Separate from the sludge of an eight-game losing streak, from players sniveling, from a coach's scowl. Take a long, critical look at the Giants and you'll find presents under the tree.
The Giants should be all right. This year's 6-10 easily could be next year's 10-6.
But a lot of things must change around the Giants, beginning with Tom Coughlin.
He will understand the need to change if he's the slave to detail that everybody claims. Remember Mr. Details? The guy us media folks glowingly portrayed as touching untapped ground during training camp? How Coughlin practiced things ignored or unknown through the Jim Fassel Era?
Well, guess what? Coughlin could stand to borrow Fassel's charm relating to player interaction. Coughlin must take a hard look in the mirror. He can't ignore the details of his personality. He must look inside himself as closely as he looks inside his locker room.
We can agree on one thing. Coughlin had trouble getting along with players. No matter whom you consider at fault, believe this: The players' view of Coughlin ranges from grudging tolerance to disdain.
Management can spin coach-player relationships however it wants. Coughlin is about as popular in that locker room as a Cowboys bobblehead.
Management can talk all it wants about players not needing to like their coach. But they need to respect their coach. They need to believe that their coach will have their back. They need to believe that the coach will have them prepared to win every football game.
Coughlin’s bosses are right about one thing. The Giants played hard for Coughlin down the stretch. The effort certainly seemed better than the second half last year when players appeared to show for games in body only. The 2003 Giants only came within 13 points of opponents once in their season-ending eight-game losing streak. This year's team had a big shot against Pittsburgh and Cincinnati after looking lost against Washington and Baltimore.
But some of the grit can be attributed to the personnel department signing better replacements for injured players. Teams always look to be playing harder when they are playing better. Remember, the crew that finished up last year included Jesse Palmer and a handful of guys working the night shift at Wawa.
Coughlin may be too arrogant or too set in his ways to change. Fine. Then he can expect continued player discontent, which means continued distractions. Then he can expect internal problems every time there's a three-game losing streak.
Don't misunderstand; players need to change as well. They need to meet Coughlin halfway. They need to look in the mirror as closely as Coughlin. They need to realize they are ultimately more responsible than anyone for 10 wins the past two seasons.
"I'm concerned, I'll tell you that,'' owner Wellington Mara said of the two-season slide. "What can we do, I don't know? Get better players, I guess.''
That's just part of it. The Giants need better players, but they also need to get more from the players they have. Let's hope the idea of using Jeremy Shockey as anything other than a token blocker has been put to bed. Shockey, meantime, can use the offseason to catch footballs. One after another after another after another until he corrects his problem dropping balls.
The Giants can't go another season with Luke Petitgout at left tackle. Securing a quality left tackle must be the team's top on-field priority in the offseason. Move Petitgout to the right side and move David Diehl back to guard. That would leave, at the other guard spot, a combination of Chris Snee, Jason Whittle and, if he can make it back from a gruesome leg injury, Rich Seubert. Guard/center Wayne Lucier will add depth.
The Giants should be OK on defense. We must remember that the Giants played their last eight games without Michael Strahan and Keith Washington at defensive end. We must remember that the Giants were without strong safety Gibril Wilson, who could be a special player in this league, for the last seven games.
Special teams were pretty good, a refreshing change from Fassel's bungling units. The Giants are close to being a playoff team, presuming Eli Manning continues to make strides.
But the single greatest change must come from Tom Coughlin. Soon we will find out if he really is a stickler for details.
Will free agents play for Coughlin? One of the great questions of the offseason is whether Coughlin's inflexibility will preclude the Giants from signing free agents. The common refrain is that players covet money more than anything else.
"George Young always used to say, 'It's always the money,' '' Mara said. "I think people go where they think they have the best chance at winning. I think that's a big factor, and the money helps.''
He better be right. But it's reasonable to wonder if the Giants will have to overpay for premier talent. Call it "The Coughlin Effect.'' Remember, players voted Coughlin the worst coach in the NFL according to a Sports Illustrated poll. What they really mean is that Coughlin's the worst coach to play for. How many players would choose the Giants over other teams with money being equal?
We will soon find out. "We have not had a lot of incidents where we have lost players that we had a shot at,'' general manager Ernie Accorsi said. "I don't think that will be the case now. I just don't.''
"You can never tell how guys are going to feel when it comes to things like that,'' linebacker Carlos Emmons said. "I think a free agent needs to concentrate on schemes a team runs; how they are going to interact with their coordinators and guys that are going to be around on a regular basis, and really not the head coach. You don't really interact with the head coach.''
Let's hope players focus on the coordinators instead of on the head coach. Coughlin's reputation seems more apt to chase players away than reel them in.