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Why the Giants’ bet on new head coach Joe Judge might, and might not, work

Judge was a special teams savant with the Patriots. Can he save the Giants?

NFL: AFC Wild Card-Tennessee Titans at New England Patriots Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

Bill Belichick’s coaching tree just grew another branch. The New York Giants, making their third major hire in four years, have named Patriots special teams coordinator and wide receivers coach Joe Judge as their next head coach.

After requesting interviews with candidates like Mike McCarthy, Josh McDaniels, Matt Rhule, and Eric Bieniemy, Giants owner John Mara settled on the 38-year-old New England assistant. Judge will take over a team coming off three straight losing seasons and six losing campaigns in the last seven years. Can he be the catalyst for a turnaround in New York?

There are reasons to believe he can — and reasons to doubt he’ll get there.

Judge did a great job with the Patriots’ special teams (but couldn’t help a depleted WR corps)

The latest Giants head coach came to the Patriots through one of Belichick’s favorite pipelines: Nick Saban. Judge, a former Mississippi State graduate assistant and linebackers coach at Division III Birmingham-Southern, was hired as a special teams assistant at the University of Alabama in 2009. Three seasons (and two national championships) led him to New England, where he assumed the same role for the Patriots in 2012.

Judge spent three seasons as an assistant before being promoted to special teams coordinator in 2016. He’d add “wide receivers coach” to his title before the 2019 season, overseeing a group that at one point featured Julian Edelman, Antonio Brown, and Josh Gordon but finished the season with Edelman, newly acquired Mohamed Sanu, and rookie N’Keal Harry as Tom Brady’s top three targets.

Let’s start with his work as ST coordinator. Under Judge, the Patriots became one of the most opportunistic teams in the NFL. After failing to block a punt in 2016, his units ranked sixth, third, and then first in the league in that category the last three seasons. New England’s four blocked punts were double the next closest team in 2019. Each led to touchdowns — including the team’s only trip to the end zone in a 13-9 win over the Cowboys.

There were other signs of the discipline and skill Judge instilled in his unit. The Pats ranked in the top 10 in opponent net yards per punt the last three seasons and in the top five each of the past two years. His group failed to allow a single blocked field goal with a healthy Stephen Gostkowski in the lineup from 2016-18. That impeccable record tailed off in 2019 as Gostkowski missed all but four games with a hip injury (and was visibly diminished in those four games). Still, New England managed to convert on 85 percent of its non-blocked field goals (14th-best in the NFL) in a season when it was forced to rotate through four different kickers.

Judge’s tenure as receivers coach wasn’t as successful, but was a much bigger challenge. Rather than working with All-Pros like Matthew Slater and Nate Ebner, the special teams coordinator was tasked with holding together an undermanned unit picked apart by injuries, attrition, and little help from a Rob Gronkowski-less tight end corps. While standby Edelman had a typically productive year, Harry, Sanu, and Phillip Dorsett combined for just 709 receiving yards in 29 total games between them.

He’ll get the chance to work with an upgraded unit in New York, headlined by Golden Tate, Sterling Shepard, and rising rookie Darius Slayton. That’s cause for optimism — but the Giants should still be wary of hiring an assistant away from the Patriots.

Belichick’s coaching tree hasn’t borne much fruit

Belichick assistants have long been a hot commodity when it comes to NFL coaching searches. Ten of his former employees have been promoted to head coaching roles since 2000, with limited success.

Bill Belichick’s former assistants as NFL head coaches (through 2019)

Coach Seasons Regular season NFL record Playoff appearances
Coach Seasons Regular season NFL record Playoff appearances
Nick Saban 2 15-17 0
Al Groh 1 9-7 0
Jim Schwartz 5 29-51 1
Romeo Crennel 5+ 28-55 0
Eric Mangini 5 33-47 1
Josh McDaniels 2 11-17 0
Bill O'Brien 6 52-44 4
Matt Patricia 2 9-22-1 0
Brian Flores 1 5-11 0

Only O’Brien has sustained a winning record over multiple seasons as head coach. He’s also the only former Belichick assistant to have won a playoff game — though Titans head coach Mike Vrabel, who spent eight years playing defense, special teams, and occasionally offense for Belichick’s Patriots, was able to upend his former coach in this year’s Wild Card Round.

That hasn’t kept NFL teams from raiding New England’s coaching staff when they need to name a new sideline general. That practice has actually ramped up in recent years thanks to the hirings of Matt Patricia (Lions), Brian Flores (Dolphins), and now Judge. Josh McDaniels, who reneged on an oral agreement to become the Colts’ head coach in 2018, could also find himself in a new home should the Browns come calling after interviewing him.

What does this mean for the Giants’ budding offense (and Daniel Jones)?

Honestly? It’s too soon to tell.

Judge doesn’t have a background as a play-caller, though he must have impressed the Giants’ brass with his plans for the future. His tenure in New York will ultimately be judged on how Jones develops under his wing. The 2019 first-round pick had moments of absolute brilliance — he’s only one of three rookies to throw four or more touchdown passes in at least three different games — but was also racked by avoidable mistakes and a myriad of regrettable turnovers.

He won’t be solely responsible for Jones’ growth, which is why the team’s offensive coordinator hire will be so important. Though Jason Garrett’s name was bandied about early in the hiring process, Judge will be given the latitude to hire his own coaching staff:

Installing the right scheme around Jones, dynamic dual-threat tailback Saquon Barkley, and an underrated receiving corps (Tate, Shepard, Slayton, and game-breaking tight end Evan Engram) will be paramount to this team’s success.

Some of that responsibility will fall on general manager Dave Gettleman, however. The Giants need to plug the holes across a leaky offensive line and upgrade a defense that ranked 30th in the NFL in points allowed for Judge to have a shot at improving a disappointing New York team. And Judge, thanks to a limited history as a coach, will have to find the right assistants to turn whatever potential Gettleman brings to the roster into on-field production.

Judge is an outside-the-box hire as a special teams coordinator, but also a conceptual retread as the latest assistant plucked from under Belichick’s wing. The Giants are taking a risk on a relatively untested commodity just one season after a similar bet failed to pay off for Freddie Kitchens and the Browns. Promoting a special teams coordinator worked for the Ravens when they hired John Harbaugh (previously special teams and defensive backs coach with the Eagles), but otherwise it’s a lightly trod path in the NFL.

Can Judge be part of the select few who can turn his experience with the Patriot Way into a Patriot-like run to the top of the division? Or will New York ultimately regret its decision to hire a more experienced up-and-comer like Matt Rhule, Eric Bieniemy, Kris Richard, or even McDaniels? It may all come down to who Judge surrounds himself with in his head coaching debut.