As Daniel Jones walked to the line of scrimmage and started calling out signals, Joe Judge stood a few feet behind his quarterback, his arms folded, his eyes fixated on the player, the rest of his face covered by a black mask reminiscent of a villain in an old western movie. Jones executed his assignment in the two-minute offense drill, and Judge seemed satisfied.
Then on to the next play … and the next … and the next.
It was one snippet from Monday’s two-hour practice, the likes of which Judge has repeated over and over as he gets ready for his first game as an NFL head coach in two weeks. He is a demanding coach who is relentless in his mission of building a winning program. As if his challenges weren’t big enough after taking over a 4-12 team, coaching from behind a mask is symbolic of just how enormous his mission truly has become.
We hear of players, especially young players with no NFL experience navigating the trials presented by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. But for the 38-year-old head coach, the task may be even more daunting. After all, Judge won’t have had the benefit of even coaching in a preseason game before he walks onto the sidelines for the Sept. 15 Monday Night Football opener at MetLife Stadium against the Steelers.
In a season like no other, Judge must prepare in a strange new world for which there is no coaching manual. In fact, the last time the world experienced a pandemic like this more than 100 years ago, pro football didn’t even exist.
Judge does what he can in trying to figure out how to get ready for a season unlike any other.
“For all of us, it’s getting our own minds ready for the situations that are going to come up,” he said.
And there are ways to prepare his mind, even without exhibition games.
“We build in scenarios in practice for the coordinators to call plays without it being scripted so they can get used to thinking on the fly,” Judge said. “I build in situations for myself that I tell certain guys on our staff who are responsible for setting up the situations, I don’t want to know what this two-minute [offense] is going to be, I don’t want to know what this four-minute [offense] is going to be. You go create the situation and we just play it out.”
He tries to envision himself in game day situations by simulating his decision-making process the way he can.
“I walk alongside [defensive coordinator] Pat [Graham] or [offensive coordinator] Jason [Garrett] based on what the situation is, and I call it the way I’m going to call it in a game,” Judge said. “The adjustments we build in to simulate, the unscripted periods, that’s big for coaches. We have to make sure we give our own selves’ time to prepare, just like the players prepare as well. Just like the players, practice is practice for the coaches as well.”
Judge can take some solace in the fact that every other head coach in the league, up to and including his mentor, Bill Belichick, the most accomplished playoff coach in NFL history, is in the same position.
“I don’t care how many years you have at any position, coordinator, head coach, it doesn’t matter,” he said. “There hasn’t been football played in the league since February. No one has called a game, no one in the league has had to execute a game plan since February.”
But for Judge, the journey is far more treacherous than most, especially given his inexperience being in charge. Judge has never been a head coach at any level, and while he does seem comfortable in running his new time, going through this for the first time requires a huge learning curve.
“It’s definitely different,” he said. “The first time we had a walk-thru [in training camp] was the first time I ever walked onto the field and didn’t have a specific area to go to right away. To be honest with you, it takes a couple of days to kind of get your bearings in and get your feet in.”
He now relies on a lifetime of preparation for being up to the moment.
“I know there are certain things I’m looking for every day,” he said. “I want to get my eyes on every player in some way, shape or form. It’s my planning pre-practice to know who I’m looking at in every drill and what’s my purpose. Listen, you have to go into every practice with a plan. As a head coach, I have to walk around and make sure the team is moving at the rate I need to, and to individuals for evaluations that we go ahead and make decisions for the team, I have all the necessary information.”
Judge uses every moment to get his team ready. And himself ready. Even for things you might not ordinarily expect. Take the Giants’ Friday night intrasquad scrimmage. Judge purposely built in a halftime television interview for himself – something he will face on game day.
The details are endless, the preparation relentless. For a first-year, first-time coach in a pandemic, it’s almost incalculable.