Giants’ Joe Judge prepares well, but falls short on game day

Joe Judge is the guy on the driving range who consistently pounds it 300 yards, with the prettiest draw, and then cannot keep his ball on the fairway when tournament officials are keeping score. Every week, when performing his game autopsies and delivering his soliloquies on the next opponent, Judge reminds people why the Giants hired him out of left field.

He reminds people why John Mara was blown away by his job interview, and has all but guaranteed his return for 2022.

Monday afternoon, still surely hurting from his team’s humiliation in Philly, Judge fielded a question that would have sent his former employer, Bill Belichick, into a tailspin. He was asked if all the losing ever moved him to get disgusted, frustrated and just plain sick of his job. “And what, infer that we would go home early and take more time off?” he asked with some incredulity, before delivering an answer about the love of the game and the craft that was too genuine to have ever been crafted by a public relations pro.

That’s the Judge that Mara and all Giants live with during the week, at the team’s facility, and then dies with on Sundays, at the ballpark. If they had a Hall of Fame for prep work, and motivational speeches and pregame and postgame breakdowns, Judge would be at his local tailor’s right now getting measured for his gold jacket.

Giants head coach Joe Judge looks on during the fourth quarter against the Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field on Dec. 26, 2021 in Philadelphia.
Joe Judge
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But that’s not the way football or life works. It’s all about the final score, and the game-day performances that define it. Judge has presided over a complete free fall this year, after winning five of his final eight games in his rookie season, and a lot of fans want him fired. Only Mara isn’t going to fire him, even if the Giants lose to Chicago and Washington and finish 4-13.

Mara has always looked for reasons to keep people, not reasons to get rid of them, which makes him an ideal boss for a Giants employee — if not an ideal owner for a Giants fan. The paying customers are the ones disgusted, frustrated and just plain sick of what’s gone down, because their team is 35 games below .500 over the last five seasons, and many want Judge to follow GM Dave Gettleman out the door.

Mara will tell Gettleman’s replacement that he prefers not to replace the coach, and then it’s the new GM’s call whether to push back. But assuming Judge survives and advances to a third season as Giants coach, he might want to send thank-you notes to Pat Shurmur and Ben McAdoo for getting themselves fired after two seasons. If one of those men had lasted four or five years on the job, it’s possible that Judge would be two-and-done.

As a lifelong New Yorker, Mara never desired to be another in-his-prime George Steinbrenner. He is embarrassed by the rapid coaching turnover, and that embarrassment is now one of Judge’s best friends, the wobbly bridge carrying the coach to 2022. Between now and then, Judge needs to figure out how to connect with his players on Sundays like he does the rest of the week. He turns 40 years old Friday. Maybe the occasion will flip some internal switch and make him a wiser head.

Monday afternoon, one Giants legend Judge has said he wants to be associated with, Bill Parcells, was on the phone talking about the fine line separating a potential firing from potential greatness. He mentioned his former assistant, Bill Belichick, who was 5-13 in New England and flirting with disaster before everything changed on a dime. Parcells mentioned his own 3-12-1 rookie year as Giants coach in 1983, and GM George Young’s keen interest in firing him. “I almost didn’t make it,” he said, “but I saved myself. I don’t think I would’ve survived a bad second year.”

Judge apparently will, in large part because of the way he carries himself publicly and privately as a franchise rep. When asked that question Monday about whether he was tempted to cave to the negative impulses tethered to failure, Judge called the chance to watch players successfully apply the lessons and techniques they were taught “the addiction you have. … That’s really the adrenaline, the kick you really have as a coach, is that high you get from really working with the team and being able to share in their success. And that’s really what you live for.”

Judge brought up his time coaching at Division III Birmingham-Southern, “where we played in front of close friends and family only, high school stadiums where I could look out of the press box and I knew where my wife walked up exactly with my son. You see him walk because there was nobody else in the stadium.

“I enjoy that every bit as much as I enjoy this. You have to love the coaching, you have to love the process, you have to love the players, and you have to love the team aspect of it.”

But in the big leagues, you also have to win. When Joe Judge opens his mouth, he shows people why the Giants hired him in the first place. If that’s good enough to earn the coach a third year, it sure won’t be good enough to earn him a fourth.