EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. (AP) -If you're looking for a reason why the New York Giants aren't going to fold down the stretch again this season, start with Tom Coughlin.
Riding a six-game winning streak, there is no doubt the Giants (6-2) are playing well heading into their bye week. They are also healthy. Every opening-game starter is expected to be ready for Dallas on Nov. 11.
What most people don't realize is that for the first time in Coughlin's three-plus-year tenure as coach, there is harmony in the locker room.
Don't think for a moment that the harmony is based on the current record. In his three previous seasons, New York was 5-3, 6-2 and 6-2 at the halfway point, respectively.
Still, there was complaining.
Players hated the coach's ``be there five minutes early'' rules. Some felt he was outcoached after a couple of losses. One player even said he was a donkey at times - to put it politely.
Give the 61-year-old Coughlin credit for not only changing this year, but turning a volatile, dysfunctional group of players into a team.
The retirement of Tiki Barber, his biggest critic, helped. But Coughlin also realized he had to move to the middle ground and he did, establishing a 10-man players council to improve the lines of communication between him and the team.
``One thing that struck me, and frankly concerned me after last season, was the uncertainty of whether or not the players understood the reasons behind many of the decisions I make,'' said Coughlin, who barely kept his job after a second straight first-round playoff loss. ``I wanted a vehicle to assure that they understand why we do many of the things we do.''
So Coughlin formed his council in August, asking punter Jeff Feagles, defensive ends Michael Strahan and Osi Umenyiora, linebackers Antonio Pierce and Mathias Kiwanuka, offensive linemen Shaun O'Hara and David Diehl, receiver Amani Toomer, quarterback Eli Manning and tight end Jeremy Shockey to be part of the group. No one refused.
There is no set schedule for meeting, although it is roughly weekly for about 15 minutes.
``It's kind of like the Batman thing,'' O'Hara quipped. ``You flash the sign in the sky.''
Getting serious, though, O'Hara said Coughlin's willingness to listen is viewed very positively.
``Ultimately he holds the button and he is going to make the last call, but guys have seen that he genuinely cares about what we feel on certain things,'' the center said. ``Obviously, he has his thoughts on the way things should be done, but as players, we appreciate the fact he allows us to have a little bit of a stake in the team and the way things go on.''
Coughlin insists his door was always open to the players. He maintains it still is.
However, not everyone was willing to walk in. Some felt intimidated. Some didn't want to talk to him.
``I just felt that given the circumstances, and the seemingly endless opportunities for unnecessary distractions surrounding this particular team, that we needed to formalize the lines of communication,'' Coughlin said. ``And to the players' credit, they have made it work.
``I have been honest and straightforward with them. They have been honest and straightforward with me; and they have accepted the responsibility of ownership of this team,'' Coughlin said.
Feagles, who has worked under a number of coaches in his 20 NFL seasons, says Coughlin's demeanor and attitude have improved. His approach is now positive.
``He's getting feedback from us, where he doesn't have to go to each individually or hope someone comes to him in his office,'' Feagles said
Some of the issues discussed in the meetings are seemingly minor.
Three weeks ago, Coughlin talked to the group about his plans for this past week's trip to London. The team would practice Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday and then make the trans-Atlantic flight that night. A walkthrough was scheduled for Friday morning, hours after the team arrived.
Over the next three weeks, the message was spread in the locker room.
``I was one of those players who felt we're going to land and we should just go to sleep,'' said Kiwanuka, a second-year pro and the youngest player on the council. ``Looking back now and understanding the time difference and getting on the right schedule, that was huge.''
O'Hara felt the most meaningful change is that Coughlin agreed not to have the team practice in full pads on Wednesdays.
``I think from a mental standpoint that is a pretty big deal for the players,'' O'Hara said. ``They look at the season, with Wednesday and Thursday practices being the grind of the week. Practices aren't any easier, but I think that mental attitude allows players to focus on practice and not what we are wearing.''
Ironically, one would have expected the council to play a big part in the Giants' turnaround after an 0-2 start in which the defense gave up 80 points.
It didn't.
``I never thought we were in a crisis,'' Kiwanuka said. ``We just understood we were making mistakes and those mistakes were burning us and we had to get them corrected. I always thought we were an inch away or one small step away from winning the game.''
Maybe that's part of the positive attitude that Coughlin is now conveying.
Placekicker Lawrence Tynes thinks this is the best locker room he has seen.
``I have never been in meetings where you hear 10 other guys say 'Good job' to someone,'' Tynes said. ``Some guys are scared to speak in those settings. But we go in there and watch film and someone does something good, you hear 10 guys saying, `Good job.' I have never been in a locker room like that, ever. It shows you the type of leadership we have.''
If the Giants are going to compete for a conference title or better, they need to be unified.
``This is one piece of the puzzle, to make sure that we are all moving in the same direction - together, as one, always keeping in mind team first,'' Coughlin said.

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