Standing way off to the side of the stage where Joe Judge was introduced as the new head coach of the Giants on Thursday was a gathering of former players who had come to see what this new era of football is going to be about.
Justin Tuck, Rich Seubert, David Diehl, Jeff Feagles — Super Bowl champs all — listened as Judge painted the very first broad strokes of what he visualizes for the Giants moving forward.
They nodded. Maybe they even flinched a little bit. And perhaps they even felt that old fire that had led to the rings they wore to the event.
Because they had heard most of it before, like an old tune that comes on the radio and makes you sing along with lyrics you didn’t even know you remembered. Talk about being on time, dressing the right way, even stretching properly. For them, it was as if Tom Coughlin had returned in the form of a 38-year-old with a Philadelphia accent.
“I was like, ‘Whoa! Is this a time warp?’ ” Amani Toomer said.
The Giants hope so. It’s been a while since they’ve won consistently, since they’ve had a head coach who oversees every aspect of the team, and since they’ve heard the kind of rhetoric — not empty rah-rah words but strong, definitive, motivating ones — that Judge delivered on Thursday.
Whether all of those go hand-in-hand remains to be seen, but inadvertently or not, Judge certainly channeled the voices of Giants history while addressing the future.
“What I’m about is an old-school, physical mentality,” Judge said. “We will play fast, we will play downhill, we will play aggressive. We will punch you in the nose for 60 minutes and play every play like it has a history of its own with a relentless, competitive attitude.
“This city is full of tough people and they expect to see a program and a product that represents them,” he added. “I’m going to do everything in my power every day to make sure the people of this city and this area put on the TV or sit in the seats and are proud to say that we’re their New York Giants.”
It’s little wonder why Judge appealed so much to ownership and management during his interview on Monday. Co-owner John Mara said right up to the moment Judge walked in the door he considered the special teams coordinator from the Patriots to be “a long shot” for the job. But then Judge began talking about Giants pride and physical football and all the other elements that the franchise has built its success on — and gotten away from in recent years — and they melted.
“I’m painfully aware that we’ve lost some credibility with our fans over the last few years,” Mara said. “We need to win their trust back. I think with this new hire, we’re on the right track to doing that. We have a healthy cap situation, we have the fourth pick in the draft, we’ve got some good, young players coming back. We obviously need more, but I think we have the right guy to lead us now.”
Mara said similar things about Ben McAdoo and Pat Shurmur at their introductory news conferences. And he knows that.
“It does feel different,” Mara said of this hire, saying once again that Judge gave the best interview he’d been a part of. Then, when asked why he hired Judge so quickly after the interview even though no other NFL teams had spoken with Judge and there were other candidates still with meetings scheduled, Mara used a line similar to the one the Giants used when explaining why they drafted Daniel Jones with the sixth pick in the draft.
“I did not want to chance losing him,” Mara said, “because we had a conviction about him.”
While the former players enjoyed the flashbacks at the news conference, the current players (who were notably absent from the event) may be in for a rude awakening. Judge talked about having tough practices complete with full tackling, something the Giants have not had for more than a decade.
“It’s a contact sport, you can’t get around that,” Judge said. “It’s a physical game and it’s for tough people. We will practice with a physical attitude. We will practice in pads. We will practice live tackling . . . Everything we ask them to do on Sunday we’re going to make sure we have practiced, corrected and re-practiced before they have to do it at a live pace.”
He also said he knew the Giants’ job was the fit for him when the subject of discipline came up in the interview.
“That moment was when it really clicked that this is where I belong and where I want to be,” he said.
Judge did separate himself from Early Coughlin when he spoke about “caring for the players in the locker room.”
“Let’s not forget there is a human element to this game,” he said. “Let’s not think that in professional sports, paying a paycheck to somebody makes it absent of empathy. We need to make sure that the players in our locker room, we treat them the right way.”
But they’ll have to reciprocate.
“The only culture we’re going to have in that building is a winning culture,” Judge said. “What that means is that everybody comes to work every day regardless of how they feel. It’s the team first, period. Whatever you have going on outside the building, you’re sick, a little bit of pain, discomfort, you’re upset, you’re mad, you put all of that aside. You come in and you put the team first.
“We’re going to ask our players to do things that may not necessarily be what they have in mind for themselves, but if it’s best for the team, they have to want to go forward. That’s what winning culture is.”
So the Giants move into 2020 with a new coach espousing familiar themes. With philosophies that have sown championships, both here and at Judge’s previous coaching stops in New England and Alabama.
“The same things win football games that have always won football games,” Judge said. “It’s fundamentals.”
Few franchises cling as tightly to their past as the Giants do, and often that works as a detriment to progress. Whether it is believing in a championship quarterback longer than they probably should, trusting a general manager whose decisions have come up short in producing victories, or embracing thinking that worked in decades past but seems antiquated, change has come slowly and often painfully for them. Only time will tell if the events of this week push the Giants forward or mire them deeper in their own history books.
The Giants have a new head coach in name, but they seem pleased to have an old head coach in spirit. Judge was able to replicate the tones of Coughlin and Bill Parcells enough to get the job and win the news conference.
Now he has to replicate their success to make the decision pay off. And maybe, many years from now, when the Giants introduce their 25th head coach, Jones and Saquon Barkley will be standing off to the side, wearing their rings and nodding along to the familiar tones that earned them.