They are separated by 10 years and 223 games. What the Steelers have in Mike Tomlin is what the Giants one day hope they can look back on and state they had in Joe Judge.
Monday night, a head coaching battle looms as the first of what will be a weekly test for Judge. Coaching matters in the NFL, at times remarkably so, and the Giants pulled a stunner and hired a newbie because they believe he will give them an advantage on the sideline.
Perhaps it takes a month for this to come to fruition. Maybe it takes an entire season. It might never materialize. The only sure thing with all this is that for the young and seemingly under-talented Giants to overachieve and approach a winning record in 2020, Judge is going to have to rise to a challenge that will never be more formidable than what hits him on opening night.
Employing four coaches in a span of six years is the way losing operations go about their business; the Giants qualify. Tomlin represents the other extreme, and Judge, in his NFL head coaching debut, gets to match moves with someone who is as much a fixture in Pittsburgh as french fries stuffed into Primanti Brothers sandwiches. Tomlin is entering year No. 14 with the Steelers — just Bill Belichick (21) and Sean Payton (15) have longer tenures with their teams.
Tomlin, hired at 34, won a Super Bowl at 36, the youngest head coach to do so. Judge, 38, has three Super Bowl rings as a special teams assistant and coordinator with the Patriots. What comes next is altogether different. Tomlin and the Steelers are intertwined. There is a style and an expectation of bluntness, ferocity and defensive mayhem. The Giants for the past seven years were an aimless outfit. Judge is on board to create a new identity. What will the Giants be on his watch?
Judge does not have to pull the upset in his first game, under the bright lights at vacant MetLife Stadium on a national television stage. If he does, more power to him. He knows what the time-tested Tomlin is bringing to town.
“Yeah, every coach has different tendencies and philosophies within the game,’’ Judge said. “It’s our job to know our opponents. It’s our job to make sure our game plan fits what they do well and try to give our players an edge.
“In terms of knowing how different coaches call the game and how they build their team through training camp and how they operate throughout the flows of the season, that’s all of our jobs to make sure we operate to give our players the best chance right there.’’
Tomlin is 133-74-1 in the regular season and 8-7 in the postseason. There is nothing he has not encountered. Judge just went through the most restrictive spring and summer in league history, as COVID-19 prevented him from experiencing the trial and error of a single preseason game. The curtain goes up for him without any real dress rehearsal.
What transpired up until now was impressive. Judge as the man in the chair seems natural. His mix of stern, detail-centric demands and sense of a human touch bodes well.
“Look, we’re going to always push our guys and we’re not going to accept anything less than their best,’’ Judge said. “That’s just the way it’s going to be. Now along with that, there has to be a personal connection. We’ve all played at some point in our careers. You play a lot harder for someone when you understand that they’re a person themselves. They have a life outside the building like you do, and that they actually care about you.
“I think that’s important to keep in perspective.”
Training camp is where any reputable coach should shine. It is all practice and preparation with no win or loss ascribed to the day. The players are busy from early morning to late in the evening, usually staying in college dorms or hotels, a captive audience with little down time. Judge did well in this controlled environment.
The controls are off come Monday night. Judge puts his team on the field, as does Tomlin. It is about to get real.
Fleet of new captains
The six newly elected team captains, as voted on by the players, shows how different things are with the Giants. Only one of them, Saquon Barkley, was a captain last season.
Barkley and Daniel Jones represent the offense, Dalvin Tomlinson and Blake Martinez represent the defense and Jabrill Peppers and Nate Ebner are captains representing special teams.
In an unusual twist, Martinez and Ebner are in their first year with the team — the Giants imported leadership. Peppers’ designation indicates he will be featured on special teams, most likely as a punt returner. Ebner is 31; the other five captains are 26 or younger. Jones, 23, is the youngest captain and gained this recognition in just his second year. Eli Manning was not named a team captain until 2007, his fourth year with the Giants.
The only notable candidate who did not receive enough votes was Sterling Shepard — the longest-tenured Giants player, entering his fifth year.
“If that’s how my team views me, then I’d be happy to take that role,’’ Shepard said before the captains were announced. “But if not, I’m also happy to take a different leadership role, just because you’re only allowed so many guys to be captains and I clearly understand that. Pretty much my whole career, I’ve never been voted a captain. But I’ve always been a leader in my own way, so that’s what I’ll continue to do.’’