The New York Giants went 6-10 last season, pretty much status quo for a team that has had one winning season since 2012, and the rookie head coach pretty much got a pass. After all, he was dealt a losing hand. A once-in-a-lifetime pandemic that knee-capped the ability of new coaches to install their schemes, learn their players and get their programs up and running. An injury to his star player in Week 2 that torpedoed plans for how the offense was supposed to run and left the Giants without their one true game-changer.
The Giants started 2020 0-5 and then 1-7. That wasn’t fun, but it wasn’t the end of the world, either. Hall of Fame head coach Joe Gibbs lost the first five games of his coaching career in 1981. Then, he rallied the then-Washington Redskins to an 8-8 record, won a Super Bowl his second season, an NFC championship his third season, and two more Super Bowls before retiring in 1992 and heading off to NASCAR.
Judge had a plan. He knew where the Giants were, where he wanted them to go, and how he wanted to get them there. He was building a culture. He was coaching players hard, and using colorful language to do it. He was even making players run laps to feel consequences for practice mistakes.
Things did get better in the second half of 2020. The defense was outstanding. The offense figured out enough things to be adequate at times despite its limitations. The Giants went 5-3 the second half of the season and nearly managed to become the first six-win team to make the playoffs during the 16-game season era.
Co-owner John Mara was impressed by Judge’s work. His command. His plan. His style.
“I thought Joe (Judge) did a very good job considering what he had to deal with. When you think about it, here you have a brand new head coach at 38 years of age and look what he was asked to deal with: a pandemic, no offseason program, no minicamps, no preseason games, virtual meetings, protocols that kept changing, and he loses his best player in Week 2,” Mara said at the end of last season. “I thought he showed great leadership and great adaptability.”
During training camp in mid-August, Mara said of Judge “I’m convinced we have the right guy at the helm.”
Quite honestly, I think they do, too.
Things are different this year, though. There are expectations. Judge and the Giants can’t play the “it’s about improvement” card forever.
The Giants spent gobs of money. Kenny Golladay. Adoree’ Jackson. Leonard Williams. Logan Ryan. They maneuvered in the draft in a way Dave Gettleman had never done before. They welcomed Barkley back.
They also have a third-year quarterback they invested the No. 6 overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft on, and they are determined to find out once and for all if they made the right choice.
“It’s time for us to start winning,” Mara said at that mid-August press conference.
Yet, the Giants are currently right where they have been most of the last decade. At the bottom. Dealing with their eighth 0-2 start start to a season in the last nine years. That’s not OK. Both of those were winnable games against teams that don’t outclass the Giants talent-wise.
The defense that carried the Giants last season? Underwhelming and unable to make key stops in both games.
Worse yet, with a head coach who not only preaches discipline but goes to extraordinary lengths to try and instill it, the Giants have been an undisciplined football team.
Sunday, the Giants committed four false start penalties. They committed two special teams penalties, including the game-altering Dexter Lawrence offside penalty. They committed a holding penalty that cost them four points, albeit the call against C.J. Board was an iffy one. They were flagged for 11 penalties in all. They had to take a timeout when they couldn’t get lined up on offense — which they followed up with an Andrew Thomas false start that could easily have been a delay of game because they were still confused. The Giants had to use another first-half timeout which ended up not preventing a Washington touchdown anyway, when their defense could not align properly. They still ended up aligning in a way that gave J.D. McKissic a truck-sized hole to walk through for a gift-wrapped 2-yard score.
Against Denver, Giants defenders were called for three unnecessary roughness penalties.
Worse yet, Judge contributed to the lack of discipline by throwing an illegal challenge flag on a third-quarter Denver touchdown that was automatically going to be reviewed anyway, costing the Giants a timeout. The coach admitted that throwing the flag was an “emotional” decision. Which is exactly the kind of thing he coaches Giants players not to do.
Good, disciplined football teams — teams that win — don’t do these things.
Through all of it, Judge has maintained the “it’s about improvement” stance.
Here are some of the things Judge said on Monday:
“We’re going to work hard through adversity.”
“We’ve got to make sure we continue to improve on the details and we keep on playing to be a more disciplined team and not do things that cost us opportunities.”
“We’ve got 15 more games to play. We’ve got to keep improving week by week.”
Yes, the Giants need to keep getting better. Judge is right about that. Talk of improvement, how each loss had good things to build on, how they were better in Week 2 than Week 1, how they are resilient and will continue to fight to get it right is growing stale. John Mara isn’t the only one impatient to see some of that begin to lead to results on the field. Judge has only been part of the Giants for two years, but fans — and the media — have watched this terrible start act too many times. There have been too many seasons where the second halves were filled with meaningless games.
Judge’s job is to change that. His job is to win.
“I don’t know if there’s anyone more conscious of that than me. I’m very conscious of we’re in a production business,” Judge said Monday. “But the key thing I keep going back to is to have those results, to have those bottom-line results, you’ve got to improve. You’ve got to keep building as a team and you’ve got to be in a better place.”
Judge also needs to consider whether being as conservative as he was in the fourth quarter Thursday is the right approach. The Giants didn’t take any end zone shots after James Bradberry set them up at the Washington 20-yard line with 2:16 to go. They settled for a field goal. Judge went so far on Friday as to say that they “took a chance” by throwing a short pass on third down. Why not take an end zone shot to Kenny Golladay and see if he can make the kind of play the Giants signed him to make?
There were two other instances where the Giants played conservatively. On fourth-and-3 at the Washington 34-yard line with 13:39 to go, they settled for a 52-yard Graham Gano field goal and a 23-17 lead. On fourth-and-4 with 4:55 to play, they again settled, with a 55-yard Gano field making it 26-20 and keep the Football Team within one score.
Eighteen games into the Judge era as Giants head coach, everyone wants to believe the Giants are in a better place. That they are pointed toward a better future 18-48 worst-in-the-NFL mark since 2017 past.
Maybe they are. I still think Judge is an excellent coach who could have end up having a long, successful run with the Giants.
What I know, though, is that all the talk of improvement has got to start leading to results. The only we anyone will know for sure that the Giants are in a better place is if they actually start winning games.