For the first time in about a decade, the "NFL’s best head coach" title is legitimately up for debate.
Ever since the New England Patriots won three out of four Super Bowls (XXXVI, XXXVIII and XXXIX) in the early 2000s, Bill Belichick has been widely accepted as the league’s best head coach. However, with the Giants’ most recent Super Bowl victory, head coach Tom Coughlin has thrust himself into the conversation.
Very few consider Coughlin a “football guru” as they do Belichick. In his 12 seasons as the Patriots head coach, Belichick has compiled a regular-season winning percentage of .724 and has appeared in five Super Bowls. Coughlin hasn’t enjoyed that type of prolonged success in his 16-year head-coaching career, but his performance as of late leads us to believe that he is well on his way to usurping Belichick’s title as the league’s finest coach.
The Giants ushered in the Coughlin-Manning era in 2004, and since then (with the exception of the '04 season), the head coach has never had a losing season. His winning percentage with the Giants (.578) and Super Bowl appearances (two) pale in comparison to Belichick’s totals. However, Coughlin may be the Tim Tebow of head coaches, as it seems to be his intangibles that always lead his team to victory.
Excluding factors that are out of the coach’s control (that throws away the “Coughlin competes in a much tougher NFC East division” and “Belichick has always had all-time-great Tom Brady at quarterback” arguments), we are left with three major factors that make Coughlin a better coach than Belichick.
Head-to-Head Super Bowls
The most obvious argument to make in Coughlin’s favor would be his performance in head-to-head Super Bowl matchups.
Belichick started off 3-0 in the big game with Super Bowl victories over St. Louis in 2001, Carolina in 2003 and Philadelphia in 2004. But in the past five seasons, Belichick has gone toe-to-toe with Coughlin twice with the Lombardi Trophy on the line, only to fall short on both occasions.
In both Super Bowls, Coughlin was able to find a way to neutralize Brady’s All-Pro talent while Belichick failed to find a solution to the Giants’ vaunted pass rush. In 2007, Coughlin’s Super Bowl victory may have come off as a fluke, but when he did it again in 2011, it became much more apparent that he may just have Belichick’s number.
In professional sports, we rarely get the opportunity to witness two of the game’s best square up against each other—NFL fans have now been privileged with the epic Coughlin-Belichick matchup on two separate occasions.
When Coughlin came over from Jacksonville, he brought with him a drill-sergeant mentality. He preached discipline and made it very clear that he would not be tolerating any insubordination.
On one occasion, he even fined defensive end Michael Strahan $1,000 for showing up two minutes early to a team meeting instead of five.
However, some players grew weary with Coughlin’s demanding approach to the game, and by the end of the 2006 season, his popularity with the team was plummeting. Coughlin knew that if he wanted to keep his job, he needed to make a change.
That change came the following season when Coughlin decided to show a little bit more of his compassionate side. The change made Coughlin a more approachable figure, allowing for a lighter, more comfortable locker room.
Coughlin’s adaptation led to the franchise’s first Super Bowl victory in 17 years. Since then, we’ve heard far less complaining about the head coach’s strict personality.
The truth is that Coughlin—or any head coach of any sports team located in New York for that matter—has faced more scrutiny than any other head coach. It would be difficult to find another coach who has been on and off the hot seat more than Coughlin.
But it is his ability to consistently right the ship that always ends up saving his job. Coughlin attributes much of his success to always being prepared, which is why his new book is titled Earn The Right To Win: How Success in Any Field Starts with Superior Preparation.
When faced with adversity, there may be no better leader in the NFL than Coughlin.
Getting His Team to Outperform Expectations
Belichick’s Patriots have been one of the NFL’s most dominant teams ever since he took over as head coach. In fact, the Patriots have had so much success under Belichick that everyone expects them to compete deep into the playoffs—anything less is considered a failure.
This is in no way a knock on Belichick; if anything, he should be commended for instilling a winning tradition in New England. However, his team has come up short on two mammoth occasions, while Coughlin has established a track record for coming up huge when the chips are stacked against his team.
In 2007, Coughlin’s Giants finished the regular season with a 10-6 record, earning themselves a bid in the postseason tournament as a No. 6 seed. They went on an improbable playoff run to knock off Tampa Bay (9-7) in the Wild Card round, Dallas (13-3) in the Divisional round and Green Bay (13-3) in the NFC Championship. The Giants won each of these games on the road.
He then capped off the historic run with a 17-14 Super Bowl victory over the then-undefeated Patriots. The victory brought Belichick and Brady, who were considered football demigods at the time, crashing back down to Earth.
Then, not to be outdone by his ’07 effort, Coughlin and his Giants repeated the feat only four years later.
In 2011, the team finished 9-7, barely squeaking into the playoffs thanks to a divisional title in an uncharacteristically uncompetitive NFC East. Once again, the Giants rolled through the playoffs, this time topping Atlanta (10-6) in the Wild Card round, Green Bay (15-1) in the Divisional round and finally San Francisco (13-3) in the NFC Championship. Again, Coughlin’s team overcame all odds on their road to Super Bowl XLVI.
As fate would have it, the Giants and Patriots met again in a rematch of the 2007 Super Bowl. Belichick, who was determined to avenge the ’07 upset, ultimately fell short despite being heavily favored for a second straight time. The unlikely Giants were named World Champions once again.
The Giants have a knack for playing their best ball when it matters most, and I think a lot of that has to do with Coughlin's motivation techniques.
So Who is the Best NFL Coach?
It’s tough to pick only one of these coaches as the best the NFL has to offer. I believe that if they both retired today, Belichick would be a first-ballot Hall of Famer, and Coughlin would not. Belichick’s winning legacy is almost unmatched, and although Coughlin may be gaining on him, at 66-years-old, it’s unlikely that he’ll ever be able to completely close the gap between them.
That being said, I think that Coughlin is the better coach at this point in time. His flawless preparation, ability to adapt in the face of adversity and motivational tactics make him an all-around better coach. The evidence to support this claim can be found in the form of two shiny Super Bowl rings on Coughlin’s fingers.
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