Joe Judge is at a beginning with the New York Giants. He is trying to lay a foundation that will turn around the long-term fortunes of a team that has cumulatively been the NFL’s worst — 12-36 — over the past three seasons.
We know Judge has dipped into an old-school bag of coaching tricks — mistakes resulting in practice laps, a level of physicality not often seen in modern NFL practices, a practice restart, getting dirty in a slip and slide fumble drill.
We get our first glimpse of whether Judge’s style can eventually bring better days to a franchise that hasn’t had enough of them recently on Monday night. Perhaps there is some symmetry to the fact that the Giants’ opponent in Judge’s first game as an NFL head coach will be the Pittsburgh Steelers.
That isn’t because Judge recently lauded Steelers’ coach Mike Tomlin as someone who helped him ascend the coaching ladder, though that’s a good story and you should go read it if you haven’t already.
It’s because the Steelers are, really, what Judge hopes to help the Giants become: a consistently competitive beacon of stability. Tomlin has been head coach since 2007, has a Super Bowl title and has never suffered a losing season. Pittsburgh has had just three head coaches since 1969.
The Giants, like Pittsburgh an iconic franchise dating back to the NFL’s beginnings, were once a similar beacon of stability and a model of solid, conservative ownership. The Giants haven’t always gotten it right — but when they have it’s been glorious.
Now, the Giants have had one winning season since 2011. They have had three head coaches in the last five years.
“I’ve always viewed the Giants as extremely similar or parallel to the Steelers when it comes to the way that they want to build their team. That’s through the draft, they typically are not the team that’s going to be free agent frenzy crazy and they’re going to be a team that’s going to want the consistency,” Jeff Hartman of SB Nation’s Behind The Steel Curtain told me on the ‘Valentine’s Views’ podcast. “I don’t understand what changed with the Giants. The Steelers M.O. continues to be their M.O., and they’ve continued to do business the way that they always have. I don’t recognize this Giants team anymore.”
Judge was hired, largely, to bring the Giants back to being the Giants.
Judge has tried to forge a connection between the New York/New Jersey area and what fans expect of the Giants from the day he was introduced as head coach.
“We’re going to put a product on the field that the people of this city and region are going to be proud of because this team will represent this area,” Judge said at his introductory press conference.
Perhaps by emulating what the Steelers have, and have really never lost since the Chuck Noll era began in 1969.
Judge acknowledged that Steeler stability during a Wednesday videoconference that signified the opening of preparations for Monday night.
“Very simply put, this team defines continuity in professional sports. From the ownership with the Rooney family who have done tremendous things in the development of the National Football League, for the good they’ve done for the players and the coaches in this league,” Judge said. “We have a lot of respect and appreciation for helping to develop our game. Obviously, three head coaches since 1969. All three have been as highly achieved as possible. We have a lot of respect for them.
“To play the Steelers, it’s important for our players and coaches to understand the tradition and the culture that’s in their DNA. They’re a tough team from a tough city. They have a blue-collar mentality.”
Many of those things can also be connected to the Giants. The stability and consistent on-field quality of the product, though, have not been there in recent years.
Can Judge bring them back? Could he somehow still be the Giants’ head coach in 2032, 13 seasons from now?
Judge, 38, was a surprise choice for the Giants as head coach, and after missing the mark with the hires of Ben McAdoo and Pat Shurmur, Giants’ ownership understood the raised eyebrows when Judge, who had never interviewed for a head coaching position before, became the Giants’ choice.
“I understand we’ve lost some credibility in that regard because the last two hires haven’t worked out. But I think that this guy is unique, and we’re going to have to prove it. We’re going to have to win their trust back by winning games,” Mara said when Judge was introduced as head coach. “It’s up to us to show a little more patience with this coach than perhaps we have over the last few years because he is a first-time head coach. But I think he has everything that you need to be successful.”
Judge, for one, isn’t thinking about his quick and surprising rise to the NFL head-coaching ranks. Or the personal significance of coaching his first NFL game on Monday night.
“To be completely honest with you, no, I haven’t really spent much time thinking about individual things, especially personally,” Judge said on Friday. “At some point maybe later down the road, I’ll stop and look back on a lot of things. But my mindset is always kind of looking ahead at what’s coming up, and right now, we have the Steelers rolling into town. Any kind of personal or individual things that may be special to anyone directly in my family individually, that’s for down the road for me.”
