The fate of Pat Shurmur had been decided weeks before the end of the Giants' season, and everyone - including Shurmur - seemed to know it. The other open secret was that the Giants had one name clearly atop their short list of Shurmur's potential replacements.
And as soon as the season was over, many in the organization figured it was only a matter of time before the Giants hired Matt Rhule.
So yes, it was stunning that eight days after Shurmur was fired, the Giants were negotiating with Joe Judge, the unheralded and virtually unknown special teams coordinator with the New England Patriots, to be their new head coach. The 38-year-old did not begin the search high on the Giants' list, but according to a source familiar with the Giants' thinking, he steadily rose throughout the process.
And everything changed about the search in the final 24-36 hours when Rhule was blown away by a crazy offer from the Carolina Panthers, and Judge wowed Giants brass in his interview hours before. With the Giants' options dwindling, and Mississippi State looking to hire Judge too, co-owners John Mara and Steve Tisch and GM Dave Gettleman decided to take one of the biggest gambles of their NFL careers.
How did Judge end up emerging from a field filled with so many experienced candidates? And how did the Giants decide they were comfortable taking a risk on a young man who had never even been interviewed for a head coaching job before?
Here's how it all happened, based on conversations with multiple sources inside the Giants, close to the candidates, and others around the league:
Monday, Dec. 30
Shurmur was officially fired in the morning after the Giants' 4-12 season came to a close. Weeks earlier, according to a team source, the Giants had identified the 44-year-old Rhule as their top target - a coach they had admired since his one year as a Giants assistant (2012).
They had also heard that, despite some reports, Rhule was very interested in joining the Giants. The New York native wasn't wary of working with Gettleman or looking for total control. The only concern, in fact, was whether they'd be able to lure him away from Baylor, where he had a lucrative contract that lasted until 2028 and a situation where he was essentially the football program's king.
What seemed clear at that point was that the Giants wanted a leader and a program-builder. They didn't say publicly that head coaching experience was a must, but privately they said it was a strong preference. Former Packers coach Mike McCarthy was high on their list too, as was Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels - although some in the organization suspected from their interview with McDaniels two years ago that he wanted too much power and wouldn't be a good fit.
Over the next 24 hours, the Giants' interview docket took shape. They got permission to talk with Cowboys passing game coordinator Kris Richard, Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy, Ravens defensive coordinator Don "Wink" Martindale, McDaniels, and Judge. They also set up an interview with McCarthy.
Rhule, meanwhile, had interview requests from the Giants, Carolina Panthers and Cleveland Browns. He turned the Browns down, then told the Giants and Panthers they had to wait not only until after the Suger Bowl (on Wed., Jan. 1) but until he and his family returned from a weekend trip to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico.
Tuesday, Dec. 31
This had been in the works for weeks, but on this day the Washington Redskins - who had fired coach Jay Gruden during the season -- hired Ron Rivera to be their next head coach. On the surface it looked like a stunning blow to the Giants, since Gettleman and Rivera worked together in Carolina, and it sure seemed like Rivera had no interest in waiting to see if the Giants job would open up.
One day later, Gettleman would say in a radio interview that he didn't know if he could have hired Rivera: "I just know that before we could turn around, the deal was done."
The Giants had interest in the 58-year-old Rivera, according to a source, but did not consider him to be a priority. Rhule was still their No. 1 choice. They also likely knew, as one source told SNY, "Don't be so sure either one of them want to work with the other again." It wasn't about bad blood or other issues, the source said, just that both seemed to feel it was better to move on.
Whether the Giants would have interviewed Rivera or not is unclear. That point became moot, though, because of how fast the Redskins moved.
Thursday, Jan. 2
The Giants interviewed Richard, whom Gettleman called a "very impressive guy" in a radio interview. Richard is well-regarded around the NFL, but was never thought to be a serious candidate for the Giants' job.
Friday, Jan. 3
McCarthy, the Super Bowl-winning former Packers coach who took Green Bay to the playoffs nine times in his 13 seasons, interviewed with the Giants and apparently left a strong impression. He has worked tirelessly in the past year to rehabilitate his image, which had been tarnished in his final days with the Packers. He's done media features showing how he's stayed involved with the game and updated his approach to coaching.
All that came through in the interview, according to a source. Some in the organization did not think McCarthy would be a strong candidate for the job before he came in. That feeling had changed by the time he left.
Saturday, Jan. 4
The Giants braintrust made the long trip to Kansas City for an interview with Bieniemy and then went to Baltimore to interview Martindale. They seemed impressed by both. Bieniemy is a commanding presence and checked the "leader" box they were looking for in a new coach. Martindale left them with the same feeling, but what really excited some of them was that he told the Giants he wanted to bring LSU assistant Joe Brady with him as his offensive coordinator. Brady, a former New Orleans Saints assistant, spent one year in Baton Rouge and turned quarterback Joe Burrow into a Heisman Trophy winner. The Giants envisioned the kind of magic he could work with young quarterback Daniel Jones.
