PALM BEACH, Fla. (AP) -Carolina Panthers coach John Fox hugged Tom Coughlin as they both were checking into the luxury hotel where the NFL meetings took place this week.
As the week progressed, nearly every owner and coach offered the New York Giants coach congratulations on winning the Super Bowl - and, in the process, taking down Bill Belichick and his previously unbeaten Patriots, one of the least popular coaches and teams in NFL history.
That's incredible, considering that a year ago, the odds of Coughlin even being at the 2007 meetings were less than 50-50.
``Insecurity goes with the job,'' the Giants coach said Wednesday morning. ``Every one of us knows that's the business.''
Still, this is a different Coughlin. The coach who always seemed as stoic in winning as in losing, is basking in the adulation he and his players are getting for one of the most unexpected victories in NFL history.
An example of how unexpected it was: ``The Giants are not the Patriots yet. Not even close.'' That's what I wrote Oct. 21 in a generally positive column about Coughlin's team after it won five straight games following an 0-2 start.
The Coughlin phenomenon, especially as it has played out at this week's meetings, is fascinating. It includes his willingness to discuss how he has changed from a martinet into a man whose players now truly seem to like and respect him.
He talked about that Wednesday, saying he reflected on how to change last season after the Giants started 6-2, finished 8-8 and lost a playoff game to Philadelphia with a locker room filled with me-first players and malcontents. Coughlin almost lost his job then, and the prevailing opinion going into the 2007 season was he was no more than a one-year placeholder on a team unlikely to finish better than .500.
``After every season, I sit back and reflect on what I did and how I can improve as a coach,'' he said. ``After last season, I decided my demeanor had to be different. I bit my tongue a few times, but I communicated better with my team.''
Not easy for a 60-year-old with 11 mostly successful seasons as an NFL coach. But necessary, as he put it, ``if this wasn't going to be my last season.''
In many ways, the results seemed a surprise even to Coughlin.
After allowing 80 points in those first two losses, the Giants won six straight, mostly against second-tier teams. They seemed to be good enough to make the playoffs, but not a real challenger. In other words ``not the Patriots,'' a team on its way to a 16-0 regular season.
The Giants clinched a playoff berth in the next-to-last game in Buffalo with big plays from unexpected players who ended up playing huge roles in the playoffs. Rookie Ahmad Bradshaw ran 88 yards for a touchdown and cornerback Corey Webster, an underachiever for most of his three seasons, intercepted a pass and returned it for a score.
That win should have allowed Coughlin to rest key players for the regular-season finale against the Patriots, who needed a victory to become the first team to finish the regular season unbeaten since the 1972 Dolphins.
``I thought about it on the way home,'' Coughlin said. ``I thought about the benefits we could get if we played everyone, and I decided that was the way to go.''
It was. The Giants lost 38-35, but in the process gained the mettle they needed for the playoffs. Quarterback Eli Manning, inconsistent all year, had four touchdown passes and seemed to gain the confidence he lacked throughout the early part of his career. Tom Brady, Coughlin noted, made a point of telling Manning after the game how well he had played.
But what seemed to make Coughlin's week was a message he received from a Hall of Fame coach: ``I had a voice mail from John Madden telling me that's how the game is supposed to be played,'' he said.
In the playoffs, the Giants won 24-14 in Tampa, then upset Dallas, with the key drive coming in the last 46 seconds of the first half. Manning drove the Giants the length of the field for a touchdown after the Cowboys had used up 10 minutes on a dominating TD drive of their own.
Then they beat Green Bay in overtime in a frigid NFC championship game, their 10th straight road win, with Webster intercepting the last pass of Brett Favre's career to set up the winning field goal.
``It was everybody contributing, including the least expected people,'' Coughlin noted, citing the circus catch by David Tyree, basically a special teams player, that set up the winning touchdown in the Super Bowl; a critical fumble recovery by kick returner Domenik Hixon in Green Bay; another recovery by Bradshaw in the Super Bowl; and the contributions of seven rookies, notably Bradshaw, wide receiver Steve Smith, and tight end Kevin Boss, who replaced the injured Jeremy Shockey.
But it also was Coughlin's focus, his determination and ability to adjust his personality and galvanize what had been a largely out-of-control locker room in 2006. That earned everyone's respect.
``They lost twice to us, they lost to Green Bay and they lost to New England in the regular season,'' said Dallas coach Wade Phillips, who after the Giants beat his team in the playoffs suggested the better team had lost. ``Then they beat all three of us when it counted. Tom just did an outstanding job. He's an outstanding coach and he had an outstanding team.''
Something no one would have imagined a year ago.

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