Chris Snee might be the best offensive lineman the Giants have suited up in the Super Bowl era, but despite his work ethic, he once wanted to take a week off in late December — a week that went down as among the most profound in franchise history. That was 2007, and the 15-0 Patriots were arriving to face a 10-5 Giants team already booked for the playoffs.
When Tom Coughlin marched into the team meeting room (Coughlin always marched, never walked) to kick off the Giants’ preparation, Snee was hoping against hope that his father-in-law would ease up. The guard was banged up, and he wanted to be as healthy as possible for the postseason.
“So had Coach entered the room and said, ‘We’re going to rest you guys,’ I would have been thrilled, to be honest with you,” Snee recalled by phone Thursday.
Of course, Major Tom had no intention of saying that. He was never a personal fan of Bill Belichick’s, anyway, and he sure wouldn’t have minded wrecking New England’s perfect season in a Saturday night game at a rocking Giants Stadium with the whole world watching. But in the end, that wasn’t really the point. Coughlin understood the value of competing to win long before the late, great John Madden left that famous voicemail for him saying that the Giants’ all-out effort in their 38-35 loss was “one of the best things to happen to the NFL in the last 10 years.”
You know what happened next. Coughlin and Eli Manning led the Giants on an inspired run through the tournament punctuated by a stunning victory over the 18-0 Patriots, and everyone agreed that the tone set in their regular-season clash ultimately allowed Super Bowl XLII to unfold the way it did. If winning is the objective, playing to win is the obligation. Always.
Fourteen years later, at the end of an entirely different December for the Giants (4-11), fans can debate the merits of winning and losing Sunday’s game at Chicago. A Giants victory would make the first-round pick the Bears gave them last year more valuable. But a Giants defeat would make their own first-round pick more valuable, and give them a better chance to land a top-four prospect in a draft short on high-end talent.
This is the kind of discussion forever attached to losing teams in late-season games, whether it’s Jaguars-Jets last week or Bears-Giants this week. But the passing of Madden at 85, and the revisiting of his congratulatory message to the beaten-but-not-broken Giants, reminded all about the integrity of competition and the need to protect it. Coughlin played the recording for his team, and Madden’s voice commanded the room.
“You could hear a pin drop,” Snee recalled. “John Madden had that unmistakable voice, one I’ll be able to hear until the day I die. … He was what I grew up with, what I remember when watching football on TV, and being hooked on his video games. My kids are still hooked today.”
Madden loved calling Giants games in the 1980s because of their physicality, and that’s the lethal weapon the 2007 team used against New England. The Giants left the regular-season game believing they’d outhit an opponent that had simply outscored them. John Mara ran into Belichick in the stadium corridor afterward, and the Patriots coach told him they would surely meet again in the Super Bowl.
“I hope we get another shot at you guys,” Giants center Shaun O’Hara told Patriots counterpart Dan Koppen. “I hope not,” Koppen replied.
Giants 17, Patriots 14 in early February was made possible by Coughlin’s approach in late December.
“When he said, ‘We’re playing to win this game,’ ” Snee recalled, “we were all on board. We were all like, ‘All right, let’s do it.’ That just shows you how different it was from Year 1 to Year 4 with Coach Coughlin, how everyone had bought into what Coach was doing.”
Snee said he remains a believer in the Giants’ current head coach, Joe Judge, and reminded that “most people wanted Tom out of town” before Coughlin became a two-time Super Bowl champ. “They brought this guy here for a reason,” Snee said of Judge, “to restore the culture and physicality of the Giants. Give him time.”
Meanwhile, watching the Giants and their offensive line completely fall apart over the years hasn’t been fun.
“It’s been very, very hard,” said Snee, who retired after the 2013 season. “It’s killing the front-office people, it’s killing the coaches, and it’s killing the players that the product isn’t better, and there comes a point when something’s got to change.”
Winning changes everything. So does the relentless, under-all-circumstances desire to win. The other day, Judge cited Madden when making the point that every week matters in the NFL, and that there is no such thing as a meaningless game.
After all, you never know which Saturday night in East Rutherford will start turning a playoff team into a champ, or which Sunday afternoon in Chicago will start turning a loserville program into a competent one. That’s why John Madden’s voicemail should still resonate with the Giants, 14 years after he left it.