Some sources said Bieniemy left the stronger impression and others thought it was Martindale. At the time, though, both of them were clearly on the second tier of candidates along with Richard and, seemingly, Judge.
Meanwhile, down in Dallas, the Cowboys still hadn't fired head coach Jason Garrett, but they brought in McCarthy for an interview that ended up spanning two days and included a sleepover at Jerry Jones' house.
Sunday, Jan. 5
Here's where things started to get really interesting …
With the Patriots losing on Saturday night, the Giants set up their interview schedule for the week: Judge on Monday, Rhule on Tuesday, and McDaniels (tentatively) for Wednesday, though there were still doubts he'd even come in for the interview. They also expressed an interest in bringing McCarthy back for a second interview, but by this point he already had an offer from the Dallas Cowboys, which he would eventually take.
In fact, while the McCarthy news doesn't break until Monday morning, the hiring seemed clear on Sunday night when, in the middle of the Philadelphia Eagles playoff game, the Cowboys officially announced the firing of Garrett. As soon as they did, the Giants put in a request for permission to interview him for their head coaching job (which apparently they had to do since he was still under contract until Jan. 14).
Rhule, meanwhile, returned from his Cabo vacation and set his first interview with the Carolina Panthers for Monday in Waco, Tex. He wanted the Giants to come to Waco on Tuesday, but they convinced him to come to New Jersey instead. It's not clear why they pushed for that location, though some speculated they would try not to let Rhule "leave the building" without a deal.
At this point, there were people in the Giants organization who don't think Rhule was a slam dunk to take the job, but their worry seemed to be that he would choose to return to Baylor - not that he'd take the Panthers job.
Monday, Jan. 6
Judge came in for his interview riding a candidacy that had slowly (and quietly) been picking up steam as the Giants did their research, thanks in part to a strong recommendation from Bill Belichick, according to a source. The Giants still revere Belichick and the feeling is mutual. Even though his assistants haven't had great success as NFL head coaches, his words still carry an enormous weight.
And Judge backed up the praise with what one source called a "tremendous" interview. "He blew everyone away," another source said. He still wasn't thought of as a strong candidate outside of the building, but clearly Mara, Gettleman and Tisch felt differently. Any reservations they had, said a source, had to do with his age and inexperience. But they all felt he had the makings of a great coach.
In fact, they were so taken by Judge, according to a source, that they called his agent to tell him how "impressive" he was during his interview.
Still, Rhule appeared to be the favorite, and all eyes were on his interview which was still scheduled for Tuesday. Judge, according to a source, was emerging as a very strong option. What was unclear was whether he was a fallback option or if he was suddenly on equal footing with Rhule.
Tuesday, Jan. 7
Any Judge vs. Rhule competition became moot early Tuesday morning when the Giants got a call from Rhule's agent, informing them that the Carolina Panthers' billionaire owner, David Tepper, had given Rhule an offer he couldn't refuse. It started as a six-year deal worth more than $8 million per year and eventually became a seven-year, $62 million contract. Rhule wanted to see if the Giants - the team a source said he wanted to coach all along - would match.
The Giants, according to a source, asked him to come for his interview on Tuesday so they could talk about it in person. Rhule wanted a more definitive answer, so the Panthers wouldn't be tempted to offer their money to McDaniels - who was scheduled to interview in Carolina on Tuesday - instead. When the Giants said they wouldn't match - both the money and the length were far more than they were willing to offer a first-year NFL head coach, a source said - Rhule took the Carolina job.
One team source described the reaction inside the organization as "stunned" once the news started to get around.
At that point, it sure looked like the Giants were facing dwindling options. At the beginning of the search it seemed like Rhule, McCarthy and McDaniels were the top three on their list. Two were now gone and they had grown convinced they couldn't land the third. But the four-man interview group (Mara, Gettleman and assistant GM Kevin Abrams were meeting with the candidates in person, and Tisch was checking in by phone) had fallen in love with Judge and had grown comfortable with the idea of turning to him. But he was also being courted by Mississippi State, his alma mater - and his wife's alma mater, too.
Rather than lose another coveted candidate, the Giants pivoted quickly, offered the job to Judge and cancelled their interviews with Garrett and McDaniels.
Soon after, on a day many thought would be a coronation for Rhule, the stunning news broke and kept coming fast. It looked to the outside world that the Giants panicked, that they were forced to go with Plan C or D after all their preferred choices turned them down.
But inside the organization, there wasn't that feeling at all, a source said. There seemed to be a contentment with their choice. And no one sensed any regrets or concern from the men in charge.
"It doesn't matter how we got here," one source said. "We feel we got the right guy. And I think everyone will be happy in the end."