When the Giants hired Pat Shurmur in 2018 they famously hailed him as the “adult in the room." They believed he could bring order to their chaos. They hoped he’d impose discipline, while winning the players over, too.
That’s never an easy trick, even for an experienced head coach. It took Tom Coughlin four years to win the hearts of his players with his tough love. And it can be nearly impossible when that coach presides over a losing franchise.
That makes it even more impressive that Joe Judge has somehow been able to pull it off so fast.
The rookie head coach has earned lots of praise from both inside the Giants organization and around the NFL for not just his performance overall, but how he handled the bubbling Golden Tate controversy last week. His handling of "Tate-gate" was a masterclass in coaching. He was careful not to turn a small deal into a big one, but still made enough of a stand against a relatively minor offense to make a major point. He got his message across that “team” matters most and that “selfishness” won’t be tolerated.
And he somehow did it without rubbing anyone the wrong way.
That’s the kind of stuff that no one was really sure the 38-year-old Judge could do in his first job as a head coach at any level. The coaching part of it figured to be smooth. He learned at the feet of two masters (Bill Belichick, Nick Saban) and he hired enough experienced hands for his staff that it seemed likely he’d figure the nuances out.
But a head coach these days is more like a CEO, spending as much time managing personalities and messaging as he does on Xs and Os. Rooting out the problems, making sure they don’t spread, and keeping control of the locker room are as important as game-planning – especially during a 2-7 season. All that talk about “culture” is meaningless if a coach is incapable of getting his players to buy in.
Just ask Shurmur, who had trouble putting out the constant brushfires set by Odell Beckham, including when the receiver went on TV in 2018 and was critical of Eli Manning. Shurmur was furious, and so were people throughout the organization. But there were no visible consequences and the situation never got fully under control.
Or just ask his predecessor, Ben McAdoo, who lost complete control in 2017, his second season as a head coach. His downfall started when cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie was pulled from a game, later got into a heated argument with McAdoo and then was suspended. But McAdoo couldn’t control the spread and lost the respect of his players. Before the season was over, two more cornerbacks – Janoris Jenkins and Eli Apple – had been suspended, tackle Ereck Flowers was benched and tackle Bobby Hart was cut. And it deteriorated so much that with a month left in the season, both McAdoo and GM Jerry Reese were out of a job.
Their failures make Judge’s success glare even more. He had already won over his players before Tate’s outburst, but this put everything to the test. He recognized that Tate didn’t commit a major crime against the organization. Yes, he was caught on camera screaming for the ball, but that’s hardly unusual for a receiver at any level. Liking a few social media posts critical of his team was definitely a subtle slap in the face of his coaches, as was his wife’s critical Instagram post, but look around: Plenty of NFL players have done worse.
But instead of letting even a minor bout of insubordination go, Judge addressed it with the perfect balance of tone. He recognized that something had to be done. He demonstrated leadership and did it in a compassionate way – with such compassionate strength that, by all indications, even Tate seemed to buy in. And he did it in a way that it happened, and then it was over. Tate did what he did, missed a game, and now everyone can move on.
“We’re kind of past that issue now,” Judge said on Thursday. "We’re getting ready to play Philly right now. Golden’s getting ready to play Philly as well right now. I love the way he came to practice yesterday, I love the way he’s preparing so far today.”
Tate hasn’t spoken publicly since the initial incident – his scheduled press conference on Thursday was cancelled after he hurt his knee in practice – so it’s hard to definitively judge his reaction, but team sources insist he’s behaved professionally ever since. And the Giants have made it clear to him that his role isn’t going to diminish going forward, a source said – at least that was the case before he hurt his knee.
Which means Judge’s mission was accomplished. Everyone can move on. He scolded his player, but didn’t lose him. He sent a message to the locker room. And he made it clear that everyone will be accountable, but won’t end up condemned for their mistakes. That sounds logical, but it’s never simple, and it certainly isn’t a given for a head coach who has to juggle 70 or so egos for months at a time.
But Judge, in his first try, succeeded where others failed, and it didn’t take him years to figure out how to do it. His reaction was instinctive. It was also measured and done with a purpose.
And you can be certain the men who hired him took all that as a very good sign.