Though there have been a number of successful head coaches in the NFL who began as special teams coordinators — from Marv Levy to John Harbaugh to even Bill Belichick, who held that position before he moved to defense with the Giants — it remains a rather unorthodox career path.
Which is why new Giants coach Joe Judge, whose highest previous title was special teams coordinator for the Patriots, wasn’t attracted to that third unit as a route to his ultimate destination.
“I never got into special teams with a path to being a head coach,” he said Thursday after being introduced in his new role. “I got into special teams because I had a passion for special teams.”
It began as a player, as a quarterback who went to Mississippi State but found his way onto the field through snaps other than those on offense or defense. His first real job, at Division III Birmingham Southern, was as special teams coordinator. At Alabama, it was special teams again. And with the Patriots? You guessed it.
“Everywhere he’s been, he’s worked with the whole team as a special teams coordinator,” Giants general manager Dave Gettleman said.
So why that avenue? Why not be an offensive guru or a defensive mastermind?
“I love the fact that special teams is solely situational,” Judge said. “There’s no fifth down. You get one shot. So you go out there on fourth down, you’d better make it work. It’s kind of like the hunter who hunts with one bullet. You’ve got to wait for your best shot.”
Judge demonstrated that to the Giants when the Patriots played them in October. His unit blocked a punt that led to a touchdown in New England’s win.
“It’s very situational,” Judge said. “You can create a great impact on the game. It definitely controls the vertical position on the field, and that’s important.”
It’s also the best approximation of being a head coach.
“Being a special teams coach, you have to know every player on your team inside and out because you have to know who you can use with a limited menu,” he said. “It’s kind of like when you’re hungry, you go to the fridge, your dad says, ‘Figure out a way to make a sandwich.’ You know it’s in there, but you’ve got to find a way because you’ve got to eat. So I’ve got to know what everybody does so I can put those ingredients together and get the most out of it.”
That goes for players already on the team and those trying to get there.
“Leading into every draft, I studied every player in the draft as a player and an athlete,” he said. “I didn’t look at them as a receiver, I didn’t look at them as a tight end, I didn’t look at them as a linebacker. I want to know how they moved. Are they stiff in the hips? Are they a straight-line speed guy? Do they use their hands? What kind of short-area quickness do they have? What kind of top-end speed do they have? Do they turn down contact? So I’m used to looking at things from a big-picture perspective on players in terms of what they bring to the team as a whole.”
Now, though, he won’t have to wait until fourth down to use that perspective.