Joe Judge worked for Nick Saban at Alabama and Bill Belichick with the New England Patriots, two of the best coaches at their respective levels in the history of football. He has seen firsthand what fundamentally sound, great football looks like.
On the day he was introduced to the media as the surprise choice to succeed Pat Shurmur as Giants head coach, he said he wanted assistant coaches who were “teachers, not presenters.” He wanted coaches who could teach Giants players “what it’s supposed to look like.”
In two seasons with the Giants, the product on the field has never looked like the ones at Alabama or in New England. It has rarely looked like a competent one capable of playing winning football, and the 10-22 record in Judge’s tenure entering Sunday’s season finale reflects that unfortunate reality.
To conjure up a Rocky Balboa image, this is one of the things Judge said at that introductory press conference about how winning is done in the NFL:
“The margins of error in this league are too small. You cannot get by with some kind of magic scheme or new gimmick or think you’ve reinvented the wheel. The same things win football games that have always won football games. It’s fundamentals.”
While injuries to a long list of key players were certainly a major factor for the Giants in 2021, that did not — and cannot — excuse some of what we saw.
It cannot excuse losing two games because defensive players jumped offside. It cannot excuse failing to field kickoffs that drop in the field of play. In a league where the margins, by Judge’s own admission, are small, it cannot excuse losing nine games this season by 10 points or more, five of those by at least 20 points.
It cannot excuse in-game management and situational failings that have led to the Giants being outscored 76-0 in the final two minutes of the first half this season. It cannot excuse two blown fourth-quarter leads and a late-game collapse against the Atlanta Falcons.
It cannot excuse having a game plan to run the ball, yet having two unnecessary pass plays against the Chicago Bears drive you into a 14-0 hole seven minutes into a game. It cannot excuse a season-long inability to put together a coherent offensive plan and stick to it.
It cannot excuse an 0-3 start to the season against three sub-.500 teams.
There has been enough media and online chatter about whether the Giants are a poorly coached team, that Judge was actually asked about that during a recent press conference.
It had to be particularly galling to Judge when Paul Schwartz of the New York Post asked him this:
“If you look at the Giants or if you were scouting the Giants and watching all the tape, would you say that they’re a well-coached team and why?”
After a lengthy pause, Judge said “I would.” He said he had seen “improvement from our players” and that he was “very confident in the way that we’re pushing forward.”
I put the question of whether or not the Giants are well coached to Joe Banner, former president of the Philadelphia Eagles and a current contributor to the 33rd Team. His answer focused more on roster construction.
“I feel that they don’t have talent to compete right now. The history of the Giants philosophy is one that I agree with, the nature of their approach to the QB position and building in the trenches,” Banner said. “They have always felt that they need a difference maker at QB, a true leader and someone that can play in their system. Along with that they need to control the LOS offensively and defensively. Their current approach to their play style is one that I’m a bit more concerned about.”
Still, when you think back to Judge’s introductory press conference it is hard not to focus on something else he said that day:
“Don’t tell me they [players] can’t do certain things, tell me what they can do and then we’ll figure out as coaches, because that’s our job, how we can use that. That’s our responsibility.”
Watching the indefensible product the Giants have put on the field the second half of the season it is impossible to conclude that Judge and his coaching staff did that this season.
It appears that Judge will return for Year 3 as Giants head coach. It seems that unless whoever John Mara and Steve Tisch hire to replace Dave Gettleman as GM insists on his own head coach from the get-go, Judge will get at least one more season to prove he is the “right guy” to lead the Giants, which is what Mara called him back in August.
Judge’s job will be to figure out why his efforts to teach produced so many ‘D’ and ‘F’ students, particularly on the offensive side of the ball.
Judge said last week that he would start preparing for Year 3 of his tenure “first thing Monday morning.”
What does he need to do first?
Before he decides what free-agents-to-be should stay, or starts watching film of potential free agent targets or draft prospects, Judge needs to honestly assess the 23 coaches who work under him.
Which ones are adding value? Which ones are helping players get better? Which ones are coaching position groups that are functioning well regardless of who is available and who is not?
Which ones are coaching groups that are under-performing or have players who don’t appear to be making progress? Bluntly, which ones are up to the task and which ones are not?
Was it really a good idea to hire so many coaches who had never worked in the NFL? By my count, 11 of the Giants’ assistants are in their first NFL jobs. One, Jody Wright, worked with senior offensive assistant Freddie Kitchens for a year in Cleveland before coming to the Giants.
It’s easy to appreciate that Judge wanted coaches who could relate to young players as the Giants built their roster, and that he would turn to coaches he knew as he tried to navigate being a head coach for the first time.
The college and NFL games, though, are not the same. It is fair to wonder if the Giants need to find more position coaches with NFL backgrounds.
Former Giant star and current WFAN radio host Tiki Barber said this recently:
“One of the biggest faults of the hiring of Judge was that they let him build a staff that has no experience coaching in the NFL.”
Going forward, that should change.
The offensive staff, in particular, must be revamped
There are two huge questions that have to be answered — who will coordinate the offense and who will coach the offensive line?
Garrett is gone. The ‘well, Garrett was forced on Judge by ownership’ excuse is out the window. Now, this is Judge’s mess to clean up.
The Giants averaged 17.5 points per game (31st) in 2020. After spending oodles of money, draft capital and welcoming Saquon Barkley back after his 2020 torn ACL, the Giants got worse. They are averaging 15.7 points per game.
