EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The camera panned to the New England Patriots sideline late in their wild-card loss to the Tennessee Titans on Jan. 4. There was coach Bill Belichick and one of his assistants chirping in the official's ear.
At the time, less than two weeks ago, that assistant was a nameless Belichick underling. He was the Patriots special teams coordinator, who also doubled this season as wide receivers coach.
Turns out that nameless face was Joe Judge, now the coach of the New York Giants. In the 48 hours following that rare extended camera time, his life was turned upside down. He was on the verge of taking the Mississippi State head coaching job before his interview with the Giants. It was a surprise hire to fans, players, ownership and even the confident coach.
Judge addressed his relative anonymity at his introductory news conference on Jan. 9.
"Now, there is a question out there that I'm sure a lot of people are asking, and that's number one -- who am I?" he said, before explaining the principles that guide his everyday decisions and the football philosophy that blew the Giants away.
It was as if Judge appeared in this coaching search out of the blue, even if the Giants say his name was discussed when they hired Pat Shurmur two years earlier.
There is little doubt Judge's connection to Belichick and University of Alabama coach Nick Saban opened eyes. He worked as a football analyst/special teams assistant for Saban from 2009 through 2011 before joining Belichick and the Patriots for the past eight seasons.
"You know we'd have conversations within our office of who are the bright young coaches around the league and [Judge's] name came up a couple times," Giants co-owner John Mara said. "Again, I saw when he left Alabama ... he eventually ends up on the New England staff. I said, 'Wait a second! There has to be something to this guy if he's coming from Alabama.' Obviously, Bill and Nick must've talked. Nick's not going to send Bill any dogs. And one of the things Bill said to me, 'I gave this guy more and more responsibility and pretty quickly I stopped looking over his shoulder because I knew it would get done properly.'"
The connection to two of the greatest coaches of his generation worked in Judge's favor. Mara spoke with Belichick "several times" over the weekend for his input before the interview on Jan. 6.
Judge, 38, was hired the next morning after co-owner Steve Tisch flew to Providence, Rhode Island, and had breakfast with the coach. It was Tisch's first face-to-face interaction with a name he heard during the season, right around the time it became clear the Giants would be embarking on a third coaching search in four years.
"I probably heard his name six or eight weeks ago as names were being tossed around," Tisch said.
Tisch heard it from someone inside the Giants' building. He did some homework on the under-the-radar candidate and saw an impressive résumé.
Still, the Giants were Judge's only NFL head coaching interview. He showed up Monday morning without any notes and knew his hiring was a long shot. Even the Giants considered it unlikely with candidates such as Matt Rhule and Mike McCarthy more known and well regarded by the organization entering the process.
"No, no," Mara said if he originally thought the search would end with Judge as their coach. "If you would have asked me a week ago, 10 days ago, I would have said it probably would have been a long shot."
What it did prove to Mara and the Giants was that their process was pure. They went into these meetings with an open mind.
Judge admittedly wasn't that familiar with the Giants' full roster. He had just finished coaching a playoff game and needed to make his own evaluations before coming to any conclusions. He didn't mention a single player's name during his introductory news conference or one-on-one conversations afterward. This was by design.
General manager Dave Gettleman even downplayed there being much (or any) talk during the three-hour interview about New York's franchise quarterback Daniel Jones, the No. 6 overall pick in last year's draft.
"The interviews are more philosophical. They really are," Gettelman said. "It's where's your head, where's our head, and can the two heads get together and mush. That's really what that is. You don't go player by player by player down the roster. You can't."
Judge blew the Giants away by being himself and opening their eyes to some of the things the Patriots do on a regular basis to prepare and make sure their entire football operation is aligned. That includes the general manager watching tape with the coaches on a weekly basis so he knows exactly what it is they're looking for from a player.
That is hardly a concession for Gettleman, a self-declared film junkie. He came out of the search with his power untouched. Ownership having a role in personnel doesn't appear to be affected, either. That might not have been the case had the Giants hired a candidate with more experience and leverage such as McCarthy or Rhule.
The setup between coach and front office appears much the same as it was under Tom Coughlin, Ben McAdoo and Shurmur.
"Well, the 46-man game-day roster is certainly going to be [Judge's] call," Mara said. "I expect him and Dave to have discussions about the 53 [-man roster] and about the draft and to come to an agreement."
Gettleman, too, was blown away by a coach whose name had been coming up in conversations more and more often this season. It probably didn't hurt that the Giants had a chance to see the Patriots twice (preseason and again in Week 6).
Judge's unit blocked a punt for a touchdown in the teams' regular-season matchup.
"Every once in a while, you get into conversations about coaches around the league with other guys. Joe's name kept popping up for me," Gettleman said. "Again, so you look at the résumé, you look at the background, you say, 'OK, wait a minute -- five championships in 10 years, worked for Belichick, worked for Saban, did the grunt work like a lot of us did, lining the fields and working at Birmingham-Southern.'"
This sold Gettleman and the Giants on a coach unfamiliar to most outside the NFL community. And suddenly Judge is no longer known as just an assistant to Belichick or Saban.