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Portrait of a coach: Giants’ Joe Judge — organized, structured, obviously in charge

Judge “checked all of the boxes” for the Giants, and so far he is showing why

New York Giants Introduce New Head Coach Joe Judge Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

After talking with New York Giants players and assistant coaches over the past week, a portrait of what Joe Judge is and will be as a head coach has begun to emerge.

Organized. Prepared. Detail-oriented. Knowledgeable. Articulate. These are some of the words you hear over and over when you ask people about him.

Let’s delve deeper into what the Giants have in their rookie head coach, why many who have worked with him now want to work for him, and why those who hadn’t worked with him previously are impressed by him.

He’s early to the party

Judge is 38. His hire by the Giants caught many off guard. He wasn’t, yet, considered one of those hot assistant coaches who were mentioned every time an opening for a head coach came up.

The Giants, knowing they had to get this right after two failed coaching hires and three seasons that produced an NFL-worst 12-36 record, perhaps surprisingly gave Judge an interview in their search to replace Pat Shurmur. Even co-owner John Mara said he was “not really expecting all that much” when Giants’ decision-makers sat down with the young New England assistant.

“But the more we went on, the more impressive he became. When we finished, I looked at Dave [Gettleman] and Kevin [Abrams], and we were ecstatic. We said, ‘This is our guy. This has got to be our guy,’ “ Mara said when Judge was introduced as head coach. “He just had a certain poise. He didn’t have any notes with him. He just was so confident and poised, and had such great knowledge about how to build a winning program. What they did in New England, what they’ve done at Alabama, the people he’s been around, his beliefs, his philosophies. He checked all of the boxes for us.”

Coaches on the Giants’ staff who had worked previously with Judge are not surprised.

Inside linebackers coach Kevin Sherrer has known Judge for more than a decade, since Sherrer was a high school football coach. He admitted that coming to the Giants “had a lot to do with Joe.”

“I really thought he did [have what it took to be an NFL head coach],” Sherrer said. “But when you think of a guy that’s kind of a friend of yours, a colleague, co-worker, getting a head coaching job with the New York Giants is something that’s really kind of like ‘wow.’ But yeah, early on, Joe has always been an organized guy, very articulate, does a really good job, loves football, a good family guy.

“He fits the mold, in my opinion.”

Outside linebackers coach Bret Bielema, who has been a successful collegiate head coach at Wisconsin and Arkansas, spent the last couple of seasons working with Judge in New England.

“The first meeting I sat in front and he was going over details that Coach [Bill] Belichick would give him, just very impressive to realize the football presentation awareness. His voice, his demeanor, it was very intriguing to me,” Bielema said. “I know he has a special teams background and interests. To hear that firsthand and then get around him and see the general football knowledge that existed. On a personal note and the way he is as a father and the way he interacts with his colleagues and coaches and players, you know he had big things in front of him.”

Believing in Joe

Many of the Giants’ assistants have prior working relationships with Judge. Bielema, Sherrer, quarterbacks coach Jerry Schuplinski and defensive coordinator Patrick Graham are in that category. Running backs coach Burton Burns and tight ends coach Freddie Kitchens also have history with Judge, and are probably Giants assistants only because the rookie head coach wanted them to be.

Burns is a 67-year-old man who coached collegiately for 31 years and then left the sidelines after the 2017 season for an administrative post at Alabama.

“I think the situation created itself for me. I have a relationship with Joe Judge,” Burns said via videoconference on Friday.

“Knowing Joe’s personality and our relationship, it was kind of like I wanted to see if I could come and help him do his thing.”

Kitchens was head coach of the Cleveland Browns a year ago. From head coach to position coach in a year is considered a long fall in the NFL. Kitchens, though, first worked with Judge when both were Mississippi State assistants in 2005. To Kitchens, it made sense.

“It just worked out perfectly that I knew Joe, I trust Joe, I know Joe’s background and what he believes in,” Kitchens said. “I think we’re aligned pretty well with those sorts of things.”

Joe Judge
Matthew Swensen/

A tough way to start a coaching career

I’m not sure there could be a bigger challenge for a young, first-time head coach than the one Judge has faced and is facing with the Giants, a down-trodden team that has become accustomed to losing. A job he has never done before with an organization he has never been part of in a city where he has never lived. An incredibly young, undeveloped team with a second-year quarterback. A global pandemic that caused cancellation of spring practices and meant it was just last week, eight months after being hired, that he finally had his full team on the field together. No preseason. A condensed training camp, and a limited roster.

From the outside, Judge has appeared to handle the situation as well as he could have. He embraced virtual learning, and he hasn’t wanted to hear that a first-year coach like himself is at a disadvantage compared to veteran coaches with established teams.

“The planning is huge, but really ultimately, our job as a coaching staff, and my job, is to make sure we’re positioned to adjust accordingly and keep moving. That’s what I’ve seen right now from our coaches and players,” Judge said. “We’ve got to figure it out, and right now everyone is figuring it out. Whatever we’re allowed to work with, we’re going to have to figure it out. We have to plan day by day. If that plan changes, we adjust and we keep going full speed.”

Judge’s organizational skills and ability to keep his eye on the prize despite adverse circumstances appear to be serving the Giants well.

