Way back when this mess all began, in the spring when the pandemic first impacted the Giants, when they had to slap together a virtual offseason program on the fly, when so many of the players and coaches had never even met, Joe Judge’s priority was to find a way to bring them all together.
Physically that was impossible at the time, but Judge wanted to form emotional bonds among the various individuals who would eventually come together. He said that when the Giants finally did get on the field in one place he did not want there to be any strangers.
As Judge assessed his squad in the days before Monday night’s season opener against the Steelers at MetLife Stadium, he sounded like a man who thinks he has succeeded.
"I really view the strength of the team right now as their passion for the game and the way they can play together through adversity," he said. "We’ve gone through a lot of situations this offseason. I never heard one player complain, I never heard any two players have a disagreement that carries over and affects the way they work for the rest of the day.
"I think the strength of our team right now is we have a team," he added, "and that’s something to be proud of."
It happened first through Zoom meetings, then through unofficial workouts in small groups. Finally, in mid-July, the players began to trickle into New Jersey. Even then they were separated into subgroups. It wasn’t until the end of July that the whole roster finally took the same field at the same time.
Now, on Monday, they’ll do that again. This time, though, it won’t be for a practice or a scrimmage. It won’t even be for a preseason game. No, this will be for a game that counts.
And the fact is no one can be certain what to expect from the Giants. Not even the Giants.
"We’ve done a good job as a team simulating some of those preseason games and trying to get reps with a game feel to it, practicing a lot of situations and a lot of things that would come up during games," quarterback Daniel Jones said. "We’ve been able to simulate a lot of the game-like situations that you would have gotten in the preseason."
But those simulations can only go so far. The Giants have not played a competitive snap against NFL opponents since last December. That’s so long ago that Eli Manning was on the field with them. It’s been a month or so of banging up against only each other, measuring themselves against only each other. Judge didn’t want strangers, and these Giants couldn’t help but oblige. But now they have to go out in the real world and face the Steelers. Then 15 other NFL barometers of their worth.
As a team, the Giants appear quietly confident they can exceed the low expectations most have for them.
"We’re really excited to get back on Monday night prime time," tight end Evan Engram said. "It really doesn’t get any better than that to start off the year. We’re practicing really well this week, really hard, preparing for the big game."
Even Jones, who will get his first opening day start without the benefit of a preseason, thinks everything is in place.
"I feel prepared, our team feels prepared," he said. "There’s a level of anticipation waiting for that game to come, but I feel prepared. I think we’re in a good spot as a team and as an offense. I feel comfortable going into Week 1. We’re all excited to get back out there."
How will they fare?
"You never can really just go out and be like, ‘Oh, this is how many wins we want, this is how many losses,’ " Saquon Barkley said. "You can’t predict that. But one of the things you can handle is how you come to work every single day. I think the approach that this team has taken and the response we have taken to Coach Judge’s methods have been great. Obviously we’re a young team. There’s going to be some adversity we’re going to face throughout the season. There’s going to be some adversity we’re going to face on Monday night. But it’s the way that we respond and the way that we continue to come to work and improve every single day."
Not as individuals, but as a team.
"There’s a lot of teams out there with a lot of talent that are split in different directions," Judge said. "I like when I see our guys and I see everyone moving in the same direction. There are going to be a lot of things we need to progress on and improve on throughout the year, but right now, I’m proud of the way our guys come to work every day, work together to get better, support each other and challenge each other on a daily basis.
"These guys have been working hard. There’s a lot of energy, there’s a lot of urgency in what we’re preparing to do, and we’re going to go out there and work to make the area proud."