The New York Giants took a gamble by hiring Joe Judge to be their new head coach. Most NFL head coaches were either offensive or defensive coordinators before ascending to the top job; Judge is one of just two NFL head coaches (the other being John Harbaugh) whose previous highest position in the sport was special teams coordinator. We don’t know what type of offense or defense Judge will run—just that he’s really, really good at scheming up punt blocks. (Really!)
But Judge wasn’t just any special teams coordinator. He was the special teams coordinator for the New England Patriots, where he worked under noted special teams enthusiast Bill Belichick. Before that, he was a special teams assistant at Alabama, where he worked from 2009 to 2011 under Nick Saban. (The Crimson Tide aren’t as renowned for special teams success as the Pats are. Just so we’re clear, this play happened after Judge left, not during his tenure.) Having worked for the greatest active pro football coach and the greatest active college football coach is like going to Harvard for undergrad and then MIT for your doctorate. Judge is a unicorn, or at least a regular horse bred from the offspring of Secretariat and Seattle Slew. Sure, former Belichick assistants have historically flopped in the head job (see: Romeo Crennel, Eric Mangini, Josh McDaniels, Jim Schwartz, Bill O’Brien, and Matt Patricia), and former Saban assistants have historically flopped as head coaches, too (see: Derek Dooley, Will Muschamp, Jim McElwain, and … Pat Shurmur, the Giants head coach directly before Judge). But maybe crossing the two streams will work?
It’s already clear that Judge has a different personality than both Belichick and Saban. While his two former bosses are no-nonsense guys, Judge clearly believes strongly in the power of gimmickry. He’s made headlines for a variety of kooky motivational tactics meant to instill discipline and a winning culture—in spite of the fact that neither Belichick nor Saban (nor, in some cases, any coach in pro football history) has employed them. He also recently called his players together at what was scheduled to be the end of practice, yelled at them, and then made them practice for another half-hour.
Judge reminds me a lot of former Chicago Bulls coach Jim Boylen. Boylen was hired from the bench of legendary San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, and instituted punitively long practices and asked players to use a retro workplace punch clock when entering and exiting the team facility. The players hated it, leading to a team mutiny in which they bluntly told Boylen that they wouldn’t respect him like Popovich because he wasn’t Popovich. Boylen was fired earlier this month after compiling a 39-84 record in a season and a half.
As long as Judge keeps taking unusual approaches with his players, we’ll be grading those approaches in a column called What’s the Verdict? With Judge Joe Judge, using a scale of one to five gavels.
Court is now in session.
For his first few months as the Giants head coach, Judge refused to name any starters. I mean this quite literally: He refused to publicly utter the name of any of his team’s players before having the opportunity to work with them in person. This is roughly the same tactic that Harry Potter took with Voldemort before facing off against the Dark Lord.
“I haven’t worked with these guys on the field yet,” Judge said of his policy in February. “That’s the ultimate test of how they are within your program. Before I really have an expert view of what this is, I’ve got to coach the guy on the field first.”
Judge broke this rule shortly after the NFL draft, by which point he’d begun working with players via video meetings. He now routinely mentions his players in press conferences.
The message, ostensibly, was that nobody’s spot on the team was secure. Everybody—even star running back Saquon Barkley—would have to prove their worth to the new head coach. Of course, this message was entirely disingenuous: The Giants have invested greatly in players like Barkley and quarterback Daniel Jones, and would be out of their minds to bench them simply because they didn’t prove themselves to Judge on the practice field.
Nothing would’ve changed if Judge had told reporters, “You know, that Saquon Barkley guy is pretty good at football.” His monthslong refusal to do so did nothing except make unnecessary headlines, which is supposedly the thing no-nonsense, football-first coaches like Judge try to avoid at all costs. I’m giving this 2.5 gavels.
Saquon Who? Part 2
Even though Judge is now willing to refer to players by name, he still doesn’t want them to be too closely associated with their names. We know this because Judge made the executive decision to remove players’ names from the backs of their practice jerseys. “We know who they are,” the coach said. He further explained this choice by adding, “It’s important to know the person across from you by the way they move.”
Interesting from Joe Judge on #Zoom. #NYG don’t have names on practice jerseys. Why? “We should know who we are by the way they carry themselves.” And “It’s important to know the person across from you by the way they move.” Hmmm. Never thought of that.— Kim Jones (@KimJonesSports) August 17, 2020
I’m not sure why it’s important for football players to be able to identify their teammates by “the way they move,” or why this isn’t possible if there’s an additional piece of identifying information on a jersey. For that matter, I’m not sure how players lined up across from each other would even be able to see the names on the back of their counterparts’ jerseys.
