Never before in the NFL have first-year coaches, never mind a first-time head coach at any level, dealt with a virtual offseason. Never before have they been stripped of preseason games and given 14 padded practices to prepare for a season. Enter New York Giants coach Joe Judge.
Judge is navigating the coronavirus pandemic and simultaneously installing new offensive and defensive schemes. And he's doing this while trying to turn around the Giants, who have been the NFL's worst team over the past three seasons.
Judge couldn't have dreamed up the wild circumstances he faces.
This season will be daunting and unique in still unforeseen ways. Which is why no matter how it unfolds, Judge is going to get a pass this season -- deservedly so. Consider this season a freebie for the coach as he overhauls the franchise's roster and works to instill a winning mindset.
The Giants don't need to win now or make the playoffs in 2020. They don't need to finish with a winning record or even .500 to keep the pressure off. All Judge and the Giants need to do is make nominal strides that suggest they are headed in the right direction.
If this season goes awry, the heat will fall on general manager Dave Gettleman for the roster he's accumulated during his three years on the job.
"[Judge is] coming into a no-lose situation," said former NFL coach and current ESPN analyst Rex Ryan, who knows a little something about the New York market having coached the Jets for six seasons. "No. 1, expectations are down. They are going to be a hell of a lot better than people think, in my opinion. So I think it's going to be perfect for him. He can go in, kind of just smooth the course and ride the wave a little bit.
"But even if they come up short, he's going to be given a pass. I just know that is the way it is. The Giants [fans] are just a lot more forgiving than the Jets fans are. I'm not saying that because I was the Jets' coach. I went to the [AFC] Championship Game my first year."
The Giants are looking to build on a 4-12 campaign with a second-year quarterback who they believe is a franchise building block. Five or six wins this season with Daniel Jones making significant strides can be viewed as a success. It isn't asking much.
"There are unknowns in every season going in. This year is no different." Joe Judge, Giants coach
Of course, Judge, 38, isn't going to admit publicly this isn't a win-now situation. That wouldn't be a prudent approach as he tries to develop the same type of winning mentality he became so accustomed to as an assistant with the New England Patriots and at Alabama.
"We're just not going to make any excuses for anything that comes up this season," Judge said. "We're all here to play and coach football. We're here to do it well, and we're going to put everything into it.
"There are unknowns in every season going in. This year is no different. It just has a different element that we haven't dealt with before."
There is a reason Judge has color-coded calendars for every possible scenario he can envision during the pandemic, which seems to present new challenges by the day.
The toughest task this summer, aside from the obvious of keeping everyone healthy, is making sure the Giants don't make mistakes with personnel. It's a problem all teams face.
"Just making sure we evaluate all the players cut," one general manager said recently of what he thought the biggest challenge would be under the current rules and regulations.
It was reiterated this weekend when the Giants had to scrap their plan of keeping a 90-man roster for at least the first few weeks of camp. They only lasted a few days.
Judge realized by Sunday the rules of keeping a 90-man roster under the COVID-19 restrictions wouldn't allow him to get everyone on the field together, even for walk-throughs. That proved too prohibitive, even though he spoke publicly on Friday about using the two-group option. So the Giants shifted gears, slashed their roster and went to the 80-man route by the end of the weekend.
Although some have noted the difficulty of implementing new systems this year, Ryan says it's overblown. The NFL is so game-plan specific on a week-by-week basis, he doesn't see that as anywhere near the toughest task a new coach such as Judge will face. He agrees the evaluation process will be difficult for any coach who is relatively unfamiliar with his players.
"That is the challenge. I think that's legitimate," Ryan said.
So the 14 days in pads this month become that much more important. But it's still a small part of a much bigger process.
Taking this job was never about instant gratification for Judge, and he made that clear during his interviews with Giants brass. This was going to be a multiyear process. Winning games, in even an ideal 2020, was not the ultimate goal.
It was evident this offseason that the front office bought into the approach when the Giants navigated methodically through free agency despite having the salary-cap space to make numerous splashes. They took the long-range approach instead. Depth was a focus.
It's what the Giants admittedly should have done when Gettleman took over in 2018 following a 3-13 season. They're on that road now, and it's lengthy. And now the Giants are facing a perfectly imperfect 2020.
It buys Judge more time. All this team has to do now is show the slightest bit of progress.
Considering how the past three years have gone, that should not be too difficult.