There are flashpoints in every NFL head coach’s career, moments that define his legacy — good or bad.
For Joe Judge, this is one of them.
With his Giants struggling for a second straight year, now 3-7 and coming dangerously close to falling out of playoff contention, Judge’s decision to fire offensive coordinator Jason Garrett is a pivotal move that will help shape his reputation.
Good or bad.
It was a move he had little choice about making, given that the Giants’ offense is averaging only 18.9 points per game and is coming off a moribund 30-10 loss to a Buccaneers team that is hardly reminiscent of the ’85 Bears defensively.
One even could argue that Judge should have made this move before now, perhaps before the team’s bye week . . . perhaps even before the season began.
But here he is, trying to find a spark that will get his team going, starting with Sunday’s NFC East matchup against the surging Eagles, who are 5-6 after winning three of their last four. What happens from here will go a long way toward determining whether Judge is up to the challenge and whether he truly is the long-term answer that the Giants so desperately need.
Or whether the team must start over yet again after parting ways with a third straight coach who didn’t make it past his second year on the Giants’ sideline. Ben McAdoo. Pat Shurmur. And now Judge?
He is fighting for his coaching life, determined to inject his offense with something — anything — that might work over these next seven games.
Judge left Daniel Jones near tears as the third-year quarterback accepted his share of the responsibility for Garrett’s ouster. General manager Dave Gettleman put his own reputation on the line by selecting Jones with the sixth overall pick in 2019, and now the fates of these three men hang in the balance.
If Judge can fight his way through this mess and get the Giants to play as he had promised — a team this area could be proud of, built in the image of the tough, hard-nosed teams that succeeded in the past — he will get the chance to continue rebuilding a team that has been to the playoffs once since its 2011 Super Bowl run.
If not, then this decade-long floundering will continue, and there are no guarantees he won’t be swept out in yet another offseason purge.
"My responsibility is to make the best decisions for this team at all times," Judge said. "I’ve made it clear I expect more out of our offense. I expect more out of our players and production. It’s the coach’s job to put our players in a position to be successful. Coaches coach, players play. Players must go out there and execute. At this time, I felt the best move for the team was to make a change."
It’s a bold move at a critical moment, a move that will shape his future — and how long that future will include being the Giants’ head coach.
New beginning for Wilson
Zach Wilson is set to return from a knee injury in Sunday’s game against the Texans, and he’ll see whether watching from the sideline the last month will help now that he’s back. Sometimes it’s good for a young quarterback — especially a rookie — to get a different vantage point. Just as it was for the Jets’ last rookie starter.
Consider: Sam Darnold missed three games with a sprained foot in 2018 and was much more efficient after returning. In his first 10 games, he had 17 touchdown passes, 15 interceptions and a 77.6 rating. After returning, he had six touchdown passes, one interception and a 99.1 rating.
Darnold may not have panned out over the long term, but his rookie experience can be instructive for Wilson, who remains confident that he can improve his game.
"One thing that was cool watching those guys play, especially Mike [White] in that Cincinnati game, was how quickly he gets the ball to some of our playmakers, especially out of the backfield," he said. "The ability to just get through your progressions, not feeling like you have to force something. What’s the highest-percentage completion you can find on the field? That needs to be the mindset going forward."
Jets coach Robert Saleh tried to impress that upon Wilson earlier in the season, telling him it was OK to play "boring" football by checking the ball down if the options aren’t there with the longer passing game. We’ll see if Wilson learned the lesson, especially after White, Josh Johnson and Joe Flacco showed they can move the offense consistently.
Can Belichick beat Vrabel?
It isn’t often you see Bill Belichick not get the better of an opposing coach, but that’s exactly the case with the Patriots’ six-time Super Bowl winner against former Patriots linebacker Mike Vrabel.
Vrabel has done fine work with the Titans, who are 8-3 despite having lost All-Pro running back Derrick Henry to a foot injury. Vrabel has gotten the better of Belichick in their previous two meetings, as he beat the Patriots in 2018 and again in the wild-card round of the 2019 playoffs — also known as Tom Brady’s last game in a Patriots uniform.
But give Belichick the edge in this one, set for Sunday at Gillette Stadium. The Patriots have won five straight as rookie quarterback Mac Jones and a resurgent defense have combined to put them back in playoff contention. New England has allowed the fewest points per game (16.1) of any team, and hasn’t given up a point in its opponents’ last 19 possessions. The last teams to do that: The Patriots, who held opponents scoreless in 24 straight possessions in 2019, and the 49ers, who weren’t scored on in 19 possessions that year.
