EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – The customary pregame meetings and conversations among coaches will have the feel of a high school reunion when the Giants visit the Miami Dolphins in Hard Rock Stadium. There will be numerous handshakes, hugs, and reminisces between the three coaches on each side whose tenures overlapped at a famed football school.
Call it Bill Belichick High.
Head coaches Joe Judge and Brian Flores, as well as assistants Patrick Graham (assistant head coach/defensive coordinator) and (quarterbacks coach) Jerry Schuplinski of the Giants and (defensive coordinator) Josh Boyer and (co-offensive coordinator/tight ends coach) George Godsey of the Dolphins were all members of Belichick's New England Patriots staff at some point from 2009-19. In 2013, all six of them worked together in Foxborough.
Miami assistant tight ends coach Mike Judge is also a Patriots alum, though he predated the others, working in New England from 2005-06.
The connective tissue extended all the way to South Florida, where Graham was Flores' defensive coordinator in 2019. Judge brought him to the Giants as assistant head coach/coordinator last year.
NFL coaches compete every week against friends, but the bond between Judge and Flores is particularly strong. They worked together under Belichick from 2012-19, the former as special teams assistant and coordinator (doubling as the wide receivers coach in his final season) and the latter as safeties and then linebackers coach. Flores joined the New England staff as a coaching assistant in 2008.
Judge has had numerous issues to deal with in the last few days, notably the neck injury that will prevent quarterback Daniel Jones from playing in the game. But he has willingly discussed his relationship with Flores whenever he was asked.
So much familiarity presents so many uncommon preparation challenges that Judge said even the players were asking him about it this week.
"In terms of the philosophies, me and Flo have sat next to each other in a lot of meetings for a lot of years, watching practice tape every day, watching two-minute drives, four-minute drives and talking through, 'I would do it this way or here's another way we could do it,'" Judge said. "There's a lot of time that we spent, me, him Pat, Jerry, other coaches on that staff, where we were always talking ball. You'd end squad meetings and go into the cafeteria and get a coffee before breaking, and all people talk about is, 'Hey, did you see that game last night on Thursday night? Did you see how they handled that two-minute? Hey, they could have done this. They could have done that.' We've had a lot of these discussions and conversations."
"Now, I think with all of us, we've built in enough variety of a menu that you can approach things from the same philosophy, but different schematically if that makes sense. You find different ways of attacking it. Do you have to try to be something different than what you are and just go ahead and mask it? I don't think that's always the answer. I think you have to understand how Flo's going to approach it and how he's going to coach the game and then what we have to do to put our players in the best position. Look, a lot of times you're going to match it up where what you're trying to do is directly what he's trying to take away, schematically and situationally. Ultimately, you've got to make sure you put the right player in the right place, and they've got to make a play."
View rare photos of the all-time series between the New York Giants and Miami Dolphins
Flores told Miami-area reporters that Judge is a "good friend." He said the two have stayed in touch, though most conversations are about family, not football.
"Our wives are friends," Flores said. "My son and his daughter were in the same pre-K class, so we're talking about people I have great relationships with. But on Sunday, we're going to compete. I think that's what I know we're going to get from them. That's what they expect from us."
Judge and Flores each left the Patriots following the 2019 season for their first head coaching jobs. But it was on that long climb to the top position where they bonded.
"I think some of the tightest relationships you have in this business are the relationships you have when you're broke, grinding with somebody," Judge said. "Brian came into this league the same as I did in kind of a bottom of the totem pole type of position. We were given the opportunity to work and had the opportunity to work our way up. He certainly did that and I had the opportunity as well to do that. I think it's when you're kind of grinding through those long hours and stressful times and going through some adversity together is when you really form strong bonds with people. I have a tremendous amount of respect for Flo, I really, really do. He's very, very intelligent, he's got great command, he's a great leader, his players play the right way, they respond the right way, he pushes through adversity. I think he does all the right things."
No two coaches who will oppose each other tomorrow are as tight as Graham and Flores. Graham joined the Patriots in 2009, one year after Flores. They were together through the 2015 season and again in 2019 when Graham became a coordinator for the first time.
"Pat and I are good friends," Flores said. "We shared an office together. We've had our spats. Our wives are best friends. Our kids hang out. So, Pat is a great friend of mine. From a football coaching standpoint, we're more brothers than anything. I have a lot of respect for him."
Graham is a Connecticut native who wanted to live and work closer to his family. When Judge offered him that opportunity, Graham accepted, and Flores didn't stand in his way.
"I would never stand in the way of somebody doing something they wanted to do," Flores said. "That was something Pat wanted to do. I have a lot of respect for him and his family and I support him. I would never stand in the way of somebody doing something they wanted to do."
Graham, who was the Giants' defensive line coach in 2016-17, was eager to return to the organization.
"We're like brothers and just respected my decision and allowed me to come," Graham said. "It was just a chance to come back here to the New York Giants, close to home, close to my family, so that's really most of what played into it."
Distance and competition have not weakened the link between Graham and Flores.
"Flo is my man," Graham said. "I learned so much from Brian Flores. He's one of the smartest human beings I've ever been around in football, non-football. He challenges you to get better every day. I wouldn't be in this position if it wasn't for Flo. Learned a ton about football, learned a ton about life. There's nobody, in my opinion – I mean, he's one of the best coaches in this league in terms of whether it's leadership, in terms of strategy. I know these other people get mentioned all the time, but the guy was defensive coordinator when they won the Super Bowl, holding that team (the Rams) to that many points (three)."
"The leadership he has displayed down there in Miami, the leadership he has displayed whether we were QCs (quality control coaches), whether we were position coaches. I'm just telling you, that is my man. I love him to death, and I would not be here if it weren't for him in terms of how he challenges you to get better every day. He does a great job of that."
It should be quite the reunion on the Hard Rock field.