By Christian S. Kohl
While the showdown between Tom Brady and Eli Manning will likely grab the majority of headlines in anticipation of the upcoming Super Bowl, the battle will be led by the two sideline generals, Tom Coughlin and Bill Belichick. This presents perhaps one of the most fascinating coaching duels yet seen in a Super Bowl, as the two approach the game in entirely different ways.
One could argue since the two are seeing one another again in a rematch that the battle isn’t new or interesting. However, Belichick’s commitment to trying absolutely anything and everything to win translates to plays, formations, and entire teams with features the game seldom if ever sees elsewhere.
If any evidence suggests trying something new will help win games, Belichick does it. He runs the hurry-up offense more or less the entire game. In specific situations, he’ll punt on third down … with his quarterback. He lines one of his tight ends up in the backfield and routinely hands the ball off to him. Julian Edelman plays on every side of the ball as a wide receiver, defensive back, and kick returner. On defense, you see anything and everything from a group that isn’t statistically elite, but is willing to risk failure to bridge that gap by trying bizarre alignments and formations. You’ll see every time and again, for example, 11 men on the defensive side for New England, none of whom have their hand on the ground.
Most importantly with respect to the difference between the two coaches, Belichick’s style is entirely reactive. His game plan will change completely from one week to the next, attempting to isolate favorable matchups and schemes against a particular team. If your team can handle Welker, but not Hernandez, the tight end’s targets skyrocket from the outset and that end of the playbook is used until a defense adjusts.
Conversely, Tom Coughlin seems to buy into absolutely none of this. Instead of ingenuity and experimentation, he preaches fundamentals, physical play, the ground game, and a commitment to a fixed team strategy. Like it or not, whether you can beat it or not, the Giants do what they do. Their ground and passing game is balanced, and they are very conscious of the value of limiting turnovers on offense and maximizing them on defense. You’ve seen everything they do, and you’ve seen it for 16 weeks. Their offensive flow is methodical and is dictated by conventional wisdom. They play in the hurry-up during the two-minute drill and late in the game from behind, but aside from that, they will stick to the philosophy of controlling momentum and time of possession by marching the ball up the field. The Giants look to win hard-fought battles by a possession or two after executing what they define as New York Giant football. New England looks to fluidly adjust their strategy by the week and win by fifty as a decisive proof of concept.
The styles of these two coaches could not be any more different, and from a strategic standpoint, they share more or less nothing in common. The only trait these two possess which is similar concerns their facial expressions. You can tell by looking at either coach, at any point in the game, who is winning, or who has won the game. Coughlin, hands on hips and red in the face, appears as incredulous and indignant after a miraculous come-from-behind win as he does when they lose a crucial game due to foolish and sloppy mistakes. Belichick looks stoic and a bit peeved regardless of outcome, ever the poker player attempting to hold a fixed expression and not betray any emotion about what has occurred or what is yet to come.
Belichick’s creativity pitted against Coughlin’s fundamentals shape this battle to be even more hotly contested than their previous encounter. The physical, overpowering nature of New York’s defensive line will make for a thrilling match against Brady’s quick release and Belichick’s high percentage play designs. No matter what the outcome, however, there is one thing we know for certain: who wins the game will be impossible to determine at any point simply by looking at the face of either head coach.