The fact that the upcoming New York Giants training camp Joe Judge hopes to run in a few weeks will be his first as an NFL head coach was always going to make it unique for the 38-year-old. Doing so amidst the COVID-19 pandemic only adds to the challenges.
During a recent phone interview with Big Blue View, Judge said he knows he will need to be “agile” in trying to conduct the most productive training camp possible.
“What we’ll do is we’ll adjust once we get the new protocols. Whatever we have to do we’ll go ahead and adapt and just keep on moving,” Judge said. “It’s our job to have contingency plans, it’s our job to be ready for the situations to change, just like they would in a game. We’ve got to be agile in how we plan things.”
The league has already issued protocols that include social distancing and other safety-related guidelines. NFL chief medical officer Dr. Allen Sills has admitted, though, that protocols are fluid and that training camp and the upcoming season “won’t feel normal because it won’t be normal.”
“Look, when they give us a protocol we’ll make sure to work within ‘em,” Judge said. “Everyone keeps calling it the new normal. We’ll just work however we can and make the most of it.”
There are two facets to the on-field work training camp that are of primary concern — keeping players healthy and properly evaluating the 90-man roster to determine who belongs on the eventual 53-man roster and practice squad. Both are complicated by the lack of spring on-field work.
Let’s take a look.
Keeping players healthy
Judge understands that everyone on his roster isn’t as lucky as Saquon Barkley or Blake Martinez,
“We’ve got guys who have full home gyms and we’ve got guys who are doing pushups and sit-ups in their apartment. Everyone’s on a different situation how they could train,” Judge said. “I think we have to keep that in mind this year that it’s similar to 2011 [the lockout year] in that we didn’t have a spring, and it’s very different physically in terms of how the players have been able to take care of themselves.
“We have to as coaches be smart about the positions we put these guys into to make sure that they can acclimate healthy and then stay on the field. That’s the biggest thing. They’re all going to come in with a lot of adrenaline and urgency. We have to make sure as coaches we put them in the right position that we don’t put them vulnerable to injuries.”
The new Collective Bargaining Agreement has a built-in five-day acclimation period, lengthening the three-day period in the last CBA. That will keep players out of pads, but still won’t fully mitigate injury risk.
“There’s just things you miss as an athlete when you miss spring, when you miss working against each other at a competitive level. It’s a lot of the reactionary movements,” Judge said. “We have to make sure we build our players up physically to put them in position to compete at a full speed tempo with these reactionary movements and be able to do it effectively and be able to do it safely.”
Evaluating the roster
Coaches will tell you that players don’t win or lose jobs during spring workouts, which are held in shorts and t-shirts without the physicality, speed or competitiveness of training camp or preseason games.
Still, those practices give coaching staffs an idea of who can do what and which end-of-the-roster players have a real shot at sticking on the 53-man roster or practice squad. Without that, and with a limited time to get a team ready to play games that count, allowing position battles to play out and assessing young players trying to make the roster will not be easy.
As he has since the day he was hired, when he spoke to me Judge continued to insist that “everyone has an equal opportunity to be a starter.”
“Everyone is truly working on an even playing ground,” Judge said. “The thing we do have to be able to balance is when we do get the protocols from the league and we know exactly what we’re working with is how can we best evaluate everybody and make sure that we’re seeing everybody’s absolute best, so that we can then determine who the best players on the field for us are going to be.
“This isn’t an established team, this isn’t a team that has a bunch of returning starters. At this point, no one’s a starter. Everyone has to earn their position and work for what they get. That’s not just something we’re preaching, that’s something we believe in and we’re going to do.”
It comes back to what Judge said earlier about being “agile.”
“The challenge for us as coaches is making sure we balance out practice to make sure we get everybody enough reps and opportunity and competition that we can truly evaluate the team and make sure we make the best decisions when we narrow down the roster,” Judge said.
“It’s going to be a deal where we’re going to constantly talk about the roster, evaluate the roster and mix players up and see what the best meshes are. … We’ll be ready to adjust on the fly, that’s not going to be an issue for us.”
Judge and I touched on several other topics during our conversation. Here are Judge’s thoughts on some of them.
On listening to players’ feelings on social unrest ...
“Life doesn’t happen in a vacuum. So, there’s a lot of things going on around us that we have to be conscious of and there have been a lot of very serious issues that have come up this spring that you can’t just glance over and think, well you came here for football we’re just gonna knock that out. There’s times as a team you have to address what’s going on in the world around us. Take the time to talk and more importantly to listen to the players and find out where they’re at emotionally and where they’re at entering a meeting so you can come together and do your job effectively.”
On something surprising he’s learned about Daniel Jones ...
“Daniel’s not afraid to tell me what’s on his mind, which is a quality you have to have. It’s not a quality everybody has. Daniels’ been very open to telling me what he thinks, and that’s something I value a lot as a head coach.”
On players working out in groups away from the facility ...
“As a coach you’re encouraged any time any of your players get together and want to train to make themselves and the team better. Those things are positives.
“We’ve worked hard to get the message to all of our players the entire spring about taking care of themselves health-wise and being conscious of their own health as well as their families health and who they’re interacting with.
We have a great medical team they use as a resource for any kind of questions or concerns they have. We trust our guys to make the right decisions. We’re always concerned that our players do the right thing. We just want to make sure we give them the resources and help they need if they have any questions.”
On keeping himself, and his coaches, healthy ...
“We’ve expressed to everyone on the team, players and coaches, let’s just be smart about who we surround ourselves with, let’s make sure we don’t put anybody else in a compromised position. That’s something that’s going to have to go through the season as well.
“That’s something that can affect your season very dramatically as a player and as a team. We just have to understand that this is different and we have to be careful about where we go and who we’re around because any decision we make impacts everybody.”