The New York Giants’ 6-10 season screams disappointment. But in taking a closer look, there's a lot more than what initially meets the eye.
That's the best way to sum up the "Fighting Joe Judges," a team that a lot of national analysts had little to no hope of ever amounting to more than a hill of beans at the start of the season.
Joe Judge, the rookie head coach from the coaching schools of Nick Saban and Bill Belichick, was initially viewed as a mockery for making his players and coaches run penalty laps during training camp and for keeping them outside in all kinds of crazy weather to practice.
While the record didn’t reflect it, the Giants turned into a well-coached and disciplined team that didn’t revolt against the rookie coach, not when they started 1-7.
This group not only believed in what Judge was selling—he made sure of that by keeping an open line of communication in which he explained to the players why things were being done the way they were—they believed in each other.
By season’s end in an admittedly lousy division that the experts projected the Eagles and Cowboys to rule, the Giants were still in the playoff hunt, and there were the Giants, again, a team very few gave a fighting chance, finishing ahead of the Eagles and Cowboys.
How did Judge restore order in a once rudderless franchise?
He did so by simply being himself.
Do As I Do
Some head coaches like to bark orders and stand back as their players and coaches do all the grunt work. In many cases, those coaches who extract themselves from the big picture are usually the first to lose a team when things go wrong.
Not Judge. Yes, he was demanding of his assistant coaches, his players, and the support staff. But Judge was right there with them doing the work instead of sitting back with his feet up in his office watching, and there were rewards to be had—simple pleasures such as this happy memory from training camp.
Judge's willingness to be in the pot with everyone else reinforced his emphasis on "team first," a concept that in the last few years hasn't always been as solid in the Giants locker room, especially when things went sour.
A Man of Compassion
As tough as Judge was on the team this year, he also had a compassionate side.
When the team cut receiver Derrick Dillon shortly after he became a first-time father, Judge and the Giants made sure to do so after Dillon was eligible to receive a paycheck. And after spending some time with his new baby, Dillon returned to the Giants.
Judge also encouraged defensive back Logan to be with his wife when she was rushed into emergency life-saving surgery for an ectopic pregnancy (Ryan declined.).
And when cornerback James Bradberry had a personal issue pop up, Judge again encouraged the player to go home to take care of it.
Want another example? When running back Saquon Barkley suffered a torn ACL in Week 2, Judge was one of the men who helped the fallen star off the field and who offered the initial words of encouragement to the distraught running back, telling him he was about to author a "helluva comeback" story.
Men of the People
The Giants historically have always been one of the top sports organizations when it comes to community relations. Under Judge, the efforts went to a new level.
Judge collaborated with the front office to make sure every player and coach got involved in a specific cause to raise awareness.
The Giants players and coaches split into smaller groups, each assigned to support a particular organization as part of a “Team of Teams” initiative in which they lent their platforms and voices to raise awareness on behalf of organizations such as Eva's Village, Covenant House, the United Way of New York City, Far Rockaway Colts, and the East Orange Mayor's Office, just to name a few.
As part of their weekly activities, each smaller group took a proactive stance in using their respective platforms to bring awareness of the various causes championed by the organizations as part of Judge's desire to see the team integrate within the same community that supported them.
Judge showed zero tolerance for anyone who had a “me-first” attitude. He made an example of receiver Golden Tate after Tate publicly called for more pass targets.
He fired offensive line coach Marc Colombo when the former NFL offensive lineman reportedly became overaggressive in his refusal to collaborate with newcomer Dave DeGuglielmo.
Judge also fiercely protected the team like a parent would protect its child. Whether it was injuries, discipline matters, or something else, Judge not only was a staunch believer in not airing the team’s dirty laundry in public, he also refused to put any player on trial in the court of public opinion.
For example, when rookie left tackle Andrew Thomas missed a meeting, Judge handled the matter internally, serving the rookie a benching and a fine.
When several other players were found to have violated league COVID-19 protocol by attending a social gathering in Manhattan without face coverings in October, Judge kept the discipline he handed out in-house.
Injuries? Like Belichick, if it wasn’t for the league mandating an injury report in-season, Judge would probably just refer to injuries in general much as they do in hockey—if at all.
“It’s my job to protect the players," Judge would say numerous times during the season.
"We Are Family"
One of the biggest mistakes Tom Coughlin first made when he arrived as head coach of the Giants back in 2004 was he was viewed as somewhat standoffish with his players.
Coughlin eventually changed his ways, proving how important it was to be a human being with the players.
Judge? Right from the start, he implemented a leadership council that he'd consult regarding plans for practice or new initiatives.
Judge, a big proponent in making sure his players understood the team's history, also introduced a way to promote that and recognize those practice squad players who aided in a team victory the week.
He agreed to a program in which practice squad players chosen by the coaching staff were allowed to select a practice jersey from among those Giants greats in the team's Ring of Honor.
Even before that, Judge has always shown an interest in his players, coaches, and staff, and what makes them tick. He's used that intel to get the most out of everyone for the good of the team.
"I think the one thing Coach Judge does really well is he can pinpoint every aspect of what an individual is doing whether it is the punter, the waterboy, the middle linebacker, whatever it is," said inside linebacker Blake Martinez, one of Judge's team captains this season.
"He's able to pinpoint exactly where you started at and why your result ended the way it did. He shows you exactly, whether it is in the meeting room you took these notes, on the walk-through you did this type of thing on your rep, then all of a sudden in 7-on-7 you did this, and then this resulted in the team period why you failed that rep or did something positive on that rep."
After a game, it wasn't uncommon for Judge to keep the media waiting while he visited with injured or frustrated players after a game to let them know how much they were appreciated. And at the end of the season, Judge did something that a busy head coach's schedule doesn't always allow for. He met with as many players as he could before they walked out the door for the off-season.
What About the Production?
While Judge has pushed all the right buttons and laid down the makings of a solid foundation for a badly broken football team, he knows it's about production at the end of the day.
Judge only won six games as a rookie head coach, not a particularly impressive feat considering fellow rookie head coach (and one-time high school teammate) Kevin Stefanski in Cleveland went 11-5.
But there's a lot to like about the new foundation Judge has put down with this team, a foundation he laid down his way that got the most out of a football team that is finally on the right track.