When you've stared down the challenges Mike Sullivan has overcome, third-and-15 doesn't seem particularly daunting.
The 45-year-old offensive coordinator of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers is thriving in his new role, applying the core principles he learned at West Point and a subsequent career in the infantry that took him from Malaysia to the Philippines.
"The discipline, the work ethic, the preparation that is so essential to that way of life has definitely helped me in coaching,'' said Sullivan, who was hired by the Bucs in February after eight years with the Giants as an assistant on Tom Coughlin's staff.
"Of course, the stakes are so much higher in the military. Here, it's a game. There, it's life and death.''
After playing defensive back at Army, Sullivan returned to West Point for two stints as a defensive assistant. He didn't turn to the offensive side until 2003, when he served one season as a Jaguars assistant.
"Mike's a dynamic individual who always had a great energy about him,'' said Jets linebackers coach Bob Sutton, who was Army's defensive coordinator when Sullivan played for the Black Knights. "He's always going to be able to unify any group he's with.''
The leadership skills Sullivan honed at West Point were sharpened after graduation.
He finished the infantry officer course at Fort Benning, Ga., then completed training at Army Airborne School, Ranger School and Air Assault School before being assigned to Schofield Barracks in Hawaii.
"I learned that the mission is what's all-important,'' Sullivan said of his military training. "It's the sacrifice, the ability to pull together and overcome differences to achieve a common goal. And that's how I learned to maintain an even keel as a leader, not getting too high or too low.
"I know if I start to get frustrated or show any lack of confidence or fear, others will sense that. Through my time in the academy and my time in the service, those traits were critical.''
Sullivan hasn't had many major concerns since the Bucs stumbled to a 1-3 start while a new offensive scheme and new personnel struggled to mesh.
After averaging 20.5 points in the first month, the Bucs have been scoring at an NFL-best clip of 32.6 points per game while winning five of seven. Quarterback Josh Freeman has regained his stellar 2010 form.
"Mike Sullivan has had a tremendous effect on Josh Freeman,'' ESPN analyst and former NFL quarterback Ron Jaworski said. "It is crystal clear what this offense is all about — it's about discipline. The first thing that stands out to me is it's much like the Giants' offense.
"It's not complex, it's not sophisticated. We're not going to beat you with shifts, motions, gimmicks and gadgets. We're going to play football first. That template worked for Tom Coughlin, and Mike Sullivan is cut from the same cloth.''
Operating without injured Pro Bowl guards Davin Joseph and Carl Nicks, Sullivan has constructed a balanced attack featuring prolific rookie back Doug Martin and long completions to Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams.
And Sullivan isn't above a little trickery, too.
In Sunday's 24-23 loss to Atlanta, Freeman flipped a lateral to Williams, who threw a 28-yard option pass to a wide-open Jackson.
Those first four games now seem like a distant memory for Sullivan.
"I knew these things would take time,'' he said. "Where a team is in Week 4 is not necessarily where they will end up. I lived through it. I was on a (Giants) team that was 7-7 last year, where the coach was supposedly getting fired, and we end up winning it all.
"For me, it's all about, 'Let's roll up our sleeves and attack this problem. Don't tell me the river's polluted – give me a solution.' "
In his minimal spare moments, Sullivan enjoys spending time with his wife, Julie, and their daughters, Carmen and Hope.
"Two girls, that's another reason I took up Jiu-Jitsu,'' joked Sullivan, who holds a blue belt and is drawn to the "humility" of Eastern philosophy.
"Mike's very decisive,'' said Bucs defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan, who worked with Sullivan at Army and with the Giants. "That's probably one of the best characteristics you can have. He's a West Point grad, so that's the finest leadership institution in the country. To me, he's the epitome of somebody who graduates from a place like that.''
Before all that decisiveness, there were moments of trepidation along the way.
During the Florida phase of Army Ranger School, Sullivan found himself wading through waist-deep water in the Florida Everglades on a patrol mission. It was pitch dark and 21-year-old Sullivan was well aware he was trespassing on the murky home of alligators and poisonous snakes.
"I didn't know what was brushing past my leg that evening, but I knew I'd better keep moving,'' Sullivan said. "There were other nights like that, a lot of tough times, but I'm so grateful to have gone through all that because of what it told me about myself.''
Sullivan said his mother "said a lot of novenas" when he went off to military school. His father had been in the Air Force, and as Sullivan grew up in California, he was lured to West Point.
"It was a chance to serve my country, and there was also the idea that if you can make it through that, you can pretty much handle anything,'' he said. "I wanted to test myself. My mom was very supportive. I ended up telling her about jumping out of airplanes, but I haven't told her everything.''
Sullivan was bouncing around as an assistant coach when he met his future life partner during a 1997 job interview.
"I was applying for a job as secondary coach at Youngstown State under Jim Tressel when I spotted the women's softball coach walking by,'' Sullivan said. "I immediately thought, 'She's the one.' "
At the end of the interview, Tressel offered Sullivan the position and asked if he had any questions about salary, benefits or recruiting.
"I told coach Tressel I had only one question: 'That softball coach, is she married?' I didn't care whether she had a boyfriend … that's fair game. All I wanted to know was whether there was anything legally binding.''
Coughlin and Sullivan renewed acquaintances in a Week 2 matchup at the Meadowlands, where the Giants rallied for a 41-34 triumph. That shootout came seven months after Bucs coach Greg Schiano hired Sullivan.
Coughlin and Sullivan worked together in Jacksonville, and when Coughlin got the Giants job in 2004, he reached out to grab Sullivan as receivers coach. Six years later, Sullivan was asked to work with Eli Manning as quarterbacks coach in New York, where Sullivan and Coughlin won two Super Bowl rings in a five-year span.
"I hated to see him go,'' Coughlin said of Sullivan's departure, "but Mike deserved the opportunity in Tampa. It was time.''
If Tampa Bay's offense continues to flourish, Sullivan could soon emerge as a hot candidate for an NFL head coaching job.
That wouldn't surprise Falcons coach Mike Smith, who worked with Sullivan in 2003 on Jack Del Rio's staff in Jacksonville.
"Mike's one of the most intelligent guys I know, and he's got an unbelievable work ethic,'' Smith said. "He's got West Point connections, and you can't say enough about a guy who spent time there. He did a great job with Eli in New York and he's got a great mind in terms of how to attack people.''
Two decades after Sullivan tip-toed through the Everglades, he's still sizing up the reactions of people placed in stressful situations.
"When you spend this much time around individuals, you get a sense how they'll respond,'' Sullivan said. "You sense whether they'll go in the tank, or become even more determined.
"The joy is cracking the code and getting the most out of your players.''
BUCCANEERS AT BRONCOS
Sunday: 4:05 p.m. TV: Fox, Ch. 13