That said, this is definitely a page ripped from the Belichick playbook. In 2016, the NFL cracked down on the Patriots because Belichick tried to run practices without assigning players uniform numbers. Belichick responded by assigning players numbers they wouldn’t wear during games.
From the way Judge talked about this decision, you’d think that his mandate to remove players’ names from their practice jerseys was unprecedented. But the truth is plenty of other teams have done this. Besides the Pats, dysfunctional organizations like the Jets, Lions, and Bengals don’t have player names on their practice jerseys. Meanwhile, the Chiefs and 49ers—the teams who played in the last Super Bowl—both have names on their practice jerseys. Somehow, having a name on the back of his practice jersey didn’t overinflate Patrick Mahomes’s ego.
This feels like another method of trying to instill a team-first atmosphere that functionally changes very little. And Judge has made a rather big deal about something that’s commonplace, which once again seems to be the opposite of what a no-nonsense coach should do. On the plus side, this probably makes life much easier for equipment managers who no longer have to spend so much time sewing player names onto the back of jerseys. I’m giving this one gavel.
Whipping Bret Bielema Into Shape
The most publicized part of the Joe Judge coaching experience so far has been the Giants players being asked to run laps when they make mistakes. “There are consequences on the field for making mistakes,” Judge said a few weeks ago. “In a game, it costs you 5, 10, or 15 yards.”
In practice, it apparently means that you have to make a fool of yourself while everybody else continues working on football stuff. Laps can be assigned for behavioral infractions (like fighting a teammate) or committing a false start in a drill. They can even be assigned for being a quarterback whose cadence leads to a false start, a recent misstep that triggered a lap for Jones. Nobody is safe!
When asked about this development, wide receiver Sterling Shepard told reporters that he hadn’t been assigned laps as a punishment since middle school. Judge has been widely criticized for this move: Former NFL player Emmanuel Acho called lap running as punishment “imbecilic,” and Hall of Famer Shannon Sharpe tweeted that Judge’s policy “isn’t going to end well.”
What’s perhaps more surprising, though, is that Judge isn’t just making his players run laps—he’s making his coaches run laps when their players screw up too. While coaches have been asked to run more rarely than the players have, it happens from time to time. This is a bit jarring for Judge’s staff, which includes several former head coaches: former Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett is the Giants offensive coordinator; former Browns head coach Freddie Kitchens is the team’s tight ends coach; and former Wisconsin and Arkansas head coach Bret Bielema coaches New York’s outside linebackers. I’ve seen Bret Bielema run before, and it’s not pretty. “As you can tell, I am probably not excited about the opportunity to run,” Bielema said when asked about the policy. “I can’t say it’s something I would carry forward if I’m ever fortunate to be a head coach again.” (Translation: He hates it and he thinks it’s dumb.)
Some have drawn a parallel between Judge making his charges run laps and Belichick famously making his players run the hills behind the Gillette Stadium practice facilities. Many feel that New England’s focus on grueling post-practice conditioning drills was responsible for the team’s impressive stamina in its historic Super Bowl comeback against the Falcons, in which the Pats ran 99 plays against a totally gassed Atlanta defense. Coaches have been known to join in the hill runs—including Belichick himself. But the hills were unifying. Judge’s laps specifically single out players (and, for some reason, coaches) who fail. And besides: Everybody just jogs the laps, which doesn’t seem like much of a conditioning boost.
This is the most Joe Judge thing. Everybody resents it, it doesn’t make anybody better at football, and it results in out-of-shape middle-aged men huffing and puffing around a practice field. Most importantly, Judge seems to be the only person capable of assigning this punishment. Judge Joe Judge is the judge … and jury. I’m giving this the full five gavels.
Potentially Letting His QB Get Tackled in Practice
Last Tuesday, a reporter asked Judge a strange question: Would he allow full-contact practice hits on Jones, the second-year quarterback who was taken with the sixth pick in the 2019 draft? This question should have elicited a simple answer—no. No football team I’ve ever watched practice—at the professional, college, or high school levels—allows their quarterbacks to be tackled in practice. Quarterbacks generally wear red practice jerseys that make this abundantly clear—like at an intersection, defenders have to stop when they see red.
