Joe Judge wants you to know this is not about him.
Actually, it is all about him.
The Giants’ first-year coach continually stresses the importance of doing everything for the greater good of the team, which by definition means that he doesn’t intend to draw attention to himself. But the fact is this team is all about the 38-year-old Judge, who inherits a 4-12 club badly in need of direction and a strong coach who can serve as a reliable rudder through a difficult rebuilding process.
The curtain rose Monday night on the Judge era, but long before the Giants took on the Steelers in their opener at MetLife Stadium, we got strong hints of what things will look like. Judge made it clear from the start that he is a no-nonsense leader, a man who demands hard work from his players and coaches and who wants to reflect the grit and toughness of where we live.
"We’re going to put a product on the field that the people of this city and region are going to be proud of, because this team will represent this area," Judge said during his introductory news conference on Jan. 10. "We will play fast, we will play downhill, we will play aggressive. We will punch you in the nose for 60 minutes, we will play every play like it has a history and a life of its own, with a relentless, competitive attitude. We will play fundamentally sound, we will not beat ourselves. That is our mission right here."
He went on to say he wants his team "to reflect this area. I want the people that pay their hard-earned money and the neighborhoods of New York, North Jersey, South Jersey, to come to our games and know that the players on the field play with the same attitude they wake up with every morning. That is blue collar, it’s hard work, it’s in your face. We’re not going to back down to anybody. We’re going to come work every day and grind it out the way they do in their jobs every day."
Even before coaching his first game, Judge made good on that promise.
He has been demanding in practice, making his players and coaches run penalty laps for a mistake. He has screamed at his team for what he believed was lackadaisical effort in camp. He has yelled. He has cursed. He even made them start practice over last week because he wasn’t pleased with what he saw.
He is a what-you-see-is-what-you-get personality, and it should not be a surprise to anyone that his first preseason — even amid a deadly pandemic — was an intense one. He was clear in his level of expectation, and he stuck to it.
But he also showed a tender side beneath the steely exterior. He took part in a fumble recovery drill at the urging of his players, who watched with glee as he dived on the ball under a steady stream of water from a hose. The players mobbed him afterward.
He released practice squad receiver Derrick Dillon a few days earlier than he had anticipated — with full pay for the week — because he wanted Dillon to spend time with his wife and newborn child.
"We’ve all played at some point in our careers, and you play a lot harder for someone when you understand that they’re a person themselves," Judge said in explaining that decision. "They have a life outside the building like you do, and that they actually care about you. I think that’s important to keep in perspective."
But now comes the true test of Judge’s mettle: the games themselves.
Judge knows this is the irreducible truth of his legacy, or any coach’s legacy. It’s what happens on the field, and no amount of personal integrity can ensure that a football team will succeed on the field. Winning with integrity certainly is a foundational tenet of Judge’s philosophy, and he wants his team to put forth an honest effort that summons every fiber of their athletic being as they move forward.
But that still is no guarantee of the ultimate goal: winning a Super Bowl.
Judge’s Giants are a long, long way from that mountaintop, and the journey is just beginning. But if he does have the good fortune to experience that someday, he will stay true to the conviction by which he lives: It won’t be about him.
Even if it is.