Like all football coaches, Joe Judge spends a portion of each day talking to his players, instructing, encouraging and correcting them. But current events have prompted the Giants to extend their discussions beyond football schemes and strategy. The recent senseless deaths of George Floyd and other African American citizens, mass demonstrations, racial and social injustice have been discussed by millions of people not only in this country but around the world.
That includes the Giants, whose players, coaches, executives and ownership have had numerous conversations about how they can help make ours a better and more just society. And in those talks, Judge believes it is better to receive coaching than administer it.
"It starts with listening," Judge said. "It started out early on with us having conversations. It was very important for myself, the owners were very involved, the other coaches and players, to just listen. We wanted to just open up the format for our players to share some of their experiences and some of their points of view. We're trying to just better understand. We don't have all the answers and we don't have all the same perspectives. We have to do our part as a team to just listen to each other."
Judge spoke remotely to Bob Papa, the longtime play-by-play announcer on the Giants' radio broadcasts. They covered numerous topics, but none as emotional and significant as those that have superseded the coronavirus at the top of most newscasts and the resulting demands for justice.
Judge wants the Giants to tackle those issues head on.
"We have to be a team that has open communication," he said. "We have to be a team that can have tough conversations and can understand the individuals that make up the collective team itself. But through the conversations, that's really just been a starting point for us. Those conversations will continue as the season goes on, as training camp comes.
"What's coming out of it with our players is really wanting to take the energy and the emotion of today and turn that into action that can make a difference. Really a specific, sustained difference. Our players at the moment have identified societal issues that they feel to be important, that they want to be involved with. As an organization, we're connecting our players to local organizations in the New York/New Jersey area that they can be connected and start taking action and being involved with our communities, which is something that's very important to us as an organization, that wherever you grew up, we're all New Yorkers now. We're all living in the New Jersey/ New York area, so it's important for us to be connected to these communities and to be able to do something positive to help out. We want to be a team that's a positive example of how we can all work together and make a difference."
That takes commitment and caring and striving to realize a shared objective, just as they do when they're playing games.
"You've got 90 players right now," Judge said. "You've got over 20 coaches. None of us have the same experiences. None of us have the same background. But we can work together toward a collective goal on the field. We all know what that is. But we have to work together off the field as well toward a collective goal of really making things improved for everyone across the board. We have a platform that we have to use to be active in our communities and make a difference."
Judge has spent his first five months as a head coach navigating what is surely the strangest offseason in NFL history. Because of the pandemic, the Giants' and all NFL team headquarters were closed. Judge and his staff had to install a new offense and defense remotely. He has yet to see his players so much as step on a field. But he is confident they established a foundation they can build on when training camp begins next month.
"I'm very encouraged with the way our players worked this spring," Judge said. "I'm very encouraged with how the staff was able to adjust on the fly and really adapt to the circumstances. Our focus wasn't on what we were missing. Our focus was on what we had available to us to use. We really put the focus on accomplishing everything we would in a normal spring without being able to go on the field together. I'd say as we left, I believe we accomplished that. We got our systems installed. We were able to build on the offense, defense and special teams. We got a lot of team-building accomplished as well. We were able to build in some competitive aspects of our program. That's all been very positive.
"I'd say the biggest challenge that we went in really wondering how we were going to get accomplished was the team-building aspect of it. I think our players, being as resourceful as they are, and the coaches, we were able to really break down a lot of the virtual walls that we felt were between us at first. We were able to adjust on the fly and really get a good feel for each other. But I'll tell you what, going into training camp, we're not going to have strangers walking through the hallway. We know each other as coaches and players. We know each other as a team, so when we get together at training camp, we can focus on getting the football moving and we're not trying to make introductions as far as being a new rookie or a new free agent or a new coach to the staff. We can move forward."
NFL coaches often conclude their offseason programs with an outing that fosters team bonding, whether it's a bowling night or attending a movie or a major league baseball game. Judge wasn't able to take his players to Citi Field or Yankee Stadium or a local theater. Despite that and the players participating from outposts around the country, the Giants were able to nurture a sense of camaraderie. And they did so in part due to an unlikely source of inspiration.
"We kind of took some lessons from really watching my kids do virtual school and some guys from around the country on what they were doing at different colleges and different pro programs," Judge said. "I was watching my kids use the Kahoot! app, and we found out a couple of colleges were using the same thing. Really, it started through player development and went across the offense and defense as well in terms of having some daily competitions and weekly competitions. We subdivided the teams into different groups and made it competitive, played for some prizes. We were able to ask questions about things related to getting to know your teammate or getting to know the area, organizational history or maybe something directly tied into offense or defense.
