There are moments in every coach’s career, flashpoints that define his legacy – for better or worse.
A gutsy decision on fourth down with the game on the line. A motivational sideline conversation with a struggling player who goes on to make a game-changing play. And, of course, the greatest signature moment of all: holding a championship trophy aloft.
None of those have happened yet for Joe Judge, who is still a week away from standing on the sidelines and presiding over his first game as the Giants’ coach. But there has been a potentially significant event for the 38-year-old coach, a time that may be looked back upon as a telltale sign for his career. Especially if it turns out as the Giants had envisioned when they went outside of their comfort zone in hiring an inexperienced coach who won them over with his presence and with his vision.
It happened Tuesday afternoon in a corner of the practice field, under a steady stream of water squirting from a hose held by Dalvin Tomlinson and with players shouting his name and imploring him to take part in a fumble recovery drill. “Judge! Judge! Judge!” the players screamed. The coach, who has run a physical and demanding training camp and already invited criticism from the outside that he’d soon alienate his players, warmed to the moment and accepted the challenge.
Channeling his football-playing youth, he ran under the gushing water, fell to the ground, cradled the ball, and was immediately swarmed by the players, who shouted with joy.
It felt like a scene straight out of “Remember The Titans,” when a high school team had transformed itself through the unrelenting demands of its head coach. Judge may or may not go on to a formidable career as the Giants’ coach, and we won’t truly know for quite some time if he is up to the challenge of transforming them from a 4-12 failure to a playoff challenger. But if you are looking for clues about what the future might hold, then the afternoon of Sept. 1 might be a good place to start.
It was a telling moment for a team and coach from which little is expected. At least in the short term. Judge has never been a head coach at any level – not even high school or Pop Warner. But having served a worthy apprenticeship by playing for his father at Lansdale (Pa.) High School and then coaching with Nick Saban and then Bill Belichick, Judge knows what he wants from his players and settles for nothing less. His practices are both fast paced and physical. And intellectual as well, as he stresses the importance of situational football – something that was drilled into him by Belichick, who had it drilled into him by Bill Parcells.
You hear it on the loudspeaker at practice: “Ball at the 15, second and 10, 52 seconds left in the game, defense has two timeouts remaining.” … “Ball at the 30, third down and 12, 15 seconds left in the half, offense with no timeouts.” … “Ball at the 5, second and goal, 12 seconds left in the game, down by 5, defense with one timeout.” The situations are endless, as Judge attempts to indoctrinate the players with situations that will invariably come up once the season begins.
It’s challenging in every way imaginable, and Judge intently watches every part of the operation, then has the players run another play. And another. And another.
It’s tough coaching in the mold of Belichick and Saban, no doubt. And while Judge is at the very beginning of his journey, the fact that the players have bought into his approach is certainly a positive sign. Not that they would say otherwise. Players are notoriously guarded when asked to publicly discuss opinions of their coach, and rarely will you see them be openly critical. But players crave a coach who will give them direction and purpose, and they don’t mind the hard work that goes along with it. Their bottom line is the coach’s bottom line: If you win, the work is worth it. Always.
“Hopefully we’re going to be able to become a more disciplined team from the situations and how we’ve been coached this year,” Pro Bowl running back Saquon Barkley said. “Hopefully we can go out there and take all the things that happened at practice and during camp from the hard work, from the coaching, from the situation football, understanding the game a little bit more, too.”
Understanding the game is critical for anyone who plays for Judge. He calls it “knowing the why” of football.
“We’re going to make sure they understand that as we’re pushing them and we’re demanding, there’s a ‘why’ to what we’re doing,” Judge said. “It’s important that they understand what that ‘why’ is. These are intelligent young men that, when you explain there’s a purpose to it, they can not only do it with confidence, but they can make the right decisions in game action when something’s different.”
The players get it. They know it takes work to get where they want to go.
But as Tuesday afternoon showed, they also know that bonding as a team – and bonding with the coach – is as essential to their success as blocking and tackling. There is no sport on earth that requires as much teamwork as football, where failure means that 10 players might do something right on one play, but one does something wrong. Knowing your assignment is paramount and getting as close to perfection is the only path forward for success.
The players’ screams and hoots as Judge fell on the ball and lay there for a moment were the surest sign so far that his message is getting through.