There were only five head coaching jobs available in the NFL this cycle in what even Giants co-owner John Mara called "the deepest group of quality candidates I can recall." There was a Super Bowl winner, a Super Bowl loser, some of the hottest college coaches in the country, and a slew of accomplished, well-respected assistant coaches, too.
That the Giants dipped into that deep pool and ended up with Joe Judge, a 38-year-old, relatively unknown special teams coach who had never interviewed for a top job before, stunned many around the NFL, to say the least. He wasn't in demand. His name wasn't being tossed around the media or inside NFL circles.
To many, it was as if the Giants pulled Judge out of thin air.
"All those head coaches out there -- (Mike) McCarthy, (Ron) Rivera, (Matt) Rhule -- and so many other guys who have been waiting their turn, and this is the way they go?" asked one AFC executive. "That takes some (guts), that's for sure."
It does indeed, and the Giants likely know it, but they fell hard for the former Patriots assistant coach anyway. As Mara indicated in a statement from the team on Tuesday, Judge's interview on Monday won the Giants over. It gave them the confidence to overlook his youth and inexperience and, once Rhule was out of the running, to cancel the rest of their interview slate.
And that slate included two former NFL head coaches -- Josh McDaniels and Jason Garrett. That means five former head coaches were on their radar, if Rivera is included. Plus, they spoke with Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy and Cowboys passing game coordinator Kris Richard, two of the hottest assistant coaches of the last few years.
"It's those guys I feel for," said one NFC scout. "It feels like Bieniemy and Richard have been waiting forever. Even (Don) 'Wink' (Martindale) is more qualified. It's not that this guy (Judge) is a bad coach. If Bill (Belichick) and (Nick) Saban vouch for him, then clearly he's got something.
"But usually you want to see a guy pay some dues."
Judge hasn't paid many dues in his relatively short career. The Lansdale, Pa., native went from the Mississippi State football team to a graduate assistant coach in 2005 and eventually landed on Saban's staff in Alabama as a special teams assistant in 2011. Two national championships later, Saban recommended him to his friend, Belichick. And according to one source who knows both men, Saban pegged him as a future head coach.
In eight years under Belichick, mostly running the Patriots special teams, Judge became a sidekick of sorts to one of the greatest head coaches in NFL history, who "absolutely loved him," the source said. He even spent countless hours talking with Judge about everything that goes into coaching -- not just special teams.
That's why Belichick gave such a strong recommendation for Judge to the Giants, and said, "He is an exceptional leader and one of the best coaches I have been around."
That obviously is high praise. But Judge was still an undiscovered gem to the rest of the NFL.
"It's not necessarily that he wasn't on anyone's radar," said one AFC executive. "I think it's more that he wasn't on anyone's radar yet. There are a lot of qualified assistants out there. Maybe he jumped the line a bit. I've heard people say the Giants got him a year or two early.
"Of course, that doesn't matter if they got it right."
Whether they did or not remains to be seen. The last time the Giants hired a coach this young and inexperienced was when they promoted Ben McAdoo back in 2016. McAdoo at least had caught the attention of the NFL with his work as an offensive coordinator in Green Bay and with the Giants, and the Philadelphia Eagles had nearly offered him their job.
McAdoo, of course, went 11-5 and took the Giants to the playoffs in his first season. But in Year 2, he seemed to collapse under the weight of the job.
Is Judge more prepared and ready for the big chair?
"I mean, who knows?" said the AFC executive. "You never know until they've done it. That's why this is such a huge risk. There were experienced candidates everywhere. There were other guys who everyone around the NFL was absolutely sure was ready.
"This guy? I just don't know. I don't think anybody knows."