In Brian Daboll’s first game as an NFL head coach Thursday night, he’ll be coaching against both his mentor, Bill Belichick, and his Giants predecessor, Joe Judge, a former New England Patriots colleague.
Daboll insists this somewhat emotional and awkward preseason homecoming is not front of mind.
“Obviously he [Belichick] is a mentor of mine, but I haven’t sat there and been like, ‘Oh, this is the first game,’” Daboll said Tuesday. “I know my wife and kids are gonna try to get out to it. But he’s coached what, 750 games? This is the first preseason game for me. I’m just trying to do right by my team. Not really worrying about me.”
Daboll sure knows his Patriots’ history: Belichick has coached 739 regular season games in the NFL in 47 seasons as a head coach and coordinator, 803 including playoffs.
Daboll should know it, too. He started his NFL journey here as a defensive assistant under Belichick in 2000, and was a part of five Patriots Super Bowl teams.
So he says his focus is much more on the details of the Giants’ road trip, fundamentals and playing a clean game than on coming back to Gillette Stadium.
Meanwhile, Daboll said he hadn’t even addressed Judge’s presence on the Patriots’ sideline Thursday with the Giants’ players, many of whom had fought for Judge the past two years in New Jersey.
Daboll said coaching against old friends and former players in this league is old hat.
“It’s just kind of the nature of the NFL,” Daboll said.
This is not just any other game, though.
Slot corner Darnay Holmes called it “just another game” but admitted he wouldn’t be a Giant without Judge, who drafted him in the 2020 fourth round out of UCLA.
“I’m excited to see him, because he’s the reason why I’m in this building,” Holmes said. “Salute to that guy, salute to [former GM Dave] Gettleman, salute to those who came before me. And at the end of the day it’s another opponent, another match. We’re just excited to see where we’re at as a team and coaches.”
Some players also have thrown some shade at Judge and the previous staff for coaching too hard.
Free safety Xavier McKinney, Judge’s 2020 second round pick out of Alabama, has made multiple references to “not being afraid to make a mistake or mess up” under Daboll and new D-coordinator Wink Martindale — an allusion perhaps to both Judge and former DC Pat Graham.
Center Jon Feliciano, who wasn’t even here last season, said in June that “you can just kind of tell people get a little scared when they mess up.”
Their implication clearly is that they believe Daboll is more constructive than destructive — though it’s odd hearing players on one of the NFL’s worst recent teams say that it’s a relief being able to mess up.
They will learn quickly that Daboll won’t tolerate mistakes either.
He also comes from the Belichick tree, from which Giants ownership has plucked two consecutive head coaches (after interviewing Matt Patricia and Josh McDaniels in 2018).
Then there are the texts. Oh, the texts.
Former Dolphins head coach Brian Flores, of course, alleges in a lawsuit that Belichick accidentally texted Flores that he was the Giants “guy” two days prior to Flores’ in-person interview for the vacancy after Judge’s firing.
Belichick allegedly intended to text Daboll instead. Flores therefore referred to his Giants interview as a “sham.”
Giants co-owner John Mara said at the March owners’ meetings in Florida that no one from the Giants, including Mara, had spoken to Belchick about the hiring process.
“I haven’t spoken or communicated with Bill since we played them in the preseason last summer,” Mara said then. “And to my knowledge, nobody in our organization communicated with him.”
Belichick, known for being terse, said “can’t comment on it.”
Now Judge is an offensive assistant under Belichick trying to bounce with Mac Jones as his QB after getting the plug pulled abruptly on a long-term rebuilding plan in New York.
And Daboll, after building one of the league’s top offenses with QB Josh Allen in Buffalo, is a Giant trying to rehabilitate Daniel Jones and build a sustainable product with time that Judge was promised but ultimately not given by Mara and Steve Tisch.
It’s an intricate, complicated, messy web of connections. On Thursday, they’ll probably all be relieved just to play some football.
And Daboll and his family, just for a moment, should be able to appreciate how far he’s come.