Sullivan: Coughlin has warm memories of cold Green Bay

Tara Sullivan
Sports Columnist, @Record_Tara
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Giants coach Tom Coughlin during the NFC Championship game against the Packers on Jan. 20, 2008, in Green Bay, Wis.

Out of the Green Bay tunnel he jogged, just like he did before every game he coached for the Giants, hitting the field for a half-hour pregame visit while players around him warmed up. Only this was 2007, in January, in the frigid Wisconsin air, and there was no warmth to be had. Not when you put only a baseball cap on your head, when you neglect to put gloves on your hands, when you put your regular football routine ahead of every weather warning you’ve heard across preparations for an NFC Championship game that will be played with the mercury well below freezing.

“I went out on the field like I normally would before the game, like I do each week, and right away I’m thinking, ‘How in the hell am I going to get back inside?’ ” Tom Coughlin recalled in a Tuesday evening phone call from his Bergen County home. “If you have ears like these, you’ve got to cover them up or they’re going to break off.”

Coughlin didn’t surrender any body parts to the weather gods that day, and with a slightly more forgiving forecast on tap for the Giants’ newest playoff trip to Green Bay this Sunday, it seems unlikely current coach Ben McAdoo will, either. But if McAdoo is wiser to the ways of Green Bay’s cruel winters, having cut his coaching teeth as a longtime Packers assistant coach, it is Coughlin who wrote the book on winning road playoff games at Lambeau Field.

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That both of Coughlin’s Super Bowl runs drove straight through Green Bay — the 2007 title game and again in the 2011 divisional game — is memorable enough in franchise lore. With the Giants starting their first playoff adventure since winning it all five years ago by heading back to Green Bay, it has brought all those memories to the fore. Coughlin is careful not to step into a conversation on the chances this 2016 team could duplicate what his teams did in the past, too respectful of the work his former offensive coordinator McAdoo has done in building his own rapport with the roster. Nor was he interested in commenting on his job status or whether he might make a return to coaching himself, having reportedly interviewed in Jacksonville. This was a conversation for memories. And those, he was more than willing to let come flooding in. Most of them freeze midstream.

“They’re vivid, too,” Coughlin said. “I can tell you the flavor of the chicken broth they had, there with the coffee and tea. In my mind it’s all very vivid.

“For us in ’07 and in ’11, the road went through Green Bay and there was no way around it. To advance and go where you wanted to, you have to get through Green Bay. In ’07 it was, what, minus-27 degrees? In 2011 it was like 19 degrees or something. It was like a heat wave. You’re rolling the dice on what you’re going to get in those conditions. But the thing of it is you’re so focused you really don’t notice.”

What you do notice are things like Eli Manning, your young quarterback morphing before your eyes into the calmest, coolest postseason cat around, throwing the ball “like it was 75 degrees.” What you do notice is your mercurial top wide receiver Plaxico Burress, completely removing weather distraction from his brain and dominating the game with 150-plus yards. You notice your embattled kicker Lawrence Tynes, owner of two straight misses in the fourth quarter, making good on his second second chance, booting a no-doubt 47-yarder in overtime. You notice the eyes of your leader and linebacker Antonio Pierce, glowing with the knowledge he is Super Bowl-bound. You notice your extended family still gathered outside the locker room, sharing in your joy.

And that was only 2007.

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“From the first snap, it was a very physical game, one of the first runs, [Brandon] Jacobs over Charles Woodson,” Coughlin said. “The field position was so important. We had to dig out of a hole. For us to be in the position we were in at the end, with Lawrence, missing from 43 yards, the bad snap [on the 36-yarder as time was expiring], I thought, ‘Well that’s going to be the game. That was a chip shot.’ The game goes into overtime, we lose the toss but we get the interception on the [second] play. But we didn’t gain a yard, nothing in three snaps. I remember in the first quarter, I asked Lawrence, ‘Can you make a 46-yard field goal?’ and he turned his back and walked away. This is a 47-yarder to get you in the Super Bowl? I don’t say anything. He drops his cape and goes out on the field. So I say, “Field goal!” The coaches are yelling, ‘No! We’re going to lose the field position and lose the game.’ ”

Tynes had taken the decision out of Coughlin's hands. “I ran out there. No one said field goal, I have no snapper, no holder,” the kicker said in a phone call from his Kansas City home. “I see [holder/punter] Jeff [Feagles] talking to coach Coughlin, and he finally said field goal.”

Tynes would make another huge kick four years later, clinching another Super Bowl trip with a game-winner in San Francisco, but nothing compared with Green Bay.

“There was just so much emotion in the Packer game. I made two, I missed two, and then ‘Oh [crap], this one is even farther.’ Coach didn’t even want to take it.”

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He took it, he made it, and he wouldn’t kick a football for another 10 days. In fact, had the Super Bowl been one week later rather than two, he wouldn't have been able to play. That’s how much damage the cold weather inflicted on his foot, leaving darkened blood vessels that remain to this day.

Coach Tom Coughlin smiles as he stands in the locker room with players Michael Strahan, left, and Eli Manning, after their 23-20 overtime win over the Green Bay Packers in 2008.

The memories are just as permanent for anyone involved in those games.

“In 2011, I remember the [Ahmad] Bradshaw play before the half, the field position, his smarts in getting out of bounds, the Hail Mary [to Hakeem Nicks],” Coughlin said. “That really was a blow to their team, that we were able to do that in that amount of time, and Bradshaw getting out of bounds got us into position so we were able to do that, that we’d saved enough time. It was another game where we knew we got to go through Green Bay. It’s funny, in ’07, New England beat us 38-35 in the regular season. In 2011 Green Bay beat us 38-35 in the regular season.

“And here we are, we’ve got to play our way through the first round [at home against Atlanta], go to Green Bay, go up there and play Aaron Rodgers, this prolific scoring team. But we were peaking at the right time. That was an important aspect of the game.”

Maybe it will be a vital component for this team, too. For Coughlin, those discussions are better left to others. This was a day for his own Green Bay memories, even ones that still make him shiver.

In those pre-kick hours in 2007, the coach knew the mistake he’d made. As soon as he did get back inside — pinching his ears just to keep them from freezing, stuffing his balled fists into his pockets just to keep his blood pumping — he added as many layers as he could find.

But still he left his face uncovered. By halftime, the equipment crew convinced him to apply the Vaseline-like compound to keep warmth in, leaving the red streaks that have since become legendary. Almost as legendary as the games themselves.

E-mail: sullivan@northjersey.com

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