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Joe Judge should have plenty to worry about. In his first year as a head coach, he’s tasked with navigating a global pandemic and a social justice movement, trying to get out of Bill Belichick‘s shadow and doing all of that under the bright lights of the NFL‘s biggest market.
He certainly never expected his big chance would coincide with by far the most unpredictable time there’s ever been to be a first-year head coach. But Judge is a little bit different himself, and he’s stayed calm in the vortex of the swirling challenges.
“The game is a game of sudden change,” the New York Giants head coach tells Bleacher Report. “The biggest thing for me was, it’s my first time going around so I didn’t have anything that I was really stuck in…or I have to get done in a certain way. I just knew we had to adjust on the fly and make sure that we did necessary adjustments to get our team started the right way.”
He’s already stirred up the New York media with some unconventional motivational tactics.
In the offseason, he refused to publicly say Giants players’ names, explaining he wanted first to work with them in person (which turned out to be via Zoom). Since camp began, he’s made players and coaches run laps for making mistakes, taped tennis balls to his safeties’ hands, removed player names from practice jerseys and talked about maybe, potentially, letting his quarterback get hit in practice.
Judge, 38, has been preparing to be an NFL head coach throughout his coaching career, taking notes during his stops at Alabama under Nick Saban and his eight seasons of experience in New England under Bill Belichick. His preparation has extended to his pursuing a Ph.D. (more on that later).
But despite this deliberate approach, Judge showed up for his interview with the Giants empty-handed, whereas candidates usually come armed with a binder outlining every detail of their plan for the organization.
“I just came in to have a conversation,” Judge says. “For me, the interview was not going to be about any kind of PowerPoint presentation or anything I was going to build relative to, ‘Hey, here is a schedule I have laid out.’ Some people go in with, ‘Here are my first 90 days.’ Well, tell me how that works out when a pandemic hits.”
Judge says that now in hindsight. In January, he had no idea any 90-day plan would be completely upended by the coronavirus; he just knew he wanted to show he could adapt.
“There is no stagnant, ‘This is how I have done it somewhere else,'” he says. “It’s a different team. This is different than anywhere else I have ever been, so I can’t do exactly what I have done somewhere else.”
He and his coaching staff spent so much time together in the first two months before they were kicked out of the facility that they had a solid base for his core philosophies and playbook, which made going virtual a whole lot easier.
With the players, Judge knew he had to figure out a way for them to build relationships despite being scattered across the country. He wanted to make sure his meetings didn’t feel like “watching a webinar.”
So he added Giants trivia contests at the end of virtual meetings, calling on players to answer questions about the franchise’s history, the New York area and their fellow Giants teammates. (Quizzes are a favorite tool of Belichick’s, and Matt Patricia, another leaf off the Belichick tree, used similar quizzes when he first took over as Detroit‘s head coach.)
Judge also encouraged players to meet on their own time, which many of the younger players took as a directive to play video games together.
Seth Wenig/Associated Press
Giants special teamer Nate Ebner played for Judge for eight seasons in New England before reuniting with his former special teams coordinator in free agency this offseason. He’s used to Judge’s unorthodox coaching, including those tennis balls. Giants defensive backs get tennis balls taped to their hands in an effort to decrease holding tendencies.
“He did all kinds of creative things that just made the practice situation a little more difficult than what you would face in the game,” Ebner says. “The tennis balls on stuff…[Patriots special teamer] Matt Slater would get triple-teamed at gunner sometimes, and [Judge would] make the ball wet for the snapper when he is snapping the ball.”
In New York, Judge told reporters he removed names from the practice jerseys because, “It’s important to know the person across from you by the way they move.” And he got everyone’s attention when he discussed the possibility of removing quarterback Daniel Jones’ “no touching” red jersey to get his body ready for games and “pop his pads in a controlled environment.” (He later explained that, no, he would not put Jones in live tackling drills but would let defenders “bear-hug him a little bit and let him feel that.”)
Judge has also received his share of criticism for his Bill Parcellsian habit of making professionals run laps, which Judge explains is part of his primary philosophy: accountability. Hall of Famer Shannon Sharpe tweeted, “This isn’t going to end well.” Ben Watson, the former NFL tight end who played for the Patriots last season, replied to Sharpe’s tweet: “Never does. Be. Your. Self. There is only one BB.”
Watson made the obvious comparison to Belichick, who also uses lap discipline in New England. Head coaches hired from New England’s staff tend to face identical rounds of early criticism for trying too hard to replicate Belichick’s no-nonsense “do your job” culture.
Steven Senne/Associated Press
Judge is well aware of how he is—and will be—compared to his former boss, and the perception of failure associated with coaches who mimic Belichick without the track record to back it up.
“I do everything in my own personality,” he says. “I have always believed that. That’s who I am. I am always going to be myself. If I try to be anybody else the players will see right through it and I will lose them forever.”
“He has definitely put his own spin on things,” Ebner says. “He has been very transparent in the fact that you know where you stand with him. He has done a good job at making it white or black in a sport that can be very gray. It’s easier to play when you know where you stand.”
The Giants delayed practice last week to devote extra time to a team conversation about the shooting of Jacob Blake by a policeman in Kenosha, Wisconsin. The team has had ongoing conversations about social justice during Judge’s tenure and has established a Team of Teams initiative, which splits players and coaches into nine groups, each partnered with a different social justice organization in New York or New Jersey.
Judge declined to go into specifics as to what those conversations have been like and whether any of his players have discussed sitting out games this season. In college, Judge played at Mississippi State for Sylvester Croom, the SEC’s first Black head coach—an experience that taught him a lot about understanding racism in this country.
“We were privy to a lot of the stuff that he heard on the outside,” Judge says. “He didn’t ever really share that, but we knew what was going on, and it was important for us to play hard for Sly because it was important for us that he was successful.”
Judge is in the process of pursuing that Ph.D. in education (his dissertation, which he has tabled for the time being, focuses on collegiate punters and their production based on their age). There’s a scientific method at work here. He says his studies in education have taught him to stay fluid and tailor his coaching to fit each individual player’s needs. He’s learned to get creative with using different tools (like those tennis balls). He preaches accountability, which toes a fine line with hard-ass disciplinarian.
“That’s where the laps come in,” he says. “It is not a punishment, it is a reminder of, ‘Guys, there are consequences to what we do on the field, let’s stay focused and locked in.'”
Ebner says his new teammates are embracing Judge. “It’s been extremely encouraging to see the way that guys have responded because it’s not easy,” Ebner says. “I am a bit used to it, so I know how it goes. Some of these guys are young, and some come from different organizations. Whatever the case may be, the guys have done a great job of responding, and he has challenged them, no question. It’s been hard, but the response, as you can hear in the background, guys are laughing, they are having a great time.”
Ebner is speaking from the locker room, having just finished a practice during which Judge joined in on a slip-n-slide fumble drill, getting totally soaked in the mud for the entertainment of his players, who chanted “Judge! Judge! Judge!”
Judge is certainly not Belichick.
Kalyn Kahler covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow her on Twitter for NFL musings and weird quarantine thoughts: @KalynKahler.