Jones, meanwhile, looks to become the first rookie quarterback to lead his team to the playoffs since Dak Prescott of the Cowboys in 2016. Jones looks like a runaway choice for Offensive Rookie of the Year. He leads all rookies with 245 completions, a 70.2 completion percentage, 2,540 passing yards, 14 touchdown passes and a 94.7 rating.
Parsons a revelation
The Giants traded down with the Bears at No. 10 in this year’s draft, securing Chicago’s first-round pick in 2022. Fine. But the player taken after the Bears selected quarterback Justin Fields — Micah Parsons of the Cowboys — might be the Giants’ biggest regret in that transaction.
The Giants got wide receiver Kadarius Toney at No. 20, and while he has flashed his talent in spots this year, he has battled through injuries. Parsons, meanwhile, has been one of the NFL’s best defensive players, and not just rookie defensive players.
The former Penn State star has nine sacks, a league-leading 15 tackles for loss and two forced fumbles and has been the Cowboys’ most versatile defensive player, playing both inside and outside in Dan Quinn’s system. The Giants sure could use a guy like that on a defense that has underperformed through much of the season.
The resurgent AFC North
The Bengals, 6-4 and coming off a road win over the Raiders, and the 5-4-1 Steelers will face off on Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium in an important divisional game that could go a long way toward deciding playoff positioning. That Cincinnati would even be mentioned in connection with the postseason isn’t something that has happened much lately, but it’s indicative of the collective improvement in the AFC North.
In fact, all of the teams in the division have winning records entering Week 12, just the fourth time since 1970 that all the teams in one division have been above .500 this late in the season. The last time it happened was in 2014 — again with the AFC North — and all NFC East teams had winning records at this point in 2008. The only other time before that: 1977, when the Steelers, Bengals, Browns and Oilers were in the AFC Central.
The 7-3 Ravens and 6-5 Browns will do battle in Baltimore on Sunday.
Taylor as MVP?
The race for The Associated Press Most Valuable Player usually comes down to which dominant quarterback gets the nod. In fact, a quarterback has won the award every year since 2013.
But Colts running back Jonathan Taylor has been so good this season, especially in recent weeks, that he’s getting some well-earned buzz for the most prestigious regular-season honor for an individual player.
Last week, Taylor led the Colts to an upset of the Bills in Buffalo with five touchdowns on 204 scrimmage yards (185 rushing, 19 receiving). He was the first player to produce at least 175 rushing yards, four rushing touchdowns and one touchdown catch in a game. Ever.
Taylor leads the NFL with 1,122 rushing yards and 13 rushing touchdowns, taking over from the injured Derrick Henry as the NFL’s preeminent running back. He may be facing his toughest test of the season when the Colts face Tampa Bay, which leads the NFL in rush defense, allowing 78.4 yards per game. The Bucs have allowed only one 100-yard rusher this season. Tampa Bay has shown some vulnerability in the secondary, leading teams to try to attack the Bucs through the air. But Indy’s offense revolves around the running game, so look for Taylor to get his opportunities.
Sunday’s game is just the fifth time since 2000 that the league’s leading rusher will face the NFL’s top rush defense in Week 12 or later. In two of those matchups, the Jets and Curtis Martin were beaten by the Steelers in 2004 and 2001.
Tom Brady needs one touchdown pass to reach 30 for the ninth time in his career. That would tie Hall of Famers Brett Favre and Peyton Manning for second behind Drew Brees . . . When Aaron Rodgers faces the Rams and defensive end Aaron Donald on Sunday, it will be the sixth time since 2000 and first time since 2011 that the reigning MVP faces off against the Defensive Player of the Year from the previous season . . . Still no touchdowns on punt returns through 12 weeks. There have been at least two return TDs off punts every year by this time since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger . . . There already have been 39 games decided in the final two minutes of regulation or overtime . . . Rams wide receiver Cooper Kupp is the first player in NFL history with at least 80 catches, 1,100 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns in the first 10 games of a season. He leads the NFL with 85 catches for 1,141 yards and is tied for the NFL lead with 10 touchdowns . . . Rams coach Sean McVay is 3-1 coming off bye weeks.