“Especially in the situation we are in now, it takes an organized person to navigate through all the challenges that we have to face day to day,” Burns said. “I’m not surprised by the way he has handled it. He’s very meticulous about doing the little things, despite the big picture that’s going on. Joe has always been good at organizing things like ABC. We are going to do this, we are going to do that next, do this first in order for the next thing to work. I think that’s what we are doing here in this situation.”

Wide receivers coach Tyke Tolbert had that same job under Shurmur the past two seasons. He has also been with the Arizona Cardinals, Buffalo Bills, Carolina Panthers and Denver Broncos. He’s fairly well qualified to assess characteristics of a head coach.

“He’s very well-organized, he’s very structured, very planned with what he has to do. We know from the staff exactly what we have to do day in and day out,” Tolbert said. “I think a lot of us are responding better that way.”

“He coaches it all”

Judge is not running the offense. He is not running the defense. He is not running the special teams. He has his hand in all of it.

“Joe is a football coach. He is not just a special teams coach. He is a football coach, he coaches it all. That’s the thing I enjoy about watching him work,” said special teams coordinator Thomas McGaughey.

“Joe’s been awesome. I can’t even begin to tell you. It’s been very enlightening and he has been outstanding. I just look forward to getting the season going, just watching him grow as a new head coach and just see how far he can take us.”

Defensive line coach Sean Spencer, most recently with Penn State, summed up Judge’s approach this way:

“He is a highly organized guy, very detailed. It is what it is with him, it’s mapped out how it goes. I really respect that,” Spencer said. “Obviously, he has learned from some great ones, having worked with Nick Saban and Bill Belichick.”

Judge talks often about cross-training players. That means safeties learning to play cornerback and vice versa. Linebackers learning the inside and edge positions. Offensive linemen preparing to play at several spots.

Turns out he is cross-training position coaches, too. Or, maybe the better way to describe it is cross-pollinating by allowing coaches to have access to what is going on with position groups other than the specific one they are coaching.

“Every coach pitches in with everything. All special teams and as far as our positions and everything as well. This coaching staff, we work together very well. Everybody works together to help each other. We’re just one big organization helping out wherever we can,” Tolbert said.

“I just think being around him and him knowing a lot of football, he’s taught me a couple things being in those special teams meetings, which I hadn’t been a part of very much in the past. But hearing different things and situations and stuff come up, I’ve learned a lot.”

Is there an echo in here?

How’s this for a sign of respect for the man in charge? Players and coaches alike are repeating the head coach’s message — and telling you that the word is coming from the head coach.

Players have obviously gotten the message that the head coach doesn’t want them to give much to the media, especially when it comes to injuries. Players are not only complying, they are telling inquisitive writers like yours truly why.

Here is Evan Engram when asked if, following offseason foot surgery, he would be full-go in padded practices:

“We’re not allowed to get into the details, that’s a Coach Judge rule. I’m out there with my teammates, I’m running around doing good, trying to get better each and every day.”

Here is Leonard Williams on how he hurt his hamstring, which had him on the non-football injury list until a couple of days ago:

“We can’t really talk about injuries. If somebody wants to get more information on that, you might have to bring it up with Coach Judge or someone else on the team.”

Coaches, too, are buying in — and sounding like — the head coach.

Defensive backs coach Jerome Henderson was asked recently who would start opposite high-priced veteran free agent signee James Bradberry at cornerback. Henderson wouldn’t even acknowledge that Bradberry would be a starter.

“Everybody is going to compete and have to compete,” Henderson said. “That’s just the way it is in this program. Joe’s made it very plain to us that everybody competes. Nobody is given anything. Even Bradberry has to go out and compete.”

Offensive line coach Marc Colombo was asked what he demands from the players he coaches. He ended up talking about not only what he wants, but what Judge wants.

“I think it’s a work ethic, it’s a nasty attitude, going out there and just kind of imposing our will on the defense. Flying around, that’s non-negotiable,” Colombo said. “That comes right from Coach Judge and this organization. We really demand it here.”

The more Colombo, who is working with Judge for the first time, talked the more it seemed he felt he has found a kindred spirit in Judge.

“I think what I try to teach, and again, our head coach is just like this, it’s awesome. Attention to detail is everything. Every little step matters,” Colombo said. “I’m not going to speak for every other coach in the NFL, but every single step matters. If you’re not coaching every little detail of it, the player can’t get better. It’s a grind. You have to get in there with every one of these players. You have to make sure they’re doing it exactly the way you want it. Coach Judge harps on that. Coach every little detail.”

Final thoughts

None of this guarantees that Judge will succeed as a head coach. Cumulatively, though, these are good signs. The players appear to be buying in. The coaching staff is compromised of quality veterans, many of whom are with the Giants because they were excited at the idea of working with Judge, not just because they needed a job and this is where they could get one.

There seems to be a sense of anticipation, a sense that the Giants might have found themselves the NFL’s next bright, young coaching star.

“I’m excited for the future of this organization,” Colombo said.

Only time, of course, will tell if Judge succeeds or fails. Right now, though, that sense of excitement for the future is enough. The idea that the Giants could finally be in the right hands is enough.

The rookie, by all accounts, is off to a promising start.