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Critical time for Joe Judge’s tenure as Giants’ head coach? It feels that way

The Giants are a disappointing 1-5, player effort has been questioned, and we are at a point where things could turn truly ugly. Can Joe Judge navigate these rough waters?

Los Angeles Rams v New York Giants Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

This is a critical time for head coach Joe Judge and the New York Giants.

The Giants are 1-5, and the playoff berth they hoped to compete for is long lost. Oddsmaker BetOnline has gone so far as to take the Giants off their playoff odds board. They are injury-ravaged, with many of their best players on IR or at least unavailable. There are questions from coaches being raised about effort, and players denying that they are not giving their best. The Nov. 2 trade deadline is approaching, and there is rampant speculation about who will and will not be part of the team after that date. Disgruntled fans want a pound of flesh from somewhere.

Get around the team, which I was able to do this week, and the frustration is palpable.

“The fish stinks from the head”

This is the comment Judge made on Thursday that is getting all of the attention. This was Judge shouldering the responsibility for the 1-5 start, and by extension the fact that the Giants are 7-15 during his tenure.

Here is the full quote:

“I’m the head coach. That’s my responsibility. Point blank. Every player on this field, every position group, the execution, it all comes down to me.

“The fish stinks from the head down. I’ve been taught that by great guys that I’ve worked for and played for. There’s no excuses, no exceptions. You demand it of your coaches to make sure your players are playing the right way, you demand it of the players to know what to do and they have to go out there and do it. But it starts with me and ends with me.”

I was glad to hear Judge verbalize this. I know he has always felt it, but he hasn’t said it. Week after ugly week he has referred to process over results, to the notion of weekly improvement being what matters.

Truth is, though, it is a results business. Your process, your personnel, practice and in-game decisions either lead to winning or they don’t. The Giants weren’t expected to be a Super Bowl team this year. They also were not expected to be a stinking, dead fish by Week 7.

Tom Coughlin used to step in front of the media every time the Giants lost and demand that the blame be placed on him. It bordered on ridiculous sometimes and I can do without watching Judge resort to jumping jacks at the podium, but publicly accepting the blame lets the locker room know the coach has their back and it’s not a “coaches vs. players” thing.

That’s how Ben McAdoo lost his team and his job in 2017, by making it an adversarial relationship.

Which brings us to the effort question.

Questioning the effort of players, especially key players and locker room leaders, can be a slippery slope. That, though, is where the Giants find themselves.

Judge was clear that he challenged his team when it trailed the Los Angeles Rams 28-3 at halftime last Sunday, that he wanted to see who would give maximum effort and who wouldn’t.

For the most part, Judge got solid effort from players over those final two quarters. There has been one play, an 11-yard touchdown pass to Cooper Kupp that made the score 38-3, that has been questioned. Some have said they believe Logan Ryan, James Bradberry and Reggie Ragland didn’t give full effort to chase Kupp down. Go to the 8:10 mark of Nick Falato’s video and judge the effort for yourself.

Asked on Thursday if he had a problem with the play, defensive backs coach Jerome Henderson didn’t hesitate. “Obviously,” he said.

“I don’t know if they could have gotten there. I don’t know. We’ll never know. That’s the problem, we’ll never know. I’d like to know.”

I was standing right in front of Henderson when he made that remark. His meaning, that he didn’t think players did everything they could to keep Kupp out of the end zone, was unmistakable.

Bradberry said “I was making my way over there” and that “I think we gave it full effort the whole game, not just the fourth quarter. First, second, third, all of them.”

Ryan also bristled at any suggestion that either he or Bradberry didn’t give full effort on the play.

“I don’t think guys were jogging. I think he caught the ball and he scored the ball,” Ryan said. “If it’s my effort or JB’s effort, a question there, I think that I play hard every play and that play I think I played as hard as I could until the end of the play. I understand that’s their right to analyze and critique, and I’ll take it. I’m going to go out there and play as hard as I can every play. I think I made a living on that and I’ll continue to do that.”

The Giants’ secondary, thought to be perhaps the team’s best position group this year, has not performed up to expectations.

“Where we are right now it’s not Adoree’ [Jackson], it’s not Bradberry, it’s not Logan, it’s not Pep [Jabrill Peppers], it’s us. We’ve all got to do more. I’ve got to do more,” Henderson said.

“I’ve got to do more to get these guys ready to play … they have to do more to go out and execute at a high level. We’re all in this together. We own this together. We own where we are together and now we’ve got to fix it where we are together.”

Judge was asked if he challenged the secondary this week.

“I talked to the entire team. I talked to every position group. I talked specifically about things that happened in the game, things that have to happen going forward situationally, fundamentally, execution-wise,” Judge said. “I challenged the coaches, I challenged every player. I talk to them all the time about focus, knowledge, assignments, making sure we’re on the same page knowing what to do, and then the execution.”

Final thoughts

I have said many times that the real missed opportunity of the Giants’ season came in the first three weeks. They lost to three beatable teams to open the season. That is a stretch they should have come out of with at least a 2-1 record.

Losing to the Dallas Cowboys and Rams the past two weeks was entirely predictable, especially with so many key players injured. Losing those two games by a combined 51 points, not being truly competitive in the second half of either game, though, is unacceptable. The difference between the best and worst teams in the NFL is not that big, the Giants should have been able to make those games competitive.

They did not.

Now, I believe they have reached a danger point. Are they going to heed the calls for effort and unity? Are they going to fracture and turn on each other? Here is what Judge said in the aftermath of Sunday’s loss:

“We don’t have a room full of guys who are waiting for someone to show up and save us. The only ones who can make an impact and change what we’re doing are all the men in that room – the coaches, the players, that’s it. We’re in that submarine right now. If something happens on that submarine, there’s got to be someone on that ship to step up and save that thing. You spring a leak, someone’s got to plug that thing for you. No one’s coming. It won’t get there in time to help you if you don’t fix it yourselves.”

Judge’s constant talk of process over results admittedly sometimes makes me crazy. As process and detail-oriented as Judge is, and as much as he preaches fundamentals and execution, some of what we see from the Giants makes me wonder if he and his coaches are truly getting through to players. He is still, though, a young, first-time head coach. I still believe he can be a really good one, and can potentially be a winning head coach with the Giants.

Coughlin always had a talent for keeping teams together even when things looked bleak. It might have been his greatest skill. Judge showed some of that last season, turning a 1-7 start into a 5-3 finish.

Can Judge do it again? It just feels like we may have reached a key point in Judge’s tenure as head coach.