WASHINGTON — Including a pair of Super Bowls apiece, Mike Shanahan and Tom Coughlin have won a combined 345 games as head coaches in the NFL.
This year, they’re a combined 7-15. Shanahan’s Washington Redskins have lost three in a row. Coughlin’s New York Giants have yo-yoed from losing (six straight) to winning (four straight) to losing again (last week’s home loss to the Dallas Cowboys).
The game will be at night, but it’s hardly a prime-time matchup when the Redskins (3-8) and Giants (4-7) play on Sunday.
“It is tough,” Shanahan said, “when you’re used to winning and go through a very average season.”
Super Bowl wins give coaches quite a cushion to help them survive when things go poorly. The Giants are on pace to finish out of the playoffs for the fourth time in five years, but the NFL titles in the 2007 and 2011 seasons have built enough goodwill for Coughlin to persevere whenever he’s been on the infamous New York hot seat.
Shanahan doesn’t have the same luxury in Washington. His Super Bowl championships came late in the 1990s with the Denver Broncos. The Redskins are on pace to finish last in the NFC East for the third time in four seasons since his arrival. It’s an open question whether he’ll be asked to return next season.
Neither coach appears to have lost the locker room, which goes a long way on the road to survivability. But nothing would help more than a season-ending winning streak when the playoffs are out of reach.
“I think the players are smart enough to understand that if you are 3-8, everybody is playing for their jobs,” Shanahan said. “That’s the nature of our business. I don’t care if it’s players, coaches, support staff.”
Yes, coaches included.
Here are five reasons to pay attention to the first of two down-the-stretch meetings between division rivals trying to avoid the cellar:
ELI & RG3: When a coach is having a tough year, it’s no surprise that his quarterback is, too. New York’s Eli Manning has more interceptions than touchdown passes for the first time since he was a rookie. Washington’s Robert Griffin III has been humbled by defenses after winning the NFL’s Offensive Rookie of the Year award in 2012.
“People, I think, expect immediate success and expect things to happen quickly,” Manning said, “and especially if you kind of can get off to a great start, it’s automatically assumed things will be just as good if not better and better and better. And sometimes it’s not that easy.”
WHAT CAN BROWN DO FOR YOU: A bright spot in recent weeks for the Giants has been Andre Brown, who has returned from a broken leg to rush for 308 yards in three games. He ran for 127 last week against the Dallas Cowboys, averaging 6 yards per carry. The Redskins already have a porous pass defense, so the last thing they need is another hot running back who needs extra attention.
DO THE O-LINE SHUFFLE: This will be the Giants’ 12th game — and their sixth offensive line combo.
The new combination includes Kevin Boothe, who moves back to center after playing most of the season at left guard. James Brewer will fill in at left guard, completing the shuffle necessitated by a season-ending injury to center Jim Cordle. No wonder Manning has been sacked 28 times, two shy of his career high for an entire season.
“It’s not like I haven’t done it before,” said Boothe, who started five games at center in the 2011 Super Bowl season. “I take reps there anyway, so it’s not completely foreign.”
NOT READY FOR PRIME TIME: The NFL was expecting big things from the Redskins and Griffin this season, scheduling them for five prime-time games. So far, they’re 0-4, including last week’s 21-point Monday night loss at home to the San Francisco 49ers. The league could have spared Washington a final shot at national television humiliation by flexing this weekend’s game to Sunday afternoon, but options for a replacement were limited.
MOTIVATION BOWL: With both teams essentially reduced to playing out the string, the game could be more about heart than strategy. This is the type of scenario that tests the motivational skills of coaches like Coughlin and Shanahan.
“We understand we can win these games,” Giants receiver Victor Cruz said, “but we have to go out there and do it in order to keep our belief high and keep our faith high and keep our energy high. I think that is the biggest key for us.”
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