Giants' Joe Judge opens up on Daniel Jones, COVID-19, player protests

The phone rang, I answered, and Joe Judge said hello.

"I wanted to make sure we had a chance to talk," he said, "and that whatever questions you have get answered."

So began my conversation Tuesday morning with the first-year, first-time head coach of the New York Giants. He made the media rounds Monday and Tuesday, speaking for 20 minutes each with reporters and columnists who regularly cover the Giants.

We talked about Daniel Jones and Saquon Barkley, social justice, COVID-19, the offensive line and his philosophy on finding player leadership.

As he and his family settle into their new New Jersey home not far from the Giants training facility, Judge is clearly someone who wants his team and his players to connect with the fans who cheer for them.

The Giants are nearing the end of their virtual offseason; veterans finished last week while rookies have another week to go. In the past several months in this country, the news cycle has been dominated by weighty issues that affect all of us. Being a football coach isn't just about X's and O's, anymore. If it ever was.

Here are the highlights of my conversation with Judge:

Judge's full answer on evaluating QB Daniel Jones during the virtual offseason: "Just watching his rookie tape, obviously he has a skill set to work with. He throws a good, accurate ball, has good arm strength. There are some things he has to improve on. I'm not going to get into a full assessment right here, criticizing him in public just yet, but I would just say he's got a skill set. I've been more impressed with the way he's worked off the field than anything else right now. He's had a very good spring. He's been very active in our virtual meetings. Demonstrated a passion for the game, demonstrated a very good command of the new system and recall. Good situational awareness. And you can tell he loves football. That's one thing that's really come through with our experiences this spring. We do have a lot of team-first guys who really love the game. That carries over to how they work on a daily basis."

About COVID-19 and the NFL's guidelines: "I think right now I'm just putting faith in the people who make those decisions for the league and with our medial staff, (senior VP of medical services) Ronnie Barnes and his guys. Whatever protocols they put in place, we're going to adhere to and follow for the safety of our players. We still have a little bit of time between now and training camp, so I know things are changing constantly based on local government protocols and what the league (is doing). We've got a lot of things planned out and contingency plans. As soon as the league says this is what we have to follow, that's what we're going to do."

Social justice initiatives: Earlier this month, in the aftermath of George Floyd's death while in Minneapolis police custody and with protesters filling streets in New Jersey, New York and across the country, team owners John Mara and Steve Tisch sat in on a virtual team meeting, telling players they were there "to listen and to learn."

Judge seems to be particularly pleased with the amount of dialogue -- and quality of dialogue -- among his players during this time.

"I want to make very clear that we're going to support our players," he said. "Listen, we've had a lot of very long, productive conversations. We're going to continue to have these conversations as we move forward. With the players, we've listened very carefully to them and are channeling our energy and emotion of today (with the intent of) making a difference. A really sustained difference. Our guys are focused on the action."

He said players have "identified societal issues they want to address" and are in the process of connecting with organizations they can work with to accomplish those goals.

"We feel we can make a difference," Judge said. "We're going to work to do that."

The possibility of kneeling: Judge said the Giants have not specifically talked yet about any actions on game day, including the possibility that any or all of the players may kneel during the national anthem in protest of social injustice and police brutality. "We will have those conversations," he said. "Players, coaches, and ownership."

Kneeling is a possibility. Those "conversations" that Judge referenced will be held during training camp, likely before the first preseason game.

Back in 2017, three Giants -- Olivier Vernon, Damon Harrison and Landon Collins -- all knelt during the anthem before at least one game. Coincidence or not, all three are no longer Giants.

Judge and I talked about that situation, but I told him I didn't think it was fair to ask him to answer about situations and decisions made before he arrived. Judge then said this: "I wasn't (with the Giants then) but I was in the league in 2017. There's a lot of the same conversations. I think people are listening better now. And I think that is what's going to lead to a lot of the change that we're looking for."

What about the offensive line? Judge said the Giants will emphasize "position flexibility" with the line. That includes veteran left tackle Nate Solder and rookie tackle Andrew Thomas, the fourth overall pick in the 2020 draft. Unless there is an injury, they will be the starting tackles in the season opener.

"We're really going to let the competition determine where everything falls out," Judge said. "So we're going to work all of our tackles both on the left and right. We'll have a period of time to see through competitive drills, teamwork, scrimmages and preseason games early on (so we can) best identify" the best starters.

