday as a revitalized Jacksonville team tries to prevent the Patriots from pursuing a second set of back-to-back titles. It was just over two years ago that the Giants, looking for a fresh start, essentially forced Coughlin out of the organization, much to the teary chagrin of Eli Manning. Now his past glories in New York are being dredged up as evidence that he’s some sort of anti-Belichick whisperer with a potent, neutralizing influence on Tom Brady’s thumb and/or mind. Coughlin’s reputation has long preceded him, but can he live up to this impossible hype?
Shahid Khan and Tom Coughlin share a moment postgame pic.twitter.com/4ev2qgCImD— Sports Illustrated (@SInow) January 7, 2018
“Tom Coughlin is the Patriots’ boogeyman,” warned a headline in The Boston Globe on Sunday, after both the Pats and Jags had advanced to the AFC championship game. The Washington Post referred to Coughlin as “the Patriots’ Kryptonite,” the same descriptor used by the New York Post and NFL.com. In a segment on his program The Herd on Tuesday, Fox Sports’ Colin Cowherd ran through a historical litany of men whose success and influence on the football field had shaped the game itself. He named Paul Brown, Vince Lombardi, Bill Walsh, Parcells, Jimmy Johnson, and Belichick—and then he brought up Coughlin, who “is not going to be mentioned but should be. … [He] is every bit Belichick. He just didn’t have Brady, OK?”
Coughlin’s bona fides, Cowherd argued, included his two Super Bowl wins over New England, when his Giants held the mighty Patriots to 14 and 17 points, respectively, and summoned the football gods to help out with some important catches, but also an entire other portfolio of proven results, from his days at Boston College to his previous tenure with the brand-new Jaguars to his recent return to the team in an oversight role. The Jaguars hadn’t won more than five games in a season since 2010; last year, they went 3-13. But after drafting running back Leonard Fournette in the first round this offseason and signing free-agent defensive lineman Calais Campbell before that—“I really liked Tom Coughlin,” Campbell told Sports Illustrated after inking the deal, “He’s a future Hall of Famer, so no conversation was needed”—the Jaguars surged to double-digit wins this fall. (This time, it was Coughlin’s former Giants who turned in a dismal 3-13 campaign.)
Fournette rushed for more than 1,000 yards and bought Rolexes for all his offensive linemen. Campbell put up a career-high 14.5 sacks for the Jaguars defense, which finished second in the NFL in the category (despite not blitzing very much); the Jaguars began employing the hashtag #Sacksonville. After finishing with seven team interceptions last season, worst in the league, they were the second-best team this year with 21. In the first round of the playoffs, against the Buffalo Bills, second-year corner Jalen Ramsey, who picked off four passes in the regular season, intercepted Bills backup quarterback Nathan Peterman late in the game to seal the postseason victory.
CBS cameras that panned up to Jaguars management during that win captured general manager Dave Caldwell and team analytics chief Tony Khan fidgeting and fist-pumping in ties and overcoats—and Coughlin seated next to them in a team-issued warm-up jacket, hastily scribbling notes, a stone-faced septuagenarian Jaguar caught in his natural habitat.
A week later, a flurry of reports from the Heinz Field press box spoke of a similar Coughlin demeanor as he watched his team narrowly escape with a win over the Steelers after nearly blowing a significant early lead.
“If you think he’s happy with the Jaguars currently up 21-0,” wrote ESPN’s Jeff Darlington, “not even close. Absolutely ripping into the team every chance he gets.” Newsday characterized Coughlin as “a nervous wreck, muttering to himself throughout the game and even cursing as his team survived.” Sports Illustrated described Coughlin as “trying to limit his swearing whenever Jacksonville made mistakes, trying—and failing—to control what the reporters who surrounded him could overhear.” The New York Post noted that at one point, Coughlin had to be shushed by Caldwell.
None of this came as too much of a surprise to anyone who had followed Coughlin and his emotions over the years. Coughlin’s wife, Judy, told Sports Illustrated that during a house move in the early ’80s, her husband was so irked by an unkempt lawn that he demanded the realtor send over a lawn crew immediately, which produced the annoying result of filling the new house with blown-in grass clippings as furniture was carried in the open doors. (After that, she booked movers to come while her husband was at work: “Things go much smoother when he’s not around.”) When Coughlin took over as head coach at Boston College, his new regime was such that “a lot of kids quit,” then-quarterback Glenn Foley told Sports Illustrated in 1992.
