Yes, it was a win over the Joe Burrow-less Bengals. A narrow one, which they almost blew in the waning minutes due to a special teams disaster, at that. Yes, the Giants have four total wins on the season—two over the Washington Football Team and a third over the similarly hapless Philadelphia Eagles—and their games feature all the aesthetic joy of a Great Expectations live reading. Yes, the coach of the year race is fairly settled 11 games into the season (Mike Tomlin and Brian Flores, with Kevin Stefanski jogging behind in a distant third).
But how would we feel about submitting Joe Judge’s name for consideration?
Coaches are hired under countless circumstances. There are perceived experts, who come in to fix one side of the ball immediately and vault a contender over the hump; there are big personalities, who are brought in to revive lifeless locker rooms; and there are dim, militaristic personalities, hired to clean up the messes left behind by the big personalities, who come in and light the place on fire. Judge is in a different category altogether: a coach who was asked to come in and provide more than just an adjustment or routine elevation. He was asked to craft an identity. To pour a foundation.
Within that subsect of coaching hires there is a massive potential for failure. There is such a delicate balance to strike. One is not necessarily dealing with a social structure that has been put in place (kiss up to the franchise quarterback, align with the popular veterans, etc.). Those coaches have to create the social structure. They have to be unpopular. They have to put their hands on replacement-level players and shake something useful out of them. They have to piss off veteran players. There are nebulous factors at play here, abstract concepts like how “hard” someone is playing and how much “effort” people are giving.
And because of that, most of them end up burning out. Either the ability wasn’t there or the personality couldn’t accompany the heavy lift the coach was asking of his team. Judge, albeit while playing in worst NFC East in modern history, has his team in first place after 12 weeks.
He has the Giants in first place seemingly after weathering all of the complicated side effects that come with being the coach he wants to be. There was the hysteria during training camp when he forced players and coaches to run laps. There was the dustup with Golden Tate. There was the rocky, in-season firing of a position coach, all underneath the spotlight of the biggest media market in the league. And yet, the Giants seem to be in a better place perpetually, week after week.
Another point to consider: This roster has been comically mismanaged for nearly half a decade now, doomed either by a desperate series of irresponsible free agency spending sprees or a retrofitted vision of what an NFL roster should look like. While Pro Football Focus grades are by no means a gold standard for personnel evaluation, they have the Giants with one player on each side of the ball in the top 15 at their position. The rest are laughably far from the reservation (the 82nd best guard out of 82 qualifying candidates, 73rd best tackle out of 77 qualifying candidates, 55th best tight end out of 70 qualifying candidates and the 61st best safety out of 89 qualifying candidates). Despite this, the team has gotten its doors blown off only once this season, in a loss to the 49ers. They played the undefeated Steelers tough. They lost to the Buccaneers by two points and the Rams by eight.
All of this while starting over amid a pandemic, having never coordinated an offense or defense at the professional level.
None of this should put him in the same breath as Tomlin or Flores, certainly. What has happened in Pittsburgh and Miami is nothing short of remarkable, given each team’s recent history (for far different reasons). But Judge, it seems, isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Whichever NFC East team ends up hosting a home playoff game this winter will be a generously accepted gift for their opponent, who will almost certainly skate into the second round. Should it be the Giants, though, I wonder how much more unpleasant Judge could make that experience for the team passing through? And that says a lot about the job he’s done so far.