Being a head coach is all about making adjustments, whether it’s on game day, on the practice field . . . or on Zoom calls.
Joe Judge has been presented that herculean challenge in his first season, a set of circumstances that requires creative thinking and flexibility in getting through an NFL season amid a pandemic. And Judge has done an admirable job navigating through this unprecedented ordeal.
Think about it: After being named head coach on Jan. 8, he never got to work with his players on an actual football field until the first week of August. It took the NFL and the NFL Players Association that long to iron out the myriad details of training camp protocols. All Judge could do in the months leading up to that was meet with his players via Zoom and install the playbook virtually.
Sure, every other team was in the same situation. But only one other team — the Browns with Kevin Stefanski — had a first-year coach who’d never run a program at any level until this season.
Stefanski has led the Browns to a 7-3 record. With a far less talented and experienced roster, Judge has the Giants at 3-7 and in position to compete for the NFC East title, albeit in a weak division.
A win over the Bengals on Sunday would give the Giants at least a temporary hold on first place in the division (3-6-1 Philadelphia plays on Monday night in Seattle). By virtue of their two wins over Washington, which improved to 4-7 with a Thanksgiving Day victory over Dallas, the Giants would hold the tiebreaker.
Judge isn’t thinking about the playoffs just yet, even if Giants fans and even his players can’t help but consider the possibilities as they face the stretch run. But he did crack open the door this week to looking ahead, if only in the context of the opportunity at hand.
"When you look at this division," he said, "this is really the starting point for the division. The only thing that matters is what we do from this point forward."
That the Giants can even think about a playoff run in Judge’s first season is a testament to the 38-year-old coach’s ability to work around the obstacles the team has faced in an extraordinarily difficult season.
Take the last two weeks, for instance. After winning a second straight game heading into the bye, Judge wanted to get his players on the field for practice soon after the Giants beat the Eagles. But after four players tested positive for the coronavirus, he had to scrap those plans and have virtual meetings. The team didn't get back to the field until Wednesday.
"Monday, we wanted to have a team practice," he said. "We chopped that up and ended up doing more small- segment, small-group, individual- focused practices. We thought we had a lot of productive work as far as knocking off some rust."
Judge said his players have been "very receptive" to all the adjustments, many of which were dictated when the league adopted more stringent COVID-19 protocols because of the increased incidence of the disease around the country.
"You can watch [the Zoom calls] in the grid format and you can see everybody’s eyes," Judge said. "Everybody is locked in, everyone is tuned in to each other. That’s all been very, very positive.
"You hear horror stories from other teams around the league, to be honest with you. About guys being distracted, guys playing with kids in the middle of meetings, things like that. Our guys have been great about coming to work, being professional. Making sure that it’s a priority that when they are in that Zoom meeting, they’re at work."
The coach will get a better fix on how the team dealt with the changes when they get on the field against the Bengals, who have had their own challenges with the season-ending injury to rookie quarterback Joe Burrow.
To remain in position for a potential playoff berth, the Giants have to take care of business.
And if they do get that far, credit the coach for adjusting to a set of circumstances never before seen in a century’s worth of NFL seasons.
Better dust off the running game
The Broncos will enter Sunday’s game against the Saints with no quarterbacks on their active roster, thanks to stunning COVID-related developments on Saturday.
Their three eligible quarterbacks — starter Drew Lock, Brett Rypien and Blake Bortles — were considered high-risk close contacts of quarterback Jeff Driskel, who tested positive for the coronavirus on Thursday. Lock, Rypien and Bortles were sent home Saturday to self-isolate.
If reports are true that the three quarterbacks were not wearing masks while in close proximity to Driskel, the Broncos have no one but themselves to blame. The NFL recently introduced more stringent COVID-19 protocols that require mask-wearing at all times except when players are on the field during practice.
Running back Royce Freeman is the team’s emergency quarterback, and the Broncos also have wide receiver Kendall Hinton, who played quarterback at Wake Forest, on the practice squad.
The NFL has decided not to postpone Sunday’s game, in contrast with the Ravens-Steelers matchup, which initially was scheduled for Thanksgiving night but was rescheduled to Tuesday because of multiple positive COVID-19 tests among Ravens players. Baltimore quarterback Lamar Jackson, last year’s regular-season MVP, tested positive and will not play Tuesday.