"It was fun. It changes it up a little bit. It gets guys interacting. When you first start the meetings, everyone will come in with a muted screen the first couple of weeks. It was very quiet. Then over time, they got more comfortable. Really the best part of the day was you'd click on a few minutes before the meetings start and you'd hear the players cutting up on each other, kind of calling out who needs a haircut, who's been doing what. That was really the best time, hearing the guys interacting like they would in the locker room. We wanted to let that grow as organically as we could throughout the spring."
View photos of the Giants' active roster as it currently stands.
Judge is scheduled to finally see his players in person when training camp kicks off next month and the broad goals he outlined when he joined the franchise in January have not changed.
"We want to be a smart, tough, fundamentally sound football team," Judge said. "I've been saying that and you're going to hear me say that for a long time. Those are collective criteria. At the same time, we have to be a tough team. You talk about tying us to the region. There's physical toughness and there's mental toughness. I think this area has demonstrated that continuously throughout time, but specifically in the immediate months that we've just gone through. There's been a lot of physical toughness going through the COVID. There's been a lot of mental toughness going through the societal issues we're dealing with right now, as well as a lot of the COVID with people being out of work, going day by day. We have to be a team that reflects that same work ethic and resilience when we get on the field. What I'm expecting from our team when we get back is to show up every day and to work hard and make decisions that affect the team in a positive way."
As Judge alluded to, he must direct the team through its daily paces while adhering to the strict league and NFL protocols designed to protect players and staff from the virus. All decisions will be in the interest of health and safety.
"From just a football team perspective and standpoint, there's nothing more important to us than the health of our players," Judge said. "That's number one. Whatever protocols are put in place by our medical team and by the league, we're going to adhere to and make sure that we keep consistent with for the safety of our players.
"In addition to that, there's that balancing element of what we're used to and how we used to do business, and how we have to adjust to make sure that we can keep getting the necessary work on a daily basis, in meetings, on the field. Right now, there are still a lot of question marks in terms of how that is. As a coaching staff and a medical staff, we've met a lot and talked about different things that could come up. We have contingency plans, at this moment, working off a base model that we're used to, and building more of a social distancing element into it. That's within our own facility, within our own meetings. We'll wait for some further guidelines to come out from the league in terms of if we have to adjust within how we meet or practice. But really right now, it's all about communication. Like we've done all spring, just be ready to adapt and make the adjustments necessary."
The Giants' COVID-19 Task Force has been working hard to make the Quest Diagnostics Training Center as safe as possible. Many important changes have been made for the safety of Giants employees in accordance with guidelines from the CDC, NFL, National Institute of Health, and the State of New Jersey.
From a football perspective, that is perhaps most vital regarding personnel. Had this been a normal offseason, Judge would have had an opportunity to observe and evaluate his players in practices, OTAs and minicamps. That would have helped him form an opinion on what the team might need before training camp, whether it's an extra wide receiver or an additional linebacker.
But now the Giants will have roughly six weeks between their first camp practice and their opening regular-season game on Monday night Sept. 14 at home vs. the Pittsburgh Steelers. More than is customary, roster decisions will be made on the fly.
"The communication across the board, from the coaches and the personnel department, is key at all times, especially through training camp when you're trying to evaluate your team and make the necessary moves," Judge said. "There are a lot of moves that happen through training camp, not only on our own roster but throughout the other 31 teams, and you have to be conscious of what's going on with the other teams and how that may affect your team as well. There's a health element to it. Just a natural attrition as you go through the football season, you're going to have some injuries. We have to know who's out there and available. We have to build our own depth on our own roster to make sure we can account for whatever positions that we have to address.
"But I want to make sure that we give the players time to compete on the field through training camp and demonstrate what they're able to do. I don't want to make too many snap decisions. I want to make sure we give the players time that we haven't been able to see in the spring. Get them out there and compete, and let the pieces fall where they may. I think you have to keep in mind, as well, that there's still going to be an element of not having a spring. We have to put the players in the right position from a health standpoint, that while we're installing or while we're building in a scheme, we give them a chance to learn what to do and start practicing and executing on grass. Then we have to turn up the volume and turn up the heat a little bit on these guys and let them go out there with what they've learned and compete at a pace that we know they can demonstrate that they deserve to be on the final roster."