The extent of knowledge about Joe Judge possessed by most NFL observers is that Patriots coach Bill Belichick spent a lot of time talking to Judge, his special teams coach, before games.
That's probably not the worst way to identify Judge. Anybody who has Belichick's ear on a football field is almost certainly worth noticing. But it should also give context to the uproar over the New York Giants' stunning decision to hire Judge as their new head coach Tuesday. Few people know much of Judge, so how can anybody have a fully formed opinion of how this will go?
According to a person with knowledge of the interview process, Judge lined up perfectly with what the Giants were looking for with this hire, with an emphasis on team-building and leadership. His presentation was as impressive as any that the people in the room -- including owner John Mara and general manager Dave Gettleman -- had seen. With the Giants clearly needing a coach who could command a room and create a culture for an NFL flagship franchise that has gone adrift, Judge set such a high bar in his interview that anybody else the Giants talked to -- including Matt Rhule -- was going to have to top him, the person said. Still, Rhule, a former member of Tom Coughlin's Giants staff attracting plenty of buzz with his strong performance at Baylor, was viewed as the front-runner for the job. He chose not to even interview with the Giants before accepting Carolina's seven-year, $62 million deal on Tuesday. The Giants declined to meet those terms -- can't blame them -- and turned to Judge.
Still, Judge, at 38, is an enormous risk, an outside-the-box hire for a traditionally conservative organization that has historically stuck to the familiar. He has never been a head coach and is now being handed one of the most high-profile and demanding jobs in American pro sports, with the dual responsibilities of resurrecting a team that hasn't been to the playoffs in seven of the last eight seasons and of ushering the franchise into its future behind quarterback Daniel Jones, drafted sixth overall in 2019. There are significant holes on the roster, and Judge's alignment with Gettleman's personnel vision, along with the quality of the coaching staff he assembles, will be especially critical for Judge's success. And, of course, everybody is going to need patience. Judge will almost certainly have a learning curve as he grows into the position. The Giants have an exceptionally young team, and Gettleman said last week that the Giants' immediate prospects depend on how the "puppies" come along. That has to apply to Judge now, too.
But it's too simplistic to dismiss Judge as completely unprepared for this a job this big. Judge has apprenticed for Nick Saban at Alabama and for Belichick for the last eight years in New England, and if he can even approach their attention to detail and ability to get the most out of players, the Giants will be thrilled.
But Judge's background coaching special teams is respected in coaching circles. For years, Belichick and Ravens coach John Harbaugh have bemoaned the lack of head-coaching opportunities for special teams coaches. Both are former special teams coaches -- Belichick had the job in Detroit and with the Giants, and Harbaugh was a special teams coordinator for nine years in Philadelphia before Andy Reid made him a defensive backs coach, one year before the Ravens hired him as head coach. Harbaugh had one huge advantage over Judge when he was hired for the 2008 season: Harbaugh took over a team that only a year earlier, in 2006, had finished 13-3. The Giants have won 12 games in the last three seasons combined.
Why do Belichick and Harbaugh vouch for special teams coaches? Because unlike offensive and defensive coordinators, special teams coaches have to manage players from both offense and defense -- except for the quarterback -- as so many also play on special teams units. And special teams coaches rarely have any say in which players they must work with, because those roster decisions are being made in the interests of the offense and defense, placing a premium on leadership and adaptability for a special teams coach.
But it's worth remembering something about Harbaugh. Last year, he looked to be on thin ice, the Ravens stagnating after missing the playoffs for three straight years and losing in the Wild-Card Round last year. And then, with one bold decision, questioned by plenty of people at the time, everything changed.
The Giants have been stagnant for nearly a decade. They hope they have just changed everything with a bold decision of their own.