"There are a lot of really good coaches coaching special teams," Harbaugh said. "Usually, a good coach and a good leader."
The back cover of the New York Post encapsulated the collective reaction to the New York Giants’ decision on a head coach.
“The Judge is in! … but the jury is totally out,” the headline read, referring to New York’s shocking hire of little-known Joe Judge, who spent several years under New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick as a special teams coordinator.
The Giants went with Judge over perceived favorite Matt Rhule, an offensive guru at Temple and Baylor who agreed to become the Carolina Panthers head coach.
While a surprising choice, it wasn’t one without precedent, as the Ravens took a similar path with their hire of John Harbaugh in 2008. Sunday’s meeting between the Ravens and Giants will be a rare meeting between head coaches who made their mark with special teams before getting an opportunity to lead their own franchise.
In 2008, the Ravens decided on Harbaugh, who had spent nine years as special teams coordinator with the Philadelphia Eagles, over a candidate who had taken a more traditional path to a head coaching position as an offensive or defensive coordinator. The year before he was hired by the Ravens, Harbaugh coached defensive backs.
Harbaugh joined the likes of fellow Super Bowl-winning coaches Mike Ditka and Dick Vermeil, who also served as special teams coaches before becoming head coaches.
“You have to take chances in life to be successful,” Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti said at Harbaugh’s introductory news conference. “You have to be willing to do things that the masses wouldn’t do or I don’t think you’re ever going to separate yourself from the masses.”
Harbaugh said that he doesn’t have much of a relationship with Judge, 38, but the similarities are hard to ignore. Both coaches never served as an offensive or defensive coordinator and came from a primarily special teams background, mentored by revered coaches — Judge with Belichick and Harbaugh under then-Eagles coach Andy Reid (Belichick’s first NFL coaching job was as a special assistant for the Baltimore Colts in 1975 and he coached special teams units for multiple years afterward).
“A ton of respect for [Harbaugh] as a coach,” said Judge, who also coached wide receivers last season. “He’s obviously done a great job building this team in the way he wants to. We talk about building a bully, building a physical team. Starting with the run game, the physical defense and controlling the field position in the kicking game. They’ve really prioritized what he really learned as being a special teams coach in terms of having lead specialists and good core to help win that field position.”
While neither Harbaugh nor Judge has run an offense or defense, their time on special teams has given them experience coaching various positions, allowing for a more holistic approach to team building. And running a special teams unit has formed skills that still translate to work as a head coach, which Judge noted during his introductory news conference.
“Special teams, one thing you’ve got to manage is time,” he said. “Another thing is people. As a head coach, those are the two main things you have to manage, time and people. So, I’ve had experience preparing me for that. I don’t have all the answers. I’m not preparing to sit here and tell you a lie like I have all the answers. But I am telling you I’ll find out the ones I don’t know and make sure by the time we get to the players, they’re the right ones.”
In 13 years with the Ravens, Harbaugh has 10 winning seasons, three conference championship appearances and a Super Bowl win on his resume, erasing the notion that a successful head coach must originate from the offensive or defensive side of the ball. At 5-9, the Giants’ record isn’t vastly different from last year’s 4-12 finish. But New York is still in contention for the NFC East title and the young team has seen improvement after a 0-5 start to the season.
As NFL rules have been altered increasingly to cater to quarterbacks and the offense, recent hiring practices have also aligned with that trend. Of the 13 head coaching vacancies filled in the last two offseasons, nine of the hires had an offensive-oriented background. Only Judge and Miami Dolphins coach Brian Flores, who like Judge got his NFL coaching start as a special teams assistant in New England, have not been an offensive or defensive coordinator.
But Harbaugh has shown that an unconventional coaching history can breed success. And maybe Judge is the next to do so, too.
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“I respect the guys who do that, and maybe that’s because that’s the path I took,” Harbaugh said. “Obviously, Coach Judge took that path, too. So, those guys turn out to be pretty good head coaches, it looks like. So, I just wish more guys would get a shot.”