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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Bill Belichick is a New England football institution, the builder of the greatest NFL dynasty of his generation, the widely regarded genius at the top of his profession. He is as ensconced in his job coaching the Patriots as anyone in the profession can ever be.
And still, the Giants fans dream. They dream about Belichick walking away from Foxborough to make a triumphant return to his football roots, they dream of him resurrecting a once-great franchise with a defense reminiscent of those late, great 1980s teams he helped build alongside Bill Parcells, they dream he will ride to the rescue after two consecutive disastrous head coaches and put an entirely new exclamation point on his own surefire Hall of Fame career.
But let’s be real: Bill Belichick was never coming to the Giants, and not simply because, as co-owner John Mara told me Thursday, “Bill’s under contract.” What Belichick has built in New England is so amazing, so rare, and so special that you don’t walk away from it that easily.
Instead, the Giants went for the next best thing.
Meet Joe Judge, former Patriots special teams coordinator, former Belichick protégé, onetime assistant to Belichick bestie Nick Saban, and now, the 19th head coach in New York Giants history. The surprise winner of a search that appeared to be zigging straight for Matt Rhule before zagging to the little-known 38-year-old Patriot assistant who also coached the team’s wide receivers and who blew the Giants’ brain trust away during Monday’s daylong meetings, Judge officially introduced himself to the football world Thursday.
And of all the things he said, so many of which echoed the lessons we’ve heard Belichick repeat for two decades in New England, perhaps the most important was the promise to adhere to the one piece of advice Belichick gave him about taking this job: Don’t try to be me.
“I’m going to be honest with you, the only advice I sought from him for this opportunity, he told me to just be yourself, and that’s all I know how to be,” Judge said at an introductory press conference at MetLife Stadium, the building shared by the Giants and Jets. “I think one of the things people ask me a lot is, ‘You’ve worked for Coach Saban, Coach Belichick, what makes you different?’ Look, I’m myself. I’m going to be myself every time.”
The NFL is littered with coaches quickly exposed for insincerity or imitation, rife with short-lived coaching careers lost in a haze of false bravado or pretend credentials. Matt Patricia, hanging on by the laces of a football in Detroit, has tried too hard to be like Belichick, rankling players who aren’t quite as inclined to respect his demands and inflexibility when he doesn’t have those six Super Bowl trophies to back it up. Josh McDaniels’s Denver career was similarly beset by rancor among the rank and file, eventually leading him to return to running the Patriots’ offense. When (or if?) McDaniels finally settles on his next head coaching opportunity (he never did get a chance to complete a scheduled interview with the Giants but remains in the mix in Cleveland), he’d be wise to heed the words Judge said Thursday.
“If I’m anything else, everyone is going to see straight through it. And if you lie to the team, you’re going to lose the team immediately,” Judge said. “So I’m always going to be myself, and that’s a little bit different than other people, and that’s fine. I’m not trying to emulate anyone I’ve ever worked for. I’m trying to take what I’ve learned from them, and match it with my own belief structure and do it in my own personality.”
But don’t be surprised to see a personality made up of plenty of parts Belichick and plenty of parts Saban. So much of what he sold about himself was Belichickian — finding tough players who relish tough practices, coaching teams that will be prepared, being demanding of players’ best effort, setting high standards, finding coaches who are teachers — but perhaps the most Bill-like thing of all was the importance of coaching to a player’s particular skills. You don’t have to fit my system; I’ll fit it to you.
“What I learned from Coach Belichick was real simple. Be flexible within your personnel. Don’t try to shove round pegs into square holes,” Judge said. “Figure out what you have. Let them play to their strengths. Don’t sit in a meeting room and tell me what you don’t have in a player. Don’t tell me they can’t do a certain thing. Tell me what they can do and then we’ll figure out as coaches, because that’s our job, how we can use that. That’s our responsibility. Everybody has something they can do. How many castoffs do you see around the league coming from another team and they say, ‘Wow, how did they get that out of him?’ Maybe they just weren’t closing their eyes to what they could do.”
It was music to those Mara ears. Mara called it the best coaching interview he’d ever done. And given the Giants’ ineptitude the past few years, he has plenty of experience.
No wonder he turned to one of the football voices he most respects for help this time. Mara has remained friendly with Belichick since Belichick designed Super Bowl-winning defenses around Lawrence Taylor in 1986 and 1990, and reached out multiple times for feedback.
“The more I spoke to him the more excited I got about Joe Judge,” Mara said. “I have a lot of respect for Bill. We have a good relationship and he doesn’t have bad coaches on his staff. I think he has said publicly Joe is one of the best coaches he’s ever had.”
The student is about to become his own master.
Toward the end of the interview session Thursday, Judge was asked about the Patriots’ playoff loss, and in particular, why they didn’t have a player back to field a late punt, a decision that cost the Patriots valuable field position.
“I’m not going to get into any specific decisions on schematics. I can assure you this was in discussions we had before the game and we did what we thought gave our team the best opportunity to win,” he said.
Who does that sound like? Could have been Bill, but it was Judge. If the new coach can find his own voice in Belichick’s image, never mind Belichick’s coaching roots, his coaching tree might finally blossom, too.