EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — It was the second full day of padded practices. New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley took a handoff from quarterback Daniel Jones and ambled off to the right side. That’s when an unmistakable voice with a Philly twang boomed as if it were blasting through a megaphone.
Giants coach Joe Judge lit into Barkley, displeased with the tempo of his star running back during the drill. Every adjective Judge screamed seemed to be matched by an expletive. His point was clear.
“We coach everyone the same,” Judge said later. “We’re trying to demand the best out of everybody and make them improve every day. We’re not letting details slip.”
Judge is going to coach this team hard, and it’s exactly what the Giants, who open their season on Monday Night Football against the Pittsburgh Steelers (7:15 ET, ESPN), wanted when they hired the 38-year-old this year.
The language and intensity shouldn’t be surprising from a man some dubbed “god damn Joe Judge” when he was an assistant at the University of Alabama, because that was seemingly the only phrase he uttered. He brought that same approach and verbal tenacity to the New England Patriots as an assistant for coach Bill Belichick, and now New York.
“His language didn’t clean up. He definitely spoke the same, he definitely used a couple of profanities every other sentence,” newly signed Giants defensive back Logan Ryan said of what he saw when Judge first joined the Patriots in 2012. “Day one he was definitely like that. He was intense.”
It all seems ironic considering Judge’s mother, Mary, is a Catholic school principal in the suburbs of Philadelphia. And his friends insist Judge wouldn’t use that language at home in front of his wife, Amber, and their four children.
Maybe that shouldn’t be surprising, either. Behind the scenes, there seems to be a human element that perhaps was missing from the previous Belichick protégés who struggled as head coaches. There is a sarcastic sense of humor, even if Amber and college teammate Tommy Ferrill like to joke that Judge was funnier before his former bosses, Belichick and Nick Saban, sucked out his wit.
As one player explained in a recent text message to describe Judge: “Real.“
Special-teams ace Nate Ebner said this was one of the hardest training camps he’s been in, and he spent the first eight years of his career with the Patriots under Belichick, who is known as one of the NFL’s most demanding coaches.
Judge’s attention to detail — whether it be drills that simulate recovering a wet ball, or maybe contingency plans in case headsets stop working midgame — and his teaching of fundamentals have been noticed by just about everybody.
He is going to make his players run laps for practice miscues because it’s a lesson in accountability. He is going to make his players restart practice when he’s not happy with their effort, the way he did just last week. Players are going to practice tackling to the ground, a rarity in today’s NFL, because of his belief that football is a physical game and tackling needs to be done correctly.
The only way to do that in Judge’s mind? Practice.
And he is going to unleash the F-bombs with fury to get his points across to a team with the NFL’s worst record (12-36) over the previous three seasons.
Football in his blood
The Judges have always had a love for football. The late Joseph Judge played at Temple and had a brief stint in the Canadian Football League in the mid-1970s. Joskie, as he was called, laid the groundwork for what the Giants are now seeing by coaching his son hard at the youth level.
But Joe didn’t need much prodding. He was the one who would recruit friends to lift weights at the Boys & Girls Club or run sprints on hills. He played quarterback in high school at Lansdale Catholic, 40 minutes outside downtown Philadelphia.
Joe loved Dan Marino (the Hall of Fame QB was a 1983 first-rounder from the University of Pittsburgh), and even told friends in college he once attended one of his birthday parties. The scouting report on Judge from friends and former teammates was big arm, quirky motion, bad mechanics, couldn’t run a lick.
“Out of pocket, um, it wasn’t for him,” childhood friend and high school teammate Frank Panariello said.
They insisted Judge — Joey to those closest to him — was always a natural leader. High school teammate Matt Stairiker still remembers a drive against St. Pius X School not long after Judge stepped in as the starting quarterback during his junior season. Lansdale Catholic was behind by less than a touchdown with 70 yards to go. Judge walked into the huddle and smoothly, confidently told the group they were about to march down the field and win the game. They did, and it was so matter of fact, as if they were ordering lunch.
“Never forgotten that because he just erased any doubt,” Stairiker said. “If there was ever any doubt, it was gone after that.”
