EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - Tom Coughlin's decision to go for it in the 2007 regular-season finale is a big part of his legend. Faced with a meaningless game against a Patriots team trying to complete the NFL's first 16-0 season, the Giants coach decided to risk it all to see if his team could prevent history.
They couldn't, but Coughlin and the Giants earned the respect of everyone around football. And more importantly, the confidence they gained in defeat was the springboard to their own historic championship run.
Looking back, it is remembered as the right decision - a no-brainer for a team that was still struggling to find its way.
But everyone forgets the cost of Coughlin's decision. Three key starters - center Shaun O'Hara (knee), linebacker Kawika Mitchell (knee) and cornerback Sam Madison (abdominal strain) were injured in that game. Two of them - O'Hara and Madison - had to watch in street clothes when the Giants played one week later in the first round.
Obviously the Giants survived and O'Hara returned one week later and Madison was back by the NFC championship and the Giants went on to win Super Bowl XLII. But that doesn't diminish the risk Coughlin took, or the possibility that things very easily could have been worse.
That's why the lesson from 2007 isn't that the Giants should play their starters on Sunday in their meaningless game at Washington. It's that they should sit as many of them as they can, for as long as they can, and keep them out of harm's way.
Of course, almost every player in the Giants locker room disagrees.
"We just want to go out there and play," said receiver Victor Cruz. "You want to have momentum. Obviously winning, mentally, gives you that momentum. It makes you feel like you're ready to go into the postseason."
"You can work on some things that have plagued us," added guard Justin Pugh. "You want to be ascending going into the playoffs and we've got a chance to do that. I think if you start playing not to get hurt, that's when you get hurt."
Those answers were, of course, predictable. Players always say they want to play. Even Eli Manning, who will undoubtedly at least make his 199th consecutive regular-season start on Sunday, wants "to go in there, play well and try to find a good rhythm offensively." That makes some sense and there is some value in that, especially to an offense that has struggled all year long.
But what good is a one-week shot of momentum, one week of maybe the offense finally clicking, if the result is the loss of, say, their best offensive linemen, Justin Pugh who already has been battling a knee injury? Or worse: What if Odell Beckham hurts his hand again or sprains his ankle? After 15 games, is the chance of going into the playoffs on a tiny bit of a roll worth the risk of losing someone like Manning?
Because of the legend of '07 - and the fact that no player in the NFL has been more injury-proof than Manning - no one likes to think that way. Coughlin had two chances to rest starters in a regular-season finale in his tenure. He didn't rest anyone in '07 and everything worked perfectly. He rested players in the second half of the regular season finale in '08 and the Giants ended up flaming out in the first round.
Of course, the '08 team was going down in flames long before then, starting with the moment Plaxico Burress shot himself in the leg. It's a pretty safe bet that their playoff failure had little to do with a Week 17 loss in Minnesota on a last-second field goal after Coughlin pulled most of his starters in the second half.
That team's failure was more about the loss of a key player. So the lesson there should be to do everything possible to not lose a key player at the worst possible time.
"Right, but no player thinks about injuries," said running back Rashad Jennings. "You can't. That's how people do get hurt. This is a good way to end the year with a good taste on how we're running the ball, how we're moving the ball on offense, how we're scoring points. … It's playing to get that win, get that momentum and that taste going into the playoffs on the road."
It's unclear what Ben McAdoo thinks about all this since he hasn't spoken to the media since Friday - before the Giants clinched and their finale was rendered meaningless -- and he didn't address the situation with his players on Tuesday morning. Several players said McAdoo barely mentioned the playoffs to them at all, keeping all the focus on preparing for the Redskins. That led many of them to assume that they are all in with the starters for the full game.
But are they? This will be arguably the biggest decision of McAdoo's short coaching career. His team needs momentum and his offense could use more work, but it's hard to believe it's worth the potential cost. It all worked out for Coughlin nine years ago, but he came very close to a disaster. And that should be the real lesson from Coughlin's legendary decision: Don't ignore the potential cost.
So McAdoo should be careful. He should sit as many key players as he can, hold out everyone dealing with injuries, and get the rest of the starters out by the end of the first half. The momentum the Giants need isn't going to matter if the wrong player gets injured. The risk is just too big, and too important to ignore