May 25, 2021
The New York Giants had not won a game yet and Joe Judge was smiling under a drenched blue cap dripping rain from its bill on a dreary, overcast October weekday. He speaks in matter-of-fact tones. He hears himself in matter-of-fact tones. He can be very demanding. He can be very critical. He doesn’t play rock, paper, scissors.
No one, however, can be more demanding nor more critical than the Giants head coach can be about himself. And he knew he had an answer back in October that he wanted. The muddy faces that entered the Giants’ practice facility that afternoon told him so — his team was going to be okay.
In his first year as an NFL head coach, the 2000 Lansdale Catholic grad was a dropped fourth-quarter pass and an Eagles’ season finale tank job from winning the NFC East. He guided the Giants to a 6-10 mark, two games better than the previous season and their best finish since 2016. In a year’s time, Judge has made a profound difference in the culture of the team, shifting the Giants toward an upward arc.
Now, the New York Giants are playoff contenders.
But Joe Judge doesn’t want to hear any of that. He came from the Bill Belichick coaching tree where seasons end with hoisting Lombardi Trophies in early-February.
What did Joe Judge like about Joe Judge after his rookie season in the NFL?
“I probably took a more critical look at myself after the season as to what I have to do better,” Judge told PhillyVoice. “What can I do to help our team? I absolutely love our team. I love the direction where we’re going. I love our locker room and we don’t make it easy on them. We told our guys in our very first meeting that this isn’t going to be an easy place to play, and they really responded to that.
“That was by design. That was intentional. Everywhere I’ve ever been, where we’ve had success, they’ve made it worthwhile and made it tough, but made it with a purpose. Our guys really responded to that. I think this generation of players are really smart and they really respond in understanding why you’re doing things. It closes the gap to where you’re going.
“It’s been a fun team to be around.”
Judge said the biggest thing his first season reaffirmed some things about himself. He surrounded himself with a good, veteran coaching staff that he leaned on, people he trusts who don’t necessarily think the same way as he does, but share the same core values and philosophies as he has.
"Everyone has to work together, it can never be one side of the building versus the other—ever. Everyone in this league has talent to some degree. But the buildings that are divided are the ones that can’t have success."
He’s not afraid to hear “no.”
“We look at things through the same goal and look at things from a team perspective,” he said. “To me, a lot of things that get reaffirmed as you go on is about having to stay to the foundation, where you have to stay to the fundamentals, you have to be patient with what you’re doing and not let external factors affect how we work inside a team.
“We were able to do that. That was something that I thought was going to be a challenge. We talk all of the time about ignoring the noise, and we were able to do it.”
Judge admits there is a great collaboration between he and Giants’ general manager Dave Gettleman. One of the major platforms Judge stressed when he took the Giants job was everyone had to be on the same page.
“Everyone has to work together, it can never be one side of the building versus the other—ever,” Judge said. “Everyone in this league has talent to some degree. But the buildings that are divided are the ones that can’t have success. I’ve been able to work with some great people in this league.
“The one thing they were able to do was really unite everyone in the building. They all knew what the mission was and how they were going to get there. There was no division. There was no one running around looking to take credit. Everyone shared it. They shared a plan and a philosophy and I banged that drum and screamed that message when I came on with the Giants.
“There is no dissent here. Everyone is an expert in their field and we’ll move forward together. I tell our guys all of the time that I’m okay with hearing ‘yes,’ I’m okay with hearing ‘no,’ and I’m not okay with hearing surprises.”
Giants’ ownership and management gave Judge trust and faith from the start. Giants’ ownership is at practice every day. Judge makes it a point to inform everyone what his message is and what his vision is.
“Ownership understands what we’re working on and what we need to improve on, and the support internally has been great,” Judge said. “If anyone looks at their season last year, they can't say it was successful except for one, Tampa (Bay Buccaneers), because there is only one team that walks away with the prize.”