Instead of flatly denying that the team might let its franchise QB take some practice hits, though, Judge said that his coaching staff had talked about it. “I don’t think we’re going to throw him into any Royal Rumbles or anything like that,” Judge told reporters. “But at some point, we’ll pop his pads a little bit in a controlled environment.”
This is the full quote Dave, with the question specifically asking about it. pic.twitter.com/Ue78ujfP0z— John Schmeelk (@Schmeelk) August 26, 2020
There’s a reason the NFL instituted roughing the passer rules that don’t apply to any other player on the field. First off, quarterbacks are generally unable to protect themselves from hits, as they’re often trying to throw the ball up until the moment they get tackled. A running back or receiver with the ball can generally brace their bodies for a hit; quarterbacks, by nature of their throwing motions, are often left vulnerable to hits that could result in devastating injuries. Secondly, QBs are the most valuable players on just about every team in the NFL. Since there are so few players capable of playing the position in the pros effectively, teams invest massively in their quarterbacks, and would prefer that they not get injured.
Judge appears to understand this, at least to a degree. In that earlier response about exposing Jones to practice hits, the coach said he’s “not in a hurry to beat the hell out of him.” And there is a reason to push Jones to get more comfortable under pressure: The QB led the league in fumbles last season, with 18 in only 13 games. He simply can’t fumble 1.4 times per game if the Giants want to win. And with no preseason this year, Week 1 will be the first time quarterbacks can get hit.
However, when reporters followed up with Judge on his approach, he said that the plan was to fill socks with bars of soap and then “take him out back and wail on him for a while.”
Joe Judge, expanding on his controversial statement that he wants to get QB Daniel Jones to take some hits this summer, said his plan is to fill socks with bars of soap and then “We’re just going to take him out back and wail on him for a while.”— Ralph Vacchiano (@RVacchianoSNY) August 26, 2020
On the one hand, it seems like Judge was being sarcastic. On the other hand … that does sound like the controlled environment Judge referenced earlier. I’m giving this four gavels.
Taping Tennis Balls to Defenders’ Hands
Reporters noticed Giants defensive backs running drills with tennis balls taped to their hands on Tuesday, an innovation Judge says will teach them to defend without committing holding penalties. “We’re not going to accept penalties,” Judge said. “So we’ll find any little trick we can to teach them.”
Looked like Giants defensive backs had tennis balls taped to their hands during practice the past few days. Turns out, that's the case. Judge said they're teaching them not to hold. "We're not going to accept penalties. So we'll find any little trick we can to teach them." pic.twitter.com/gJ0hzeEXDu— Dan Duggan (@DDuggan21) August 26, 2020
This tactic may seem absurd, but then again, people said the same thing about the first guy to chase after quarterbacks with brooms. We’ll see if it works! I’m giving this only half a gavel.
Having Players Run Directly Into Each Other
For all the flak Judge has caught for making his players run laps around each other, I’m more concerned about his strategy of making players run directly into each other. A recent practice came to a screeching halt when a goal-line tackling drill resulted in cornerback Corey Ballentine lying motionless for a few minutes.
Scary sight during practice: CB Corey Ballentine was motionless for a few minutes after a head-on collision with WR Austin Mack. Cart came out but Ballentine wound up being OK and actually finished practice. Trainers appeared to be checking his right shoulder.— Dan Duggan (@DDuggan21) August 18, 2020
Injury happened during the most physical drill I’ve seen in five NFL camps. Defensive players lined up on goalline, offensive players were a few yards away. Offensive player picked up ball and they met at the goal line.— Dan Duggan (@DDuggan21) August 18, 2020
Judge says he’s been running this drill for 10 years, and he seems to be telling the truth: The Pats have a similar drill. However, the NFL banned certain “old-school training camp drills” like the Oklahoma drill in 2019, perhaps in part because former Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia insisted on running variants on the Oklahoma drill in 2018 after becoming the Lions head coach. Almost every other coach at the highest levels of football has long since abandoned the Oklahoma drill because of its tendency to get players injured.
Maybe Belichick’s teams have been so successful because of the physical intensity of their practices. That’s what his disciples seem to believe. My personal theory is that Belichick’s teams have been so successful because he’s the greatest head coach of all time. So when I see coaches like Judge make a big deal about the physicality part, it makes me think they’re not fully equipped to follow through on the great coaching part. I’m giving this 4.5 gavels.