But it was as Jags head coach in the ’90s that Coughlin was arguably at his quirky despot peak. “He was a tyrant, a dictator, a sadist,” according to a half-in-jest L.A. Times piece in 1997. “He was the Marquis de Sade with a whistle, Attila the Hun with headphones, Gen. George Patton on the sidelines.” Things he hated and banned included sunglasses (he wanted to be able to look people right in the eye), white socks with sneakers (“I just hate that look,” he told SI in 1999; “that looks like you’re Joe Lobby or some kind of tourist”), and being on time for things (the goal was to always be early). When two Jaguars rookies were in a 1999 car crash on their way to a team meeting, they were so nervous about how Coughlin would react that they called a team security official to drive them to the meeting before they sought medical attention.
During a couple of rough early years with the Giants, particularly an 8-8 season in 2006 that ended with a playoff loss to the Eagles, players including Tiki Barber and Jeremy Shockey publicly called his tactics into question, and Giants management reportedly delivered a similar message behind closed doors. “I don’t like words like ‘react’ and ‘change’ and ‘lighten up,’” Coughlin said in 2008, asked about how he had started to do all three. He preferred to say, in classic football coach terms, that he made adjustments. His inner grandpa shone through more often; he dressed like a priest on Casual Friday during his first Super Bowl parade as head coach and like an autumn golfer at the second one; he had the coaching staff look into mindfulness training.
But he never became a total softie. In 2010, after the Giants gave up a three-touchdown lead to the Eagles, the kinder-gentler-softer version of Coughlin exploded at punter Matt Dodge with a fire and fury like the world had never seen. The next day, the Giants head coach was asked what he did after the game. “What did I do?” he replied. “I sat in a room with the lights out for about two and a half hours.”
It’s been only a few days since the Jaguars advanced, and Bostonians have already grown weary of hearing about Coughlin and his alleged Patriots voodoo. Which is fair: This year’s Patriots roster is a decade removed from the one that played the Giants in Arizona, for starters, and Coughlin is not even the head coach of the Jaguars. That’s Doug Marrone’s job.
“I’ve leaned on Coach pretty good since Day One,” Marrone said of Coughlin on Wednesday, but admitted that he hadn’t seen those old Giants-Patriots matchups, anyway. “If I’m not in the Super Bowl, I usually don’t watch it, unless I have to,” he said. Belichick—who has, in the past, been generous with praise for Coughlin; they are in many ways peas in a pod—was in classic shutdown mode when asked about his friend and foe. “Yeah, I don’t know,” he deflected. “I look at the team.”
Belichick's face when asked about Tom Coughlin. pic.twitter.com/GErsmmoBnp— Matt (@McCefali) January 17, 2018
According to NFL Research, this weekend’s game is the fourth time since 1990 where the league’s top passing team and the league’s best pass defense have met in the playoffs; in those games, the defensive side has gone 3-0. On the other hand, however, the Jaguars didn’t really look like the league’s best anything last weekend. As Boston.com’s Eric Wilbur pointed out, “despite allowing 42 points to the Steelers last Sunday, we’re supposed to make no mistake about the ferocity of this Jacksonville defense.” The Jaguars’ quarterback is Blake Bortles; the Patriots have Tom Brady. It could very easily be as simple as that.
Former Giants David Carr and Shaun O’Hara pointed out on the NFL Network earlier this week that one of Coughlin’s most important influences on the 2007 championship team was his restraint: When the team’s defensive coordinator, Steve Spagnuolo, “want[ed] to do these elaborate defenses,” Carr recalled, “Coughlin immediately shut that down,” and his goal was to keep things simple rather than try to outsmart the Patriots. But on game day this weekend, in the moment, there isn’t really much Coughlin can do from up on press row: scribbling in his notepad won’t move the needle. And even if he were down on the sidelines, that’s no guarantee that players would listen: When the Giants beat the Packers in a 2007 NFC championship game that featured a windchill below minus-20 degrees, Coughlin’s stubbornly uncovered face grew so shiny-apple-red and distracting that Manning later told a teammate he “didn’t pay attention to a word Coach said because of how red his cheeks were.” Maybe Coughlin being up in the press box 10 years later, fuming and scoffing, will yield the same results after all.