Down the road for those who do such things is passing judgment on whether or not Judge will be a success or a failure as Giants’ head coach. For now, it’s apparent that players and coaches alike are on the Judge train. Enthusiastically.
“It’s been probably I would feel like the hardest offseason that we’ve had between putting the work in and putting the grind in. I think that’s going to translate to the football field,” Saquon Barkley said late in the week. “I’m a big believer in what you do in practice and what you do in the weight room translates over to the football field. I think — I don’t think, I know we’ve put a lot of hard work in, so that’s why I believe that the work that I put in will translate over to the season.”
When Judge halted practice on Thursday after stretching and individual periods, laid into his team for the way it was approaching the day’s work, and made them start over, eyebrows were raised. Not, though, by the players.
“I love it,” Barkley said. “That’s something we knew we were going to focus on. Everything we do is going to have a purpose behind it. Coach didn’t like how we started off, so we had to start it over. As captains and as leaders and as a team we had to step up to the challenge and I think that we responded.
“I think we all understand how big this first week is for us to set a statement on what we want to be throughout the season.
“On Monday there won’t be any re-starts,” Barkley said. “We’ve got to find a way to have that every — have that purpose from the beginning. It shouldn’t take a re-start for it to happen.”
Players are being coached hard, and are taking to it. Judge has promised not to micro-manage coaches, saying “We hired good play callers, we brought in good players, we’re going to let them do what they do.”
There was a theory when Judge was hired that he would need to hire a veteran coaching staff and would need a couple of guys around him who have run teams before to help him get his feet wet. Judge did, indeed, hire a veteran staff filled with assistants who have impressive resumes.
It is, however, those coaches who talk about learning from the neophyte head coach. Not the other way around.
“I’ve learned more football in the last six months probably than I have learned in the last 10 years,” said Giants special teams coordinator Thomas McGaughey. “This guy [Judge] has been outstanding. I can’t wait to see him grow as a coach. I know I’ve said that before, but I can’t reiterate enough, he’s been awesome.”
Defensive coordinator Patrick Graham worked with Judge in New England.
“I believe this wholeheartedly, when Joe did the opening press conference and expressed how he wanted the New York Giants to look, it’s the vision of the head coach. Whether it’s offense, defense, special teams, anything we call that’s out on that field is a reflection of the vision of the head coach,” Graham said. “His input is priceless because I want it to be reflective of what he wants.”
Judge’s work thus far has been no surprise to Graham, who came over to the Giants after having the same job with the Miami Dolphins a year ago.
“Here’s what I know about Joe, he’s one of the best teachers I’ve ever been around,” Graham said. “I used to sit in meetings [in New England] at times and be amazed. Special teams coordinators have a short period of time and they have to get a lot of info in and just amazed at how quickly and how effectively he could get the information to the guys.
“In terms of surprised, no. He’s organized, he’s smart, he’s tough on his players, demanding, he knows football, to me, I’m not surprised. He has good leadership skills. No real big surprises from me so far.”
Mara has liked what he has seen.
“I’ve been very pleased so far. The things that are noticeable to me are the amount of teaching that goes on on the field. It’s like nonstop. I think the intensity of the practice. I think the communication that he has with the players, on football and non-football issues,” Mara said a few days ago. “I’ve always been very, very impressed with the staff that he’s put together. There’s a lot of experience on that staff, and I feel very confident that we’re in a good place right now in terms of trying to get these players to perform at their best.”
Judge, of course, spent the last several seasons working for Bill Belichick with the New England Patriots. In many ways, he has brought Patriots-style practices to the Giants. “Attention to detail” is a phrase you hear over and over when you ask about Judge.
“People are busy. People are busy. No one’s standing around hanging out. The other thing that you see is the attention to detail. Attention to detail,” GM Dave Gettleman said when asked about Judge’s practices. “There are some drills where you see five coaches standing there, they’re all coaching something. They’re coaching a point, and that attention to detail is huge.”
During a recent videoconference with New York media, Gettleman expressed confidence in the team’s direction.
“We have a young, developing team. I think Joe and his staff are going to develop those players, so that’s what gives me confidence,” he said. “It gives me confidence that we have our quarterback, we have a heck of a running back. We’ve got some nice pieces on defense. The O-line, we have pieces, we’re getting there. I believe we are going to be competitive.”
At least for now, it’s all aboard the Judge train for the Giants. Will that lead them back to being the Giants again, to being a team Giants can once again identify with and be proud of?
Beginning Monday night, we start to find out.