This is what many of his friends say is the beauty of a complex but funny man. When he talks, you just can’t help but listen and believe. Judge has a way about him that is always convincing and charismatic. It perhaps explains how a kid from Doylestown, Pennsylvania, found his way from Lansdale Catholic to the SEC. Judge contemplated going to the Naval Academy, playing at an Ivy League school or Temple before Mississippi State and coach Jackie Sherrill came into the picture.
With his father involved in the process, there was even a brief conversation with Saban about walking on at LSU. Some credit the magic of Joskie, who was always involved and handled the highlight reels and, at times, stayed in Starkville for months at a time with his bulldog during his son’s stay at Mississippi State.
“To me, [meeting with Saban] was a significant event,” Judge said of talking with Saban, who would later become his boss and mentor. “To him, it was Tuesday.”
At Mississippi State, Judge served mostly as a backup quarterback, holder and punt protector. The stats from 2000 to ’04 fail to show a pass attempt on his résumé.
Still, Judge was as feisty a player as he is a coach, and he eventually made his presence known.
“Ask him about the Alabama game his senior year,” said former Browns head coach and now Giants tight ends coach Freddie Kitchens, who was the Bulldogs’ tight ends coach at the time.
An overexuberant Judge was ejected (moments after recovering a muffed punt) for pushing an Alabama player over the bench during a tussle on the sideline. Gatorade cups went flying. Judge was sent to the locker room.
“It was not a surprise,” Ferrill said. “I thought it was hilarious.”
Mississippi State coach Sylvester Croom and the SEC did not see Judge’s actions that way. The league suspended him for the first half of the next game, which was Senior Day. Croom added the second half.
Years later, Judge makes light of the situation.
“Look, I did the team a favor. A better player got to stay in,” he said of the assistance he provided tight end David Stewart.
When his playing career ended, there was never a doubt what was next.
“You know how some people, going back to college or high school, you’re undecided. Joe always knew it was football. So it was easy for him,” Panariello said. “He was like, ‘I love football. If I can’t play, I’m going to coach it.'”
Kitchens and Amos Jones, then an assistant at Mississippi State, were instrumental in convincing Croom to keep Judge on as a graduate assistant. Jones is now the Giants’ assistant coach — special projects and situations.
After three years in that role, Judge was interviewed for low-level assistant jobs at Maryland with coach Ralph Friedgen and for one with the Detroit Lions. He didn’t get either gig. Then there was a three-day stint at West Point Elementary as a kindergarten physical education teacher, followed by a year at Division III Birmingham-Southern as a linebackers coach.
That’s when Jones put in a call to Alabama. They needed a young special-teams assistant. Judge sat down and went through cut-ups with Saban for an entire afternoon. He wasn’t nervous talking football, no matter the legend he was alongside.
The next day, Judge was driving his kids to day care when he received a phone call from Saban. He pulled over to the side of the road and got out of the car, so his children couldn’t be heard over the phone, and accepted the job.
Judge was a special-teams assistant for Saban from 2008 to 2011 and was part of a pair of national championships.
“I was always really, really comfortable around Coach Saban because he’s always very direct,” Judge said. “I have no problem being around people who are blunt. At all. It’s the people that are political or the people who are plastic that I have a tough time around. I don’t do well with people who have a hidden agenda.”
It’s only natural Judge landed with Belichick and the Patriots. Ironically, the courtship began Feb. 6, 2012 — the morning after the Giants defeated New England in Super Bowl XLVI.
Judge had just started working for coach Ellis Johnson at Southern Miss when he received a call at 8 a.m. from former Patriots special-teams coordinator Scott O’Brien about a job to be his assistant. Judge had gotten to know O’Brien through Saban. Months later, it was Johnson who set up the interview with Belichick the Monday before the 2012 NFL draft. Belichick offered the job after the draft.
The Patriots won three Super Bowls during Judge’s eight seasons with the team, and he was promoted to special-teams coach in 2015 after O’Brien retired. Judge was also wide receivers coach in his final season.
Judge earned Belichick’s trust, in much the same way he did with Saban — because of his work ethic and teaching ability.
“He is an exceptional leader and one of the best coaches I have been around,” Belichick said of his former assistant.
Judge almost left to join fellow Patriots assistant Josh McDaniels’ staff in Indianapolis in 2018 before that all fell apart, then seemed destined to be Mississippi State’s coach earlier this year. He almost didn’t take the Giants interview, but after a recommendation from Belichick, he thought he owed it to his mentor.
