“Don’t sit in a meeting and tell me what you don’t have in a player. Don’t tell me they can’t do certain things, tell me what they can do.”
That was the memorable part of a much longer quote from Joe Judge on the January day he was introduced as head coach of the New York Giants.
We’re in December now. The Giants are on a four-game winning streak. They have won five of their last seven games. They are tied atop the NFC East standings with the Washington Football Team, though they hold the tie-breaker advantage should both teams finish with the identical number of victories.
Above all else, I keep coming back to that quote — and the ability of Judge and his coaching staff to find and utilize what their players can do — as perhaps the biggest reason why this Giants’ team is currently experiencing success.
I have now sat through three introductory press conferences for Giants head coaches. Like Judge, Ben McAdoo and Pat Shurmur won their press conferences, too. They said the right things. They talked about playing smart, tough, aggressive, fundamentally sound football. They talked about establishing the right culture. They talked about how it was about the players and not the plays — about putting players in positions to succeed.
Only, we learned quickly that neither McAdoo nor Shurmur really had the ability to do that.
McAdoo was a glorified offensive coordinator who knew one system and either didn’t know how, or have the willingness, to move off of it when it didn’t work. He also didn’t know how to build relationships with and earn trust from players.
Shurmur was a pro who helped the Giants after a dark and embarrassing 2017 season. He lacked a real plan for how to lead the Giants forward, and also didn’t seem to have the ability to attract top-tier assistant coaches to help him develop a young roster.
Judge has been different. He hasn’t only talked the talk, he has thus far walked the walk.
“Teachers, not presenters”
That’s what Judge said he wanted in his assistant coaches.
“I want teachers, not presenters. I don’t want someone who looks fancy in front of the screen that can say it with a lot of different sales lines. I want teachers, I want old school people who can get to our players and give them the mental image of what it’s supposed to look like,” Judge said. “I want them to demonstrate on a daily basis the work ethic of what it’s going to take to do it successfully day in and day out. Because over the course of six months of this season, it takes day in and day out to be successful. The margins of error in this league are too small. You cannot get by with some kind of magic scheme or new gimmick or think you’ve reinvented the wheel. The same things win football games that have always won football games. It’s fundamentals.”
Listening to the various assistants in Zoom sessions all season and it’s apparent those are the kinds of people Judge brought in. Look at how assignment-sound the Giants have been in recent weeks on both offense and defense, and the fact that they are among the league’s least-penalized teams, and you see that those teachers are getting through to their students.
“Tell me what they can do”
Here is the full quote from Judge on that philosophy:
“Be flexible within your personnel. Don’t try to shove round pegs into square holes. Figure out what you have. Let them play to their strengths. Don’t sit in a meeting and tell me what you don’t have in a player. Don’t tell me they can’t do certain things, tell me what they can do and then we’ll figure out as coaches, because that’s our job, how we can use that. That’s our responsibility. Everybody has something they can do.
“How many castoffs do you see around the league in the NFL on another team that everyone says, ‘Wow, how’d they get that out of them?’ Maybe they just weren’t closing their eyes to what they could do. We have to, as a coaching staff when we get assembled, we have to make sure we’re sitting down, we’re patient with our players, we fully evaluate them, we find out what they can do to be an asset, and that we’re not foolish enough to not use them.”
That is a philosophy Judge said he learned from Bill Belichick while with the New England Patriots. You see its implementation everywhere on the Giants’ roster. Offensive coordinator Jason Garrett and defensive coordinator Patrick Graham have been bringing it to life.
On offense, without superstar running back Saquon Barkley the Giants have figured out a way to run the ball successfully with Daniel Jones, Wayne Gallman and Alfred Morris doing the bulk of the work.
That’s not by accident, and it’s not just because Gallman has been good — which he has. It is because the running game has changed. Go back and watch Week 1 against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Lots of wide sweeps and stretch or outside zone runs for Barkley.
The Giants are different now. It’s mostly straight ahead stuff. Double teams at the point of attack. Big packages with two and three tight ends. Fullback Elijhaa Penny said recently that the Giants believe they are a “power running team.”
“I feel like we’ve always been a run heavy type of offense. I just think that we’re doing it with a different personnel group. It’s just different type of personnel on the field,” Penny said. “We were always trying to establish our run game. Like I said, it’s going to take a little time being the fact that we didn’t have OTAs or preseason. But I think we always tried to be a run heavy-type team. Now, we’re just doing it out of a different personnel and things like that.”
The Giants have succeeded with a unique seven players for five spots approach on the offensive line. They have gotten production out of undrafted receiver Austin Mack and the veteran Morris, who was on the NFL scrap heap at the beginning of the season.
That is a credit to both the coaching staff, and the personnel department that found those players.
The “find what players can do” philosophy has been especially evident on defense.
At this point in the season, the Giants are on roughly Plan D at the edge position. They have lost the top four players they began the season with — three to IR and one to a trade. They are getting production out of a seventh-round pick (Carter Coughlin), a sixth-round pick who a collegiate inside linebacker (Cam Brown), a veteran who wasn’t in the league at the beginning of the year (Jabaal Sheard) and an undrafted free agent out of the Ivy League (Niko Lalos).
At inside linebacker next to captain Blake Martinez, the Giants are getting good play out of a castoff (Devante Downs) and the final player selected in the draft (Tae Crowder).
At the second cornerback spot, the Giants are getting increasingly good play out of Isaac Yiadom, a former third-round pick the Denver Broncos no longer wanted. They also got some good play from journeyman Ryan Lewis before he went on IR.
Again, credit to the coaching staff for figuring out how to successfully use what they have and to the personnel department for finding players Judge and his assistants could work with.
“You have to be constantly thinking about developing players, the roster. Joe does a great job of laying that foundation,” Graham, another former Patriots assistant, said. “Again, that’s how we learned. Those guys that aren’t playing in September, they’re going to be playing in November. That’s just how it happens. Something is going to happen, they have to play.
You have to look ahead in terms of the development of your roster or you’re going to get caught short. Nobody cares ... You have to develop the roster and hope those guys are prepared and put the work in to do so.”
No one knows if the Giants will win the NFC East. The pesky Washington Football Team is apparently determined to not make it easy. It would, obviously, be nice for the Giants to win the division. As we see from the Dallas Cowboys and Philadelphia Eagles, no matter what you think of your chances at the beginning of a season, opportunities to reach the playoffs don’t come around all the time — even when you think they should.
More importantly, though, it feels like something good has taken root in East Rutherford. Something that could serve the Giants well for years to come. And, it’s something that took root the day Judge was introduced as the head coach.