Joe Judge didn’t lose the fans last season despite an 0-5 start or a 1-7 first half. A 6-10 season and another year of no playoffs didn’t lead to any chants of “Joe Must Go.”
But last year suddenly feels like ancient history. Judge’s honeymoon is definitely over now.
Maybe it’s not fair and maybe it’s too soon, but he has coached his way right into a buzzsaw of pent up frustration, anger and sadness among the fanbase, built up by a decade of mostly misery and failure. He didn’t do it all. Most of it occurred under the watch of his three predecessors in the last nine years, and it was mostly assembled by the Giants’ unpopular GM.
But this ugly, disappointing, undisciplined 0-2 start is on Judge’s watch and he’s the one preaching patience and talking about the positives as the wheels fly off the bus. Whatever goodwill he built up from his old-school nature, his toughness, his presence, it has disappeared like it was Kadarius Toney, their forgotten first-round pick. He’s got players yelling at each other on the sidelines, posting complaints on Instagram, and making indefensible mistakes on the field.
He’s downplaying it all because that’s what coaches do. He wants to focus on the hard-to-see improvements and the process. And maybe that was fine a year ago.
But right now, all that matters to anyone are the results.
“Yeah, I don’t know if there’s anyone more conscious of that than me,” Judge said on Friday, one day after the awful, 30-29 Giants loss in Washington. “I’m very conscious of (how) we’re in a production business. But the key thing I keep going back to is to have those bottom-line results, you’ve got to improve, you’ve got to keep building as a team and you’ve got to be in a better place.
“When you want to get those results, it ain’t about being frustrated to get results. It’s about working to get results.”
A year ago, that was acceptable -- the belief that the Giants were working to be better. Now, everyone sees no evidence that process is working. Coming close to a win certainly isn’t proof. Because what the outside world saw was defense that kept folding, a stupid penalty by Dexter Lawrence on a field goal that snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, new receiver Kenny Golladay and quarterback Daniel Jones yelling at each other on the sidelines on TV, and Toney posting on Instagram after he didn’t touch the ball all night that “s--t just be lame to me.”
Judge downplayed all that apparent turmoil. But the world saw the entire embarrassment. The Giants looked like an undisciplined, dysfunctional mess. They never looked like that last season when they were 0-5 or even 1-7. They always looked like they were building something -- and doing it the right way.
“Last year, we started off slow (and) what got us on track was everyone staying committed to the process,” Judge said. “And understanding that when you turn on the tape, that’s the truth. The truth is not found on Twitter. The truth is not found in the articles you read outside the building. The truth is found on the film. For us, it’s not about coming in with emotions one way or another, it’s about understanding what’s on the tape, what we have to build with, what we have to correct and what we have to be going forward.”
That’s why Judge is the way he is during his post-game press conference -- another thing that has started to infuriate fans. He has a plan and that process and he doesn’t want to deviate from it one bit. He is clearly trying to project an image of calm, to not throw his players under the proverbial bus. He wants to keep them looking straight ahead.
But to the outside world he looks too much like the “Everything is Awesome” guy from the Lego Movie while all the blocks around him are being cruelly kicked down.
That’s probably not going to change. He’s not going to throw a fit, nor will he seethe with a very visible anger the way Tom Coughlin used to do. That’s not necessarily a bad thing either. Yes, fans want to see him hurt as much as they do. But being the calm in the center of the storm certainly can work.
But the danger with a coach like Judge has always been this: A lot of what he does will only work if things are going well. It can be a disaster when things start to go in the wrong direction. He will lose the support of fans if he keeps talking of progress and positive things when the paying customers watch a season disintegrate before Halloween. They won’t take kindly to talk of hard work when they’re watching dumb penalties and sideline spats.
And there’s a real worry that this could get worse. Up until this point Judge’s players have had his back, laughing at the angst outside their building over the penalty laps and the yelling. They insist they love their coach and the way he pushes them, even if the language is salty.
But anyone who’s ever watched the NFL knows that the tide of happiness can turn quickly when the losing mounts. At some point, all that yelling and punishment isn’t motivating for a team that’s lost its way. It just gets old.
And that’s when things will really fall apart.
It’s too early for that kind of panic, of course. Judge is just 18 games into his tenure and there’s been more good overall than bad. But his 6-12 record isn’t good and the first two weeks of this season have been disappointing. There’s no way to hide from that.
That’s why his free pass is gone. The wait for winning has just gone on too long, with too many agonizing losses. Fans can’t care about a process or how hard a team works when a loss like the one Thursday night comes along and rips out their heart.
“Look, if we thought we were a finished product at this point then yeah, we would be in a lot of trouble,” Judge said. “But it’s a long season. We’ve got 15 more games to play.”
OK, but they better win a few quickly because the good tides are definitely turning. And Judge is starting to learn that whatever good will he built up, it’s all about to run out.