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Coaches have adapted to relieve pressure

By JOANNE KORTH, Times Staff Writer
Published January 6, 2008


When the season began, the Giants' Tom Coughlin and the Bucs' Jon Gruden were sitting rather uncomfortably on the hot seat, atop the list of NFL coaches whose jobs were in jeopardy.

Coughlin, coming off consecutive wild-card losses, was given a one-year extension for 2007, hardly a resounding endorsement. Gruden, the shine long off the Super Bowl XXXVII trophy, was coming off a 4-12 year, his third losing season in four years and the team's worst record since 1991.

Look at them now.

The Giants and Bucs meet today in an NFC wild-card game at Raymond James Stadium, with the winning coach likely to receive a multimillion-dollar contract extension.

How did they do it?

They adapted.

Again. And again. And again. Some of their better moves:

 

Adding the shotgun

The Bucs offense averaged a paltry 270.1 yards per game in 2006. Quarterbacks Chris Simms, Bruce Gradkowski and Tim Rattay were plagued by collapsing pockets, tipped passes and costly turnovers. Yet the Bucs were the only team in the league not to use the shotgun formation - because it wasn't part of Gruden's offense. When offseason workouts began, the Bucs had a new quarterback, veteran Jeff Garcia, and a new formation. The shotgun quickly became a staple in Gruden's 2007 playbook.

Resting the elders

Realizing how many of his key players were veterans - including linebackerDerrick Brooks, cornerbackRonde Barber and wide receiverJoey Galloway - Gruden adapted his typically grueling training camp regimen to allow the 30-and-older crowd frequent breaks. Rarely did veterans practice twice a day. Older players stayed fresh, and younger players had increased repetitions during practice.

Addressing the troops

Shortly after the end of 2006, Gruden made it clear that he was not the only one on the hot seat. He approached longtime Bucs such as linebackerDerrick Brooks and cornerback Ronde Barber and challenged them to do more, on and off the field. By opening the lines of communication, Gruden created a strong sense of unity.

Playing with pain

As of today, the Bucs have 14 players on injured reserve, including running backCadillac Williams and left tackleLuke Petitgout. Gruden confidently plugged in unheralded players such as running backEarnest Graham and left tackleDonald Penn, and he expected them to perform like starters. Meanwhile, he continued to adapt the practice schedule, minimizing the team's work during the week to maximize performance on game day.

Adapting to setbacks

Coughlin seemed ready to start the season issue-free. Then veteran defensive endMichael Strahan staged a four-week holdout, supposedly mulling retirement, and former running backTiki Barber, a newly hired NBC analyst, accused quarterbackEli Manning of poor leadership skills. Coughlin calmly supported his quarterback and prepared Justin Tuck in Strahan's absence. When Strahan returned one week before the opener, Coughlin welcomed him. When the Giants started 0-2, prompting New York media to call for Coughlin's job, he appealed to Strahan and the defense. Led by the front four, the Giants won six straight.

Mending fences

The biggest criticism of Coughlin during his first two seasons in New York was his chilly personality. A strict disciplinarian, Coughlin fined wide receiver Plaxico Burress for being on time to a meeting because Coughlin expected players to be five minutes early. Tiki Barber and tight end Jeremy Shockey criticized Coughlin, questioning his game plans after losses. Although he remains mystified by the gaps in communication, Coughlin created a players council, made up of respected veterans, to better understand the players' needs and improve communication. "He's better at making the players a part of the decisions that are made and a part of the fabric of the team," defensive endMichael Strahan said. "He's done a great job adjusting to us in that way."

Trying to win

With the fifth seed secure, Coughlin faced a difficult decision in the final week. The Giants were the last opponent between the Patriots and a 16-0 season, and Coughlin could risk injury to key players by trying to win or rest starters for the upcoming playoff game. Several other coaches, including Gruden, rested starters in Week 17. Coughlin did the unexpected, playing his starters throughout and nearly pulling off the upset. Although New York lost 38-35, Coughlin's team enters the playoffs with renewed confidence.