Rookie head coaches generally need certain things to succeed in the NFL. An experienced staff helps quite a bit. The open-mindedness and faith of the roster is essential. Obviously, quality players are the key to any winning football season.
But there are usually also one or two players who the new man in charge brings with him, either from his previous place of employment or an earlier stop in his career, to act as a liaison with the locker room. It’s typically a veteran who can come in and explain the whys and hows of the new system, not only in terms of the playbook but also in regard to the culture.
Joe Judge has such an ambassador in Nate Ebner.
The free agent signed a one-year deal with the Giants in early March and is certainly expected to make an impact as a special teams player for the squad when it returns to the field. He’s also going to likely serve as Judge’s translator among the players, cluing others in on the thinking of the head coach and setting an example of how he’ll want things done when the time comes.
It’s a job that Ebner said he doesn’t necessarily want or even think about filling… and yet in doing so executed it almost flawlessly.
“I’m going to let Joe speak for himself on what his message and culture is and all that stuff that he wants to do,” Ebner said on a conference call on Tuesday. “I can tell you this: Whatever is asked of me, not only from Joe but the rest of that coaching staff, I’m going to do the best I can to do it to the best of my ability. Whatever capacity they need me in, whatever I’m asked to do, I’m going to do it and I’m going to do it as best I can.”
A little Ebner magic right there. In dismissing the idea that he has come to be the new head coach’s “guy,” he succinctly summed up the Joe Judge Mission Statement as well as anyone could.
It’s what Ebner brings with him from the Patriots, where he and Judge spent eight years on squads that went to the postseason eight times and won three Super Bowls.
“That, to me, is what I’ve kind of watched some great players do in New England and that’s kind of a mindset that, as a team, if we can all buy into it together, then we’ll be in there playing for each other,” Ebner said. “That’s what great teams do is play for each other.”
Judge made a point of hiring a staff of coaches who come from backgrounds and experiences similar to his own. Most have, like Judge, worked for Nick Saban or Bill Belichick at some point.
“If you’re going to do the map of our entire staff, I had some kind of a personal relationship or professional relationship with everybody that we have on our staff,” Judge noted when he spoke at the Combine in February. “That was important to me because it’s going to be enough to get our players on the same page. I didn’t want to waste time this season learning each other as coaches. That’s going to be a challenge enough as it is. If I didn’t work with you directly but you worked within a similar scheme or system, you have a better understanding of what I’m trying to accomplish and that there’s a rhyme and a reason behind certain things we’re going to do. On the outside looking in, if you are joining a staff for the first time, that may not always be very clear. But when you’ve gone through it and have experienced success within that system, it’s easier to embrace.”
Ebner becomes the player who fills that role.
The Giants have other players who were with the Patriots during Judge’s tenure there and obviously know him well. Nate Solder, preparing for his third season with the Giants, was a long-time Patriot. Newly signed offensive lineman Cam Fleming spent the first four seasons of his career with the Patriots. But each of those linemen were offensive players who dabbled in special teams.
Ebner comes with a far more intimate understanding of Judge, though, having been a special teams standout throughout his career. It’s a career that overlaps exactly with Judge’s, too. They both arrived in the NFL in New England in 2012, both had to adjust to the new level of expectations and performance of not just the league but that franchise, and both climbed to places of prominence in the organization. Now they are both Giants, too.
Considering how rapidly the process of hiring Judge in January unfolded (his arrival in New Jersey as a little-known candidate for the head coach vacancy preceding his acceptance of the job by less than 48 hours) and the work-at-home dynamic that the Giants now employ (in accordance with guidelines to help diminish the spread of COVID-19), to many in the organization Judge is still a man of mystery. He hasn’t even met many of the players in person yet.
All of which is to say that the person in the organization who knows Judge the best at this point is almost certainly Ebner.
So what’s his take on the new head coach?
“Joe works extremely hard,” Ebner said. “He really, really pays attention to the details. He comes to work with a lot of energy. He’s done that consistently over the eight years that I’ve known him and I think that’s a genuine part of him. I think he is going to bring that same energy and same attention to detail and work ethic.
“At the end of the day he cares a lot about his guys,” Ebner added. “I can’t say that about a lot of coaches. I think that is special and I think that is hopefully going to make a lot of players want to play for him.”
Ebner is already sold in that regard.
“Ultimately, it’s about finding guys who want to put everything into their work every day and when it comes to Sunday they are going to fight for each other,” Ebner said. “A lot of selflessness and guys who are going to put it all on the line for one another. It sounds like there would be more to it or it sounds like rah-rah stuff.
“But that’s the truth.”
At least the one he’s been brought in to preach.