John Harbaugh and Joe Judge rose through the ranks and made it all the way to the top, positioned as NFL head coaches, via unconventional pathways. Both primarily worked with special teams as assistants or coordinators in a league where offensive and defensive expertise is the usual ticket to the big seat.
Judge had one year coaching wide receivers with the Patriots, and Harbaugh had one year coaching defensive backs with the Eagles. Other than that, it was all special teams for Judge and Harbaugh, before becoming head coaches. Judge’s Giants and Harbaugh’s Ravens square off Sunday; they are the only two head coaches in the league with résumés steeped primarily in special teams.
“Yeah, I am actually surprised that more teams don’t go that route,’’ Harbaugh said. “There have been some great, great coaches who have been coaching special teams in this league for a long time, all the way back to when I first broke in, in ’98 … just amazing coaches that never really got a shot.’’
Harbaugh mentioned Pete Rodriguez, Scott O’Brien, Brad Seely and Joe Avezzano as special teams coordinators who did not gain head coaching jobs.
“To see Joe be able to do that — and of course he was working on offense too, so he has a lot of football knowledge — but that was good to see,” Harbaugh said.
The two share special teams bonding but not much else.
“I wouldn’t say that we’re very close,’’ Judge said. “I have a tremendous amount of respect for John. It’s a small league, so you know who guys are out there. I’ve obviously followed his career and studied him from what he’s done on special teams.’’
Now that the Giants committed to Logan Ryan with a three-year contract extension, their defensive backfield is secure for 2021. Ryan and Jabrill Peppers return at safety, James Bradberry is locked up for three more years and Darnay Holmes is finishing up a promising rookie year. If 2019 second-round pick Xavier McKinney is what the Giants believe he will be, the secondary will be a strength.
Judge, in the loss to the Cardinals last week, threw his first replay challenge flag of the season, trying to get an onside kick recovery by the Browns overturned late in the fourth quarter. Clearly, he is not one to act casually about gambling with, and possibly losing, time outs.
“Look, I rely on the information I get up top from the guys who have the monitors in front of them for the replay,’’ Judge said. “If it’s something we think is worth a challenge based on what they’re seeing, then we’ll go ahead and use it. Really, the information we’ve gotten this year on a lot of them is that it’s not either a clear shot or it’s not clear to be overturned. To be honest with you, I’m not looking to waste timeouts. That’s a valuable asset in the game that you can’t go ahead and burn, especially when you get into the second half. Those things are like gold.’’