"We want to work to all of our strengths and do the best thing for the players, the best thing for the team. We're really going to let what they do on the field determine that. We do have guys who have played on the left and right side, so it's not anything new to any of our guys. We're going let them go through training camp and let the competition sort it out."

Learning from the master: Given how critical the offensive line will be to the Giants' success -- fixed "once and for all," as co-owner John Mara has directed -- I asked Judge what he learned in New England from legendary offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia.

"You know what, I could write a book on what I've learned from Dante," Judge said.

He went on to say that a few years ago, he sat in all spring on Scarnecchia's meetings with his linemen. He saw the way the linemen grew and improved with sound coaching.

There was a "daily emphasis on the fundamentals and daily influence on the technique being consistent," Judge said. "Doing it right to give yourself the best opportunity to be successful on each down. That's what I really took away from Dante. Brilliant guy."

Judge then pivoted to his offensive line coach, Mark Columbo.

"He does a tremendous job," Judge said. "I love seeing his offensive line meetings. He's a great teacher, he's very passionate, he's very direct and has a lot of the same focuses on fundamental-based technique, how we're executing and communication."

No excuses: Given the challenges of the virtual offseason -- Judge hasn't even been able to watch his quarterback throw a pass -- this doesn't seem like an ideal time to be building a new program, installing new schemes (and expectations) and getting ready to keep up with established NFL programs.

Judge was hearing none of it.

"I'm not an excuses guy and our players aren't going to be an excuses team," he said. "Listen, we represent an area (of the country) that has been through a tremendous amount of difficulty, and they're not making excuses, either. I talked about this at my (introductory) press conference and I meant it: I want to put a product on the field that the people of this (area) can be proud of.

"They don't have excuses. They have to wake up and find a way to work and pay bills and take care of their children. They're not making excuses and we're not making excuses, either. We have something to accomplish. Whatever means you give us to work, we're going to find a way to work. We have an identity we have to build. We have a culture we have to build. But we're committed to building that."

Finding leadership: The Giants have lacked defensive leadership since Antrel Rolle left the building after the 2014 season. Judge believes team leaders, particularly on defense, will begin to emerge in training camp.

"We've got to continue to push our guys through pressure, stress and tough times and that's when the leadership really starts to emerge," he said. "Who can pull the guys with them when things aren't always going (well)?"

Judge said team captains will be voted on by players closer to the start of the regular season. And he will have a player advisory council with this aim: "A group of guys who aren't afraid to tell you the tough things. Who's willing to walk in my office and tell me what I don't want to hear? Who's willing to speak up about what may be going on in the team and tell me when the other guys might not want to come to the forefront?"

On DeAndre Baker: The second-year defensive back is out on bond and facing four counts of armed robbery with a firearm and four counts of aggravated assault with a firearm stemming from a May incident in Miramar, Fla.

"All I'm going to say is, he's currently on our roster," Judge said. "And I'm not going to comment on any on going legal investigation."

What about Saquon? Third-year running back Saquon Barkley generally makes a good first impression. Judge agreed: "You know what, I've really enjoyed working with him this spring. That entire running back group has been phenomenal in terms of their work ethic, their personalities, how to come (to work), how they support each other. They genuinely care about each other and help each other.

"I think Saquon has really demonstrated that team-first attitude, and it all starts with that. You talk about leadership and doing your job effectively, making decisions that put the team first, he has demonstrated that this spring. And you have to have that. He's a competitor. He cares about winning. That's important -- and you can't take that for granted. There's a lot of people in this league who don't truly care about winning. And he does. And that's important, not just for his coaches but for the other players who are alongside of him, knowing he's doing what's necessary for the team to have success on a weekly basis. I really enjoy working with all of our players; the question was specifically about Saquon, so I wanted to answer it. And I've very much enjoyed working with him."

And lastly: Judge was born in Philadelphia and grew up in the area. Yes, he was "very much so" an Eagles fan. He visited Eagles training camps, first in West Chester, Penn., then at Lehigh University. His favorite player? Return specialist Vai Sikahema. "Outside of Philly, they're like, 'Who's that?'" Judge said with a laugh. "Vai Sikahema. He was great."

Follow Kim Jones on Twitter at @KimJonesSports.

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