EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Joe Judge will try to make this football season as normal as possible, knowing it is likely improbable.
"There are unknowns in every season going in," the Giants' first-year coach said on a Zoom call with reporters today. "This year is no different, it just has a different element that we haven't dealt with before. As we go, we'll see how things change and how they shake out. Right now, we are looking to go ahead and build the strongest team we can."
That element is the elephant in the room. The worldwide coronavirus pandemic has created new norms in countless ways throughout the world. The NFL isn't immune, of course. It held its annual draft virtually, conducted offseason programs in which players learned remotely and has opened training camps in a summer that will not include preseason games. But the league is hopeful of playing a full 17-week season, which means coaches like Judge have the same goals they normally do as July flips to August – identify the best players and get them ready to play as well as they can.
Beyond that, Judge and all coaches want and urge their players to make smart decisions away from the field and locker room. Those conversations are held with a heightened poignancy this year.
"The first thing we have to all understand is, everyone at this level has sacrificed to get here," Judge said. "We're going to have to make some more sacrifices, whether that's socially away from the game, how we interact with friends and family members throughout this season. But we have to make the right decisions. The biggest thing is everyone has to understand that all of our decisions directly impact each other. It's not fair for me to go out and do something and put myself at risk and come in here and get players sick. That's not my right. I'm not entitled to do that. We have to all make the right decisions, both in the building following the protocols and away from the building. I think ultimately as a league, we just need to trust that the plan in place that the league put, make sure we adhere to the protocols, make sure we wear the PPEs. Let's be careful, let's be cautious, but we can operate aggressively if we just follow the plan in place.
"I have a lot of trust in the plan put forth by the league. We spent a lot of time on this. When these players left, we signed off and took vacations. As coaches, we took a little bit of a break for about a month. It was 24/7 around the clock really working on making sure we got the facilities in order that we can bring our players in and have them work safely. We are doing everything we can, not just to be compliant but making sure we are staying ahead of issues that may arise. We are trying to educate our players on a daily basis. We have to enforce the rules as coaches. We have to rely on the leadership on the team to build the culture in the locker room. Right now, we have 16 games on the schedule and I'm looking forward to playing every one of them."
In response to another question moments later, Judge stressed the importance of everyone remaining vigilant and to consider what happens when they are not working in MetLife Stadium or on the field at the Quest Diagnostics Training Center.
"The league has put out some rules already with the agreement in terms of where they can and cannot go and be exposed to large crowds," Judge said. "The thing I want to emphasize with the team is we have to make responsible decisions, all of us. What I have to think about personally is, it's not just where I go, I know I'm at the stadium or driving to my house. I have to be conscious of where my wife and children are. Who are they around on a daily basis? What am I bringing back to the team? There are some sacrifices we have to make. Like I said earlier, everybody has had to make sacrifices to get to this level. If the biggest thing we have to do is for half a year wear masks around each other, distance a little bit and when we go home, be home, I think it's a pretty fair trade off to be a part of the National Football League."
The Giants have one player, wide receiver David Sills, on the Reserve/COVID-19 list. Like all teams, they are doing everything possible to keep players, coaches and staff safe and limit the spread of the virus when someone does contract it.
"I have a lot of confidence in the way that our medical team has set up these protocols and how they're handling everything going forward," Judge said. "I think our players will as well. We're taking every possible step to make sure our players are coming into work every day and focused on football but knowing that they're safe if they follow the protocols and the plan we have in place. The biggest thing for us is any player who cannot be with the team on a daily basis due to any kind of illness is we can extend the meetings through Zoom like we did in the spring. The one thing is it's not something foreign for our players now. They've already gone through an entire spring of it, so if they can't be in the meeting room with us, they can be in a hotel room with whatever their personal situation is and still participate in the meetings and not fall behind on the mental aspect that day."
In addition to having backup plans for the players, Judge has contingencies for his coaching staff. He knows as well as anyone the importance of being smart and cautious, but that will not delude him into thinking he is immune. The head coach is at risk of catching the virus like anyone else. If he does, he would have to step away from the team and designate who would take over in his absence.
"We have succession plans for the coaching staff," Judge said. "Once we get a depth chart in place at the end of the roster development, we'll have plans for every player on the team, who the next man up would be. To be honest with you, my plan as the head coach as we go through training camp is not only evaluating players, but also evaluating the coaches in terms of interaction. It has to be the total chemistry of how a game day would operate. There will be decisions that we'll make at the end in terms of going through the season. Those decisions may change as we go through the entirety of the season. But we'll structure practices accordingly. We're always in for developing every player, we're in for developing every coach as well. We started talking back in the spring in terms of if any one coach, myself included, couldn't come to work that day for any period of time, how would we address meetings, practice on the field, the game. We have to make sure we have a plan."
In a new "Giants Life" premiering Tuesday, Coach Joe Judge gives a tour of the new-look Training Camp
Health and safety always takes precedence. From a purely football standpoint, Judge's main objective is priming the Giants to play as well as they can when their season opens on Monday night, Sept. 14, against Pittsburgh and beyond.
"I think that my job is to make sure that we're preparing for all the possible scenarios that could come up throughout the season," Judge said. "It's not only things we've thought of already, but things that pop up as we go. 'Okay, what if this happens? What's our plan in place?' Now you do that as a football team anyway. This year, you just take into a different account with COVID and how that may affect our team or other teams as well. But the biggest thing is just to talk about the situation. You talk out how you're going to handle it. A lot of it is personnel oriented. A lot of it may be preparation based on meetings, how we had to do the spring virtually. In practice, how will that look?
"Right now, we have 16 games on the schedule and I'm looking forward to playing every one of them…We have all plans for practice that will look as normal as can be. If that changes at some point, we'll figure it out and we'll adjust, and we'll keep on moving. We're just not going to make any excuses for anything that comes up this season. We're all here to play and coach football, we're here to do it well, and we're going to put everything into it."