It's down to two men. In one corner: wild ideas (not always good ones) and a sense of entitlement to victory. In the other: patience and mistake-free management – a man who outlasts his opponents, more than beats them. No, it's not Gingrich and Romney in the GOP primaries. It's Belichick and Coughlin in the Super Bowl.
At first glance, New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick and New York Giants head coach Tom Coughlin have a lot in common. Both men came up through the National Football League (NFL) ranks as assistants to coaching great Bill Parcells. And like many in the Parcells coaching family tree, both run their programs with obsessive attention to detail and an uncompromising sense of discipline and control.
As coaches, however, the two are different breeds: the conservative Coughlin versus Belichick the gambler. In Super Bowl XLVI, the contrasting styles will be on full display. But beyond the big game, both coaches represent something about how football is evolving, and between the two of them exists an emerging model for the pro football coach of the future.
With his risky, outside-the-box thinking, Belichick may be the future of coaching strategy in an increasingly offensive-minded NFL. But personality-wise, Coughlin's "disciplinarian with a heart" could be the key to success in a game played by millionaires with brittle egos, says Mike Tanier, an analyst for footballoutsider.com.
Coughlin is about rules, first and foremost. During his first NFL head-coaching job with the Jacksonville Jaguars, a player showing up to practice in the wrong color socks would send the meticulous coach into a red-faced screaming fit. When he got to New York, Coughlin famously fined players who didn't show up at least five minutes early to meetings.
But the man nicknamed "Colonel Coughlin" has softened a bit during his tenure with the Giants, and his severe public persona can be forgiven because of his consistency and integrity – especially when the Giants are winning.
"With Coughlin, you know where the doghouse is," says Tanier. "He also won't take a chance on a high-talent guy with a dingbat reputation."
Take wide receiver Plaxico Burress, who damaged the Giants' hopes for a Super Bowl repeat in 2009 when he accidentally shot himself in the leg and was sentenced to two years in prison. When Burress was released and ready to play again, Coughlin had a one-on-one closed meeting with his former receiver "to make sure he was OK, but with no intention of rehiring the guy," Tanier says.
Coughlin's conservative coaching style was on full display during the Giants' playoff run. During the NFC Championship game against the San Francisco 49ers, the Giants punted 12 times and were hesitant to throw the ball deep against a tough 49ers secondary. Eli Manning took six sacks. But instead of forcing big plays and risking turnovers (they had none), the Giants waited for the 49ers to make mistakes. They did. San Francisco's punt returner Kyle Williams fumbled the ball in overtime, setting up the Giants' winning 31-yard field goal. Coughlin's patience had paid off.
Belichick, on the other hand, is not known for being a patient man. With three Super Bowl rings in a decade, he doesn't need to be. Whereas Coughlin's one Super Bowl win hasn't so far excused him from facing endless badgering from the New York press, Belichick puts up with none of it. "There's a degree to which he now doesn't have to pretend that he likes press conferences," Tanier laughs. "He figures he can blow you off."
If Belichick is a rule follower, the rules are his own; they change constantly, and they are far less transparent than Coughlin's. Whereas Coughlin is more of an overseer who lets his coordinators do the play-calling, Belichick has his hands in every part of the Patriots organization. In a press conference last November, he revealed that he has final say on all offensive play-calling. More than that, he has controlled virtually all the Patriots' football operations since general manager Scott Pioli left in 2009.
As a strategist, "The Hoodie" (as Belichick is called because of his wardrobe choices) is known for gutsy offensive attacks, unusual formations, and moves that no play-caller in his right mind would otherwise attempt. Ironically, for a coach who moved up through the NFL as a defensive assistant, his offenses are "attack-minded, not protection-minded," according to Tanier.
But while Belichick's risk-taking looks brilliant in victory, a loss makes it look like ill-advised hubris. In a game against the Indianapolis Colts in 2009, Belichick, up by six points, tried for a first down conversion on fourth and 2 from the Patriots' 28-yard line. He failed, and Peyton Manning and the Colts got the ball back and scored easily, winning the game.
Belichick, though, has superlative quarterback Tom Brady – someone no other coach in the Belichick mold has. "We're seeing the Belichick style more often. Strategy, and risk-taking is going to increase. Trick plays, wide-open offense," Tanier says.
So who will win on Super Bowl Sunday? Each coach will have to take a page from the other, Tanier says.
Belichick will need Coughlin-style discipline on defense. And Coughlin will need big Belichick-style plays on offense.