Father Time catching Brady?
There have been times this season when Tom Brady has looked as if he could play another three seasons. He threw five touchdown passes against the Chargers, four against the Raiders and three each against the Broncos and Panthers.
There also have been times when the 43-year-old quarterback has looked as if he is much, much closer to the end. There was that 20-19 loss to the Bears, when he appeared to lose track of the downs. And Monday night’s 27-24 loss to the Rams, when he had two interceptions and consistently failed to hit the deep pass.
Brady signed a three-year deal with Tampa Bay in hopes of extending his brilliant career even further, but that almost never-before-seen look of resignation on his face through much of Monday night’s game made you think the end might be closer than he’d like to believe.
Perhaps we’ll learn even more about Brady’s state of mind when he faces another elite opponent, as the Buccaneers host defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City on Sunday. Brady will face star quarterback Patrick Mahomes, who may be in position to produce an era of domination similar to Brady's during his Patriots years.
"I think our job is to get the job done," Brady said Friday. "There’s no excuse when we don’t get it done. That’s the reality of the sport. It’s a production-based business, and when you have opportunities, it’s very disappointing when you don’t [win], especially when you’re the quarterback and the ball is in your hands. It’s something I’ve got to do a better job of."
Going into this game and the rest of the season, Brady’s mindset might be more important to him than anything else.
"One thing I’ve learned in the NFL is it’s a week-to-week league," Brady said. "You can’t let one loss carry over to the next week and lose confidence that you’re not capable of getting the job done. We’ve gotten the job done. We just have to do it on a more consistent basis."
Wentz’s fall from grace
It has been a stunning regression for Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz, who was on his way to an MVP season in 2017 before a knee injury cut short his season after an 11-2 performance. The Eagles went on to beat the Patriots in the Super Bowl with Nick Foles at quarterback, and Wentz has simply never been the same.
His struggles have continued during Philadelphia’s 3-6-1 season in 2020. He leads the NFL with 14 interceptions, has a league-high 10 fumbles and has been sacked 40 times.
And now comes speculation that Doug Pederson may be ready to pull the plug on Wentz and give rookie Jalen Hurts a look. Hurts was the Eagles’ second-round pick out of Alabama in 2020.
Wentz will get the start in Monday’s game against the Seahawks, but Pederson might not give the No. 2 overall pick in 2016 much longer to remain in charge.
Kingsbury’s debt of gratitude
Kliff Kingsbury had an unremarkable run as an NFL backup quarterback, but his one and only season with the Patriots in 2003 turned out to be a formative year for his coaching career. The big takeaway?
"The level of preparation week-in and week-out," said Kingsbury, who will face Bill Belichick for the first time when the Cardinals visit the Patriots on Sunday. "Coach Belichick had you prepare for any and every situation that could possibly occur on a football field."
Kingsbury thought Belichick occasionally spent too much time on preparation.
"At times it seemed tedious with the walk-throughs, and you almost felt he was overdoing it, and then the actual situation would pop up and you would be prepared for it and he’d be prepared for it and the entire team would handle it and find a way to win the game," he said. "[Belichick’s] preparation was at a level that I’d never seen before."
Around the league
Andy Reid is 5-0 on the road this year, increasing his career total to 110 road victories. That’s the fifth most in NFL history, trailing only Don Shula (148), George Halas (138), Belichick (128) and Tom Landry (119). Shula, Halas and Landry are in the Hall of Fame. Belichick and Reid will join them someday . . . The Browns have been one of the NFL’s biggest surprises at 7-3, their best 10-game start since 1994, when they went 8-2. One big reason the Browns are in the playoff hunt: winning close games. They’re 4-0 in games decided by seven or fewer points . . . Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert can match former Colts quarterback Andrew Luck for the most 300-yard passing games by a rookie in NFL history. Herbert has five such games, one short of the mark Luck set in 2012. Herbert faces the Bills on Sunday . . . Huge AFC North game on Sunday in Indianapolis between the Colts and Titans. Colts coach Frank Reich has won four of five against Titans coach Mike Vrabel, including a 34-17 victory in Nashville this season.