EAST RUTHEFORD, N.J. – The Giants yesterday played one of the most exciting and memorable games in their recent history, a last-second 38-35 loss to the undefeated Carolina Panthers in which, for the first time in their history, they rallied to tie the score after trailing by 28 points. But to coach Tom Coughlin and the players, the game will be remembered for the wrong reasons.
Star wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. engaged in a heated and sometimes nasty duel with Panthers cornerback Josh Norman. It resulted in three personal foul penalties for Beckham, two for Norman, and a degree of acrimony rarely seen even in the aggressive world of the NFL. Coughlin's postgame news conference and postmortem conference call today were dominated by questions about Beckham, who did catch six passes for 76 yards, including the game-tying 14-yard touchdown with 1:46 remaining.
"I'll start out by basically telling you exactly what I told our team," Coughlin said. "I thought it was too bad that today in the world of sports, and from everything that I hear from the outside, that the discussion going on is about the personal battle that took place between Odell Beckham and Josh Norman, and not about a team (Carolina) that's 14-0, or a game which was, at one point, 35-7 and ended up 35-all, and then a drive at the end of the game with a long field goal to settle the score. It's too bad that's not what's being emphasized.
"I went further and said this - we all know that personal battles have no presence in the game of football, not at any level. They're a distraction, they take away from, they break concentration, they prevent what this thing is all about, the great game of football being played as a team sport. It's not about the individual, it's about the team."
Eli Manning, who threw four touchdown passes for the second week in a row, also said the Beckham-Norman imbroglio was garnering too much attention.
"It was a great game, came down to the last minute and, yeah, I think there was too much focus on that," Manning said. "I think those sometimes do become a physical battle, and these little battles between players can go on a little bit. Obviously, you don't want it to take away from the game, you don't want it to hurt your team, and you've got to be smart about it. I thought they went at it early on, nothing was called, and so they probably in their minds just start early on to see what they can get away with, and that's when it probably got out of hand."
Coughlin does not condone Beckham's actions, but he remains fully supportive of his second-year player.
"I will not defend his actions yesterday because they were wrong and this particular franchise and organization does not tolerate that, so I would not do that," Coughlin said. "But I will defend the young man, and the quality of the person. I will defend him as long as I'm able. So I told our team that, our team feels the same way about Odell. Everyone knows that he was wrong, and that was out of place. And it is an ongoing process, the education of young players. And this is a very unique and talented young man, and we are continuing to work with him about circumstances such as developed yesterday."
The 6-8 Giants still have a chance to win the NFC East. They will next play Sunday night in Minnesota against the 9-5 Vikings. But they will be without Beckham, who today was suspended for one game by the NFL. Coughlin was asked before the suspension was announced if it was "disconcerting" to play a crucial game without his top playmaker. "You ask a question that requires no answer," he responded.
Coughlin was asked why he did not remove Beckham from the game, at least temporarily, to give him an opportunity to cool off.
"There are a couple of different answers," Coughlin said. "One, I don't watch one player throughout the course of a game. And to be honest with you, I wasn't aware of the fact that all those personal fouls were all directed at Odell. There were three personal fouls, there was an offensive pass interference. I wasn't aware of that, as you probably saw in the press conference afterwards. And secondly, there's a young player that's being educated that, quite frankly, is an excellent football player. If we were to have a chance to win the game, I wanted him to be out there, I'll be honest with you."
Although Beckham remained in the game, the coaches, including offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo and wide receivers coach Sean Ryan, were counseling him.
"For anyone out there to think that this was not discussed at great length from the offensive coordinator to his position coach to me throughout the course of the week - what he could expect entering this game - for anyone to think that did not take place, is foolish," Coughlin said.
"We try to cover every possible scenario that will affect our team either through the X and O strategic operation, or just whatever it may be, emotionally or whatever may transpire. So we try to prepare them for everything that they can possibly have happen in a particular game. And we continuously reinforced those thoughts throughout the game yesterday. Sean Ryan, who has an outstanding relationship with Odell, literally met him at the sideline and walked and talked, and on my instructions and what have you, did communicate the same exact thoughts that I just relayed to you, on a literally series by series basis, that things were happening on the field that no one wanted to take place. The other thing is, when Odell got to the sideline and spent time with his coaches, he was in the mode of learning information, gathering information, looking at pictures, and he was not out of control, he was not emotional. He was certainly at the sideline under control and wanted to have the information that he needed to go forth onto the field and to perform at a high level."
Photo timeline from the Giants Week 15 matchup vs. the Carolina Panthers
One influential teammate also advised Beckham.
"I went to Odell a few times, and (said) just be smart, and I thought early on he was being smart," Manning said. "I saw a few plays where Norman body-slammed him or is going after him, and he didn't retaliate, he didn't come back after him or push him or do anything, so I thought he was being smart. But if flags aren't called early and guys keep doing it, eventually it's going to lead to something further and become an issue all game."
Which is exactly what happened. But Beckham's teammates were strong in their support, and noted Norman wasn't exactly an innocent bystander.
"I think it was just two guys, two competitors, going against each other," defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul said. "Both of them are good players, and they were battling it out. At some point, you just have to play football. The ref did a great job of letting them play football and not kicking either one of them out. That's just how it is in the NFL."
"Of course, I support Odell," Manning said. "I think the guy does a lot of great things. He plays hard, he practices hard, he understands the circumstance and what occurred, he does not want to hurt his team, he does not want to put us in a bad situation. I think he's still a young player, and it's a learning experience for him. I think he understands that he's got to control his emotions, I think he's done a better job of doing that all season.
"So I think we're going to support him and … I think everybody's kind of attacking him. I think Norman came out and made his comments, which I think Odell took the higher road, so I am proud of him on that aspect. It's one of those deals they were going after each other and hey, we don't support that, it's not the way I play the game, it's not what I'd do. But you have to be able to handle it on both sides and pay the consequences."