Under Judge, the Giants made great strides last season. His top priorities were to establish a foundation and build a culture. If the Giants accomplished nothing else, that’s what Judge wanted to accomplish to get the franchise moving forward again. Before Judge arrived, the Eagles had owned the Giants the last five years, beating New York eight-straight times.
Last season, the Giants beat the Eagles for the first time since 2016 and should have won twice, if not for a late-fourth quarter drop in the Eagles’ fortunate 22-21 victory at Lincoln Financial Field on Oct. 22. The Giants started last season 1-7, before rebounding to finish 5-3.
“I probably learned more about our team when we were 0-5 and 1-7 than I did everything else, because our guys worked, worked hard every day, were in tune, and at no point was there any quit in our guys. They kept coming back to work,” Judge said. “We showed them what they did wrong every week and they understood. I have a team that works their butts off. We were 0-5 and I remember standing out there in a torrential downpour, watching our team practicing on a muddy field, and I was watching our players and it was one of the best practices I’ve ever been at.
“It was sloppy rain. We had several close contacts without practically an offensive line. We had a practice-squad guard who was learning to play center and everything you can have stacked against you, and watching our team practice, I was thinking, ‘We’re going to be okay.’ These guys understand what it is to work. These guys left the field smiling with mud on their face. They loved playing football.”
Last year was a great first step for Judge. The Giants look playoff bound. Judge wants more than that. The Giants are heading in a good direction.
Again, Judge doesn’t want to hear that.
“My staff are all guys that I know and they all know they can walk into my office at any time and say, ‘Joe I don’t agree with this,’ and we’ll talk about it and come away with some agreement,” Judge said.
Judge did not back away from the Eagles’ season finale, in the controversial 20-14 loss to the Washington Football team in which Washington beat out the Giants for the NFC East title. Numerous sources within the NFL and the Eagles have said the final game was designed for the Eagles to “tank.” Fired Eagles coach Doug Pederson pulled Jalen Hurts and maintained that he wanted to give third-string quarterback Nate Sudfeld a chance to play. Despite that, he claimed that he "was coaching to win.”
Everyone else in the NFL knows the truth — that Pederson was directed to yank Hurts in favor of Sudfeld to improve the Eagles’ draft status. The Eagles have denied this, though it worked well for the Birds, who got the No. 6 overall pick and traded the pick for an additional 2022 first-round pick. It left a bad taste for the rest of the NFL — and especially the Giants.
"Point blank, we won six games. We’re not a playoff team. We didn’t deserve it. I have no complaints about that. We have to get better."
“I like Doug Pederson and I have nothing but absolute respect for Doug,” Judge said. “I was asked about the situation and brought it up with our team and then to the press. My comments were not about Doug, they were about the situation. Doug has been good to me, but my whole comment on the game was about respect for the game and respect for the players, who were playing to win.
“Point blank, we won six games. We’re not a playoff team. We didn’t deserve it. I have no complaints about that. We have to get better. I like our team. I wanted to make the playoffs. I wanted to keep playing. That’s why you play the game. I want to give our team a chance to have success.”
In Judge’s second year, the Giants find themselves in a much better position than they were in 2020. Star tailback Saquon Barkley returns after suffering a season-ending torn ACL in his right knee in the Giants’ second game of 2020. Signing wide receiver Kenny Golladay was a big plus, and grouping him with Darius Slayton, Sterling Shepard and Evan Engram — along with first-round draft pick Kadarius Toney — gives the Giants quite possibly the best skill-set group in the NFC East.
Moving forward, Judge sees a team that has bought into his vision.
“I’m not into predictions or comparisons, and I’m going to keep it more in the general lane of seeing daily improvement from our team on an individual and collective basis,” Judge said. “That’s all. It starts in the spring, carries through training camp and into the season.”
There’s a strong likelihood it won’t involve any games of rock, paper, scissors.
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Joseph Santoliquito is an award-winning sportswriter based in the Philadelphia area who has been writing for PhillyVoice since its inception in 2015 and is the president of the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be followed on Twitter here.