Judge blew the Giants away during the process. It was the “most impressive” interview many of them in that room, which included Giants co-owner John Mara and general manager Dave Gettleman, had seen. Belichick told Mara there was a point when he could give stuff to Judge and not have to look over his shoulder. To him, that was the ultimate compliment.
In the span of a decade, Judge had earned the trust of two of the greatest coaches of this generation.
Judge’s approach early in Giants camp drew plenty of attention. Making players run laps and swearing while teaching them to run physical, old-school contact drills brought out the talking heads, including some notable ex-players such as Sterling Sharpe. There were criticisms that he was trying to be Belichick and Saban.
He doesn’t view it that way. Instead, this is his twist on it after spending 11 years under Belichick and Saban.
“I’m not trying to imitate or emulate anybody,” Judge said on the Keyshawn, JWill & Zubin Show recently on ESPN Radio. “It has got to be genuine. … You lie to the players, you’re going to lose them forever because they can see right through that. So I’m me. … I don’t have a lot of time to mix fluff and make everything sunshine and rainbows. I think it’s my responsibility and duty to tell them the straight truth, so they can work on what they have to and we can get better as a team.”
As the layers peeled back, there was more to the coach than the cursing and riding his players hard. It’s like when he first arrived in Mississippi, where his bluntness could sometimes be misconstrued.
“People would ask me, ‘Is he mad? What is this dude’s problem?'” said Judge’s close friend and former Mississippi State teammate Aaron Lumpkin. “I’m like, ‘That’s just how he talks. He’s from Philadelphia.’ They’re like ‘Man, he is always like F-this, F-that.’ But that is just kind of how he communicates.”
Giants players cheer on head coach Joe Judge as he dives into the mud during a slip-and-side fumble drill.
Because of his gruff style, it isn’t evident right away that Judge is a coach who will dive onto a muddy field at the prodding of players at the end of practice. Or a guy who still finds time in his hectic schedule to text or call friends despite 18-hour days at the office, or pops into his friend’s youth football meeting while on a recruiting trip.
Ferrill, a high school coach in Mississippi, recalls reaching out to Judge about a play he had recently seen and getting an immediate response from his former college roommate. A cut-up of tape to explain followed.
And when the Giants released wide receiver Derrick Dillon from the practice squad last week, it was later revealed Judge told him to go home. Dillon is about to become a father and had the opportunity to be there for the birth of his first child. He was paid for the week despite not practicing, and is expected to be re-signed.
This is the real Joe Judge. He will coach hard and hug you later.
“He’s more of a players’ guy than he might want to come off as,” said Ryan, who spent four years with Judge in New England before being reunited last week when he signed with the Giants.
That came through this summer when ongoing discussions of police brutality and social injustice dominated NFL training camps. The issue proved to be an immediate test for Judge, a first-time white coach standing in front of a group of predominantly Black men (66% of the current Giants roster). He could never really understand what they were going through.
But several players told ESPN he kept an open mind. Best of all, he listened. Judge even called Lumpkin, a Black man who runs a youth football program in Dayton, Ohio, for advice. He wanted to be prepared for it all.
“I’ve talked to Joe over the last couple of months several times on just how he can get an understanding of what he can do to help the players being active,” Lumpkin said. “He called and was like, ‘I know you guys deal with this a lot. And I want to know how I can reach my players.’ Me and him have had really candid conversations about race relations. I’m an African American from Dayton, Ohio; he’s from Philadelphia. We come from similar but very different environments. Joe wants an understanding of how he can reach every person on his team.
“I’m a manager for a bank right now in Ohio. For him to take the time, the Giants coach, and say, ‘Hey, how can I help my players with this?’ And for him to have those conversations, I think it’s a testament to his character and they made the right choice picking him.”
Mara has raved about what he has seen from Judge and says he’s exactly what his organization needs, a dose of intensity and reality to fix their problems.
“He always was [intense] on the football field,” Judge’s former college roommate Al Lancaster said. “I see the other side of him. He’s a real laid-back guy. Fun to be around. … Everybody knew him. Everybody liked him.”
Judge doesn’t need everyone to like him in his new role. He just needs the locker room to buy in, respect him and know there really is a method to his madness.