Mistakes? Yes, there have been a few. Maybe more than a few, in fact, although Joe Judge won’t acknowledge just how many.
Rest assured that he knows he can and must do better.
As Judge enters Year 2 as the Giants’ coach, he has taken a long and honest look at where he needs to improve. In fact, it’s something he does all the time.
"Personally, I’m a harsh critic on myself," Judge said. "I go through every day, and the first thing I do is make notes after every practice of things that I feel I can do better. After every game, it’s the same story."
By all but one measure, Judge did a credible job in 2020, his first season as a head coach at any level. He took command of his team early, establishing a sense of order and discipline from the start of training camp. He overcame the lack of an offseason program as the COVID-19 pandemic necessitated virtual training sessions. His team was consistently competitive. And the Giants got better as the season went along.
The one area that wasn’t up to his standards: the final record. The Giants finished 6-10 in a mediocre NFC East, and even with all of the obstacles he had to overcome, Judge knows that simply isn’t good enough.
There was a significant offseason makeover with the free-agent additions of wide receiver Kenny Golladay, cornerback Adoree' Jackson and tight end Kyle Rudolph along with the drafting of Florida wide receiver Kadarius Toney in the first round and pass rusher Azeez Ojulari of Georgia in the second round. Defensive lineman Leonard Williams was re-signed to a three-year deal. And running back Saquon Barkley should be back for the start of the season after recovering from knee surgery.
This is not a championship-caliber roster, especially with continued questions about third-year quarterback Daniel Jones. But it’s better than it was last year, and Judge knows that he, too, must make a leap from Year 1 to Year 2 to get closer to his ultimate goal of winning a Lombardi Trophy.
There is no stone left unturned and no conversation deemed too insignificant; Judge understands what needs to happen and tells his players and coaches constantly.
"I communicate openly with our coaching staff and players every day in terms of what we have to do to get better," he said. "I'm very open in terms of what I think individuals have to do. I communicate that on a regular basis."
The first priority?
"In terms of improving, to me, it starts with eliminating mistakes," he said. "And when you can identify what you have done wrong or what you have to improve on, eliminate those mistakes, you give yourself a chance for success."
Sounds simple, but it’s the irreducible truth for winning football: When you carry out your assignments properly, more often than not, you will win.
"I know that sounds pretty generic and broad right there, but that's what we are always looking to do," he said.
The other stuff gets more complicated — the intricacies of the game, the constant studying of tendencies and trends, the nuances that often separate good teams and good coaches from great ones. Judge is maniacal when it comes to addressing the finer points of his job.
"I go through time management, I go through timeouts, I go through challenges, I go through situational football calls," he said.
Judge got off to an 0-5 start last year — miserable from the standpoint of the record, but not in terms of keeping his team together. As the losses continued to mount, so did the team’s resolve. After finally breaking through with his first career win in a 20-19 decision over Washington, the Giants began to find their footing.
They had a chance to beat the Eagles the following week, but a key drop by Evan Engram led to a 22-21 loss at Lincoln Financial Field. And they were competitive in a 25-23 loss to the eventual Super Bowl champion Bucs despite falling to 1-7. And then came four straight wins to get them in the divisional race, with a 17-12 upset of the Seahawks in Seattle breathing new life into their season.
But consecutive losses to the Cardinals, Browns and Ravens hurt their chances badly, and despite a season-ending win over the Cowboys, they were eliminated from playoff contention when the Eagles lost at home to Washington.
Plenty of teachable moments for Judge, a coach who so desperately wants to find a plan that results in success. It is that relentless pursuit that drives him.
"I go through how we prepare: Am I making sure we have the teaching progression on the field? Am I making sure the players are fully understanding this? Are we handling the time allotted for meetings as efficiently as possible?" he said. "I'm trying to manage the time and efficiency the best I can for the team."
Yet there is more to be done. Constantly.
"Internally, there's always a thousand things I'm looking to improve," he said. "I have my own checklist but look, I'm far from perfect and I know the things I've got to improve on and I'm always looking to eliminate things on that list."
That list will always be long, and Judge will take no shortcuts. But at least there is one important benefit as he prepares for his second season. At least he has been able to conduct practices in person, not via Zoom.
"I think having this spring and a normal training camp is going to help with continuity and some of the chemistry of the team, and that's going to help us transfer some of the things on to the field," he said. "As far as Year 2, look, every year is a new year. My Year 1 was different, but everyone in the NFL had a different year last year as well. That's what the normal was last year. We operated as effectively as we could, and this year is a new year for all 32 teams as well, so we are all on the same playing ground right now."
Next month, the journey begins anew, and Judge knows there is much work that needs to be done. Work that he hopes ultimately will lead the Giants back to an era of respectability after a decade’s worth of frustration since their last championship run.