Judge has a long relationship with Freddie Kitchens and a lot of respect for the Giants’ senior offensive assistant. In a year he will begin on the hot seat and likely won’t survive should the Giants not show significant improvement, does he really want to ride or die with Kitchens running his offense?
That’s probably not the best plan. Mark Schofield recently offered us a list of potential offensive coordinator candidates, including Kitchens. I would suggest Judge read it. I would also suggest he be willing to look outside his comfort zone or the circle of coaches he has worked with in the past to find an answer.
Getting the right coordinator to turn the Giants into a functional, coherent offense that actually looks like it has a plan is the most important decision Judge will have to make this offseason.
Judge’s choices for offensive line coach have thus far been disastrous.
Marc Colombo was hired mostly because he had worked as Garrett’s offensive line coach in Dallas and was, theoretically, well-positioned to implement the blocking schemes Garrett’s offense needed.
Judge and Colombo obviously never saw eye-to-eye regarding the techniques and schemes that should be taught, and Colombo was fired midseason after what was reportedly a nasty confrontation with Judge. The well-traveled and bombastic Dave DeGuglielmo was brought in. The problem with that? DeGuglielmo admittedly hates rookies, and the Giants were relying on three of them — Andrew Thomas, Shane Lemieux and Matt Peart. That was a bad match.
This year, Judge turned to Rob Sale, with whom he had crossed paths briefly at Alabama. Sale, though, had never coached in the NFL. How much the line’s struggles in 2021 are on Sale and how much is purely a lack of talent isn’t certain. It has not worked, though, and Sale is expected to leave the Giants for a job as offensive line coach at Florida next season.
Where should Judge go next? Pat Flaherty, offensive line coach for the Giants during the entirety of Tom Coughlin’s tenure as coach, is on staff as a consultant. Perhaps the Giants should just give him back that job. If not, they have to find an experienced, previously successful NFL offensive line coach.
Take a long look in the mirror
Beyond looking at his staff, Judge needs to look at himself.
In an article dissecting how to find the right coach for your organization, Hall of Fame GM Bill Polian wrote this for the 33rd team:
Leadership, teaching, and vision are the common denominators with all the great coaches I have worked with. From CFL Hall of Famer Cal Murphy and Coach Levy to Capers, Dungy, Mora and Caldwell, every one of the great coaches I have worked with had the ability to inspire the players because of their personal characteristics and the way they conducted themselves with the team. You can feel that in the interview. It’s not about the ‘rah-rah’ speech at all. It is about the ability to connect with the player, the assistant coach, or whomever else in the organization. That connection builds a reverberant belief in the vision of the head coach.
Polian also wrote “you know when you know” that you have the right guy during the interview process.
The Giants thought Judge was that “right guy.” So far, that has not shown on the field.
I put the “leadership, teaching and vision” question regarding Judge to Banner and asked him to assess Judge in those three categories.
“This is hard to say. Before the post-game interview with Judge [the 11-minute rant one], it seems as though, by all accounts he was a person who filled the characteristics mentioned by Polian. It looked like he was a leader, that people would be willing to follow. The true nature of a leader is the ability to convince his players that he cares about them and shows through his actions and words that he is someone that they can trust,” Banner said. “I felt the press conference was damaging to him as a leader. I think he is a good teacher, but I am worried, after hearing the press conference about his vision. The vision to compete with the best teams. You need to be good before you can be great and the vision of the leader that is Joe Judge is my concern.”
Judge must ask himself a number of questions. Among them:
- Is some of his public messaging smart? Washington Football Team coach Ron Rivera admonished Judge to “talk about your own team.” That is probably a good idea.
- Why did the Giants start the season 0-3 against middling opposition? Talking about September games being an extension of the preseason likely didn’t help.
- Is his ultra-conservative nature helping the Giants or holding them back? EdjSports ranks Judge 31st in critical decision making as it relates to win probability. Fortune favors the bold, and Judge is behind the curve in terms of being bold.
- Can he continue to deflect and minimize the importance of results by talking about process and culture?
- How much of the apparent sideline dysfunction we have seen at times is he responsible for?
- By extension, is he willing enough to lean into the headset and overrule a play call he doesn’t like or the personnel being sent onto the field?
- How much of the poor roster construction, such as the offensive line and the backup quarterback situation, was he advocating for?
Judge may yet succeed with the Giants, or down the line somewhere else. Former Jets general manager Mike Tannenbaum is in favor of Judge getting that third season.
“We can sit here and say look at the won-loss record and that would be much harder to defend, but if I was John Mara, the Tisch family I could say to myself we had Ben McAdoo for two years, we had Coach Shurmur for two years, do we want to go hire our fourth head coach in six years?
“I think he’s a standup guy, no nonsense, very accountable. The worst thing for the Giants isn’t to fire Joe Judge, the worst thing for the Giants is to see Joe Judge have a great coaching career someplace else. I think he’s a leader of men, I think he’s an accountable guy, I don’t hear any excuses coming out of that building ever. His audience is the players – if we’re hearing it, they’re hearing it and I would certainly hang in there with him.”
Belichick had three straight losing seasons in Cleveland before going 11-5 with the Browns in his fourth season, and then going on to have his historic run with the New England Patriots.
Judge, though, appears to have a lot of introspection to do and a lot of changes to make to overcome these first two seasons. We will see if he can.