Around this time last year, with the world in the thrall of a raging pandemic, Joe Judge still had a team to build. Virtual meetings were familiar, but they weren't second nature yet. The then-rookie head coach needed a solution.
To break the ice, he subdivided his team into groups. They played for prizes based on knowledge – not of the playbook, but of each other and their local surroundings.
There was nothing trivial about it.
"This team was the first team that reminded me of the college days, where everybody is buddies," linebacker Blake Martinez said recently during the Giants’ Town Hall session. "Everybody is having fun, everybody knows about each other. Just because we're so young and that's what everybody on our team is used to, it just made it simple to reach out to guys, to go have dinner with guys, go play video games during OTAs together, and just build a bond. Then when you stepped on the field, it was, oh, I'm playing with my best friend that I've known forever. That's just how I felt throughout the season."
As they found their groove, the Giants went 5-3 in the second half of the season – including a signature win in Seattle – and stayed in the running for the NFC East crown until the 256th and final game of a 2020 NFL season like no other.
Martinez, a newcomer himself from Green Bay, knew the Giants' success in November and December directly correlated to what they did in April and May - within that time, leaders emerged. He was one of them.
"The coaches allowed that nature to happen organically," said Martinez, who was elected a defensive co-captain by his teammates. "It wasn't just like, 'Hey, Blake, you have to say something.' They held us to a certain standard, and then at that point, certain guys were showing that standard and it started to become the majority. Then at that point, any guy that wasn't doing it felt like, 'Oh, I'm messing up, I need to pick it up, I need to do this.' Then other guys who were putting in that much work to make sure they were at that standard weren't going to let other guys around them not to reach that point and that level of play."
Martinez, who is the only player in the league with at least 140 tackles in each of the past four seasons (three were with the Packers), will likely have a few more players under his tutelage after this week. The Giants hold six picks in the upcoming draft, which begins Thursday night in Cleveland.
Five years ago, Martinez was in their position. He had just completed an illustrious career at Stanford, where he won three Pac-12 titles (2012, 2013, 2015) and played in three Rose Bowls (won two). But the Butkus Award semifinalist waited 130 picks before he heard his name called in the draft.
"It was a roller coaster ride, I'm not going to lie," the fourth-round pick said. "It was the ups and downs of 'OK, you're going to get drafted here, you're not getting drafted here, you might get drafted here, this team might like you, this team might like you.' Then as the draft went on, it was, 'Hey, we expected you to get drafted here.' And then as that time frame started to dwindle and I wasn't drafted, you started to get disappointed, upset. But then obviously once you get that draft moment happen, you celebrate with your family and just have an amazing day of achieving one of your lifelong goals."
Once he got drafted, then the real work began.
"It was definitely an eye-opening moment," Martinez said. "You get that opportunity to be drafted, but at that point, what are you going to make of that opportunity? Then when you step into that locker room for the first time -- especially in Green Bay, I was with Clay Matthews, Julius Peppers, Aaron Rodgers, Jordy Nelson, and the list goes on during that time – you're like, oh, wow. I need to step up my game that much more. I need to do something extra. I need to make it where all of a sudden, I get to that point when the season starts, I'm not a rookie. I'm a second-, third-year [player] mentally in a football game, understanding it so the guys around me can trust me when I do go out there on the field."
Martinez added: "I just remember [that first practice] seeming it was 10 days long. Nonstop you were doing things, nonstop your mind was racing of what am I doing on this play, what am I doing on this, where does my coach want me to be, how do I not get yelled at? Everything that possibly could go through your brain and then all of a sudden you see these guys just out there making it seem so seamless. You're like, OK, I need to work to get to that."
Now, the incoming rookies will say the same thing about him.
View photos of linebacker Blake Martinez in his first season with the Giants.