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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — It was one question after the next from Daniel Jones in between 320-yard drives and five-iron moonshots onto the greens at Preakness Hills Country Club in Wayne, New Jersey, during a late-July round of golf. Based on the depth of the inquisition, the New York Giants’ quarterback was in his element playing the dual roles of investigative reporter and weekend golfer.
Jones asked questions about this reporter’s family, job and background between a stream of birdies. It felt in some way as if the dynamic had mysteriously been reversed between player and reporter.
This might seem inconsequential, but it says a lot about Jones the person and perhaps helps show why the Giants believe he is special despite an uneven start to his career. Jones is personable and likeable, yet incredibly competitive — enough to embrace winning just about every point on the back nine in the three-man game that included the club’s head golf pro, Michael Docktor.
These abilities to relate and compete are something the Giants see every day from a quarterback they seem certain is destined for greatness. However, as he enters Week 2 of his third NFL season, the intangibles the Giants love about Jones need to translate to victories in big games, such as Thursday when the Giants (0-1) face an NFC East road test against the 0-1 Washington Football Team (8:20 p.m. ET, NFL Network).
“We believe in Daniel,” general manager Dave Gettleman has said repeatedly.
Ringing endorsements on behalf of the No. 6 overall draft pick in 2019 out of Duke come from Giants players, coaches and front-office personnel, often unsolicited — on the record and sometimes off — insisting he will be a high-level quarterback. And they have come despite his 40 turnovers in 28 NFL games, an 8-19 record as a starter, some awful fumbles (including a costly one Sunday in the third quarter of a 27-13 loss against the Denver Broncos) and the 11 touchdown passes in 14 starts in 2020.
Just wait, they say. Quarterback success doesn’t happen overnight.
Leading the supporters is offensive coordinator Jason Garrett, a former NFL quarterback himself, who has a tight relationship with Jones. It’s not uncommon to see them lingering after practice for their almost daily competitions, whether it be trying to throw footballs off the crossbar or into a garbage can. Garrett views it as an opportunity to see how his quarterback performs under pressure.
But their working relationship is not what has Garrett sold on Jones.
“Start with who he is as a person, his approach, his competitive spirit, his smarts, his toughness, all of that,” he said. “And then he has athletic ability. … The biggest thing for him is just to play more football and, again, it’s every quarterback I’ve ever been around. They need more experience.”
The Giants admitted their desire to help Jones by adding pass-catchers this offseason. It was their primary intention, perhaps to the neglect of the offensive line that must keep him upright.
At wide receiver, they paid $40 million guaranteed to make Kenny Golladay their No. 1 option, signed speedster John Ross (currently on injured reserve) and drafted the explosive Kadarius Toney in the first round. They also signed tight end Kyle Rudolph and have running back Saquon Barkley back from a knee injury that ended his 2020 season in Week 2.
“He can steer the team in the right direction and he can make it right for the guys to go out there and operate and have success,” Giants coach Joe Judge says of quarterback Daniel Jones. Alex Trautwig/Getty Images
That’s a lot of support for Jones, 24, in what is very likely a make-or-break season.
Gettleman has conceded this is an “important year” for the quarterback and the Giants, but he seems unwilling to contemplate the possibility Jones doesn’t develop into the long-term answer.
After being asked if his draft-day trade in April that netted the Giants another first-round pick in 2022 was buying insurance against Jones failing, the GM snapped back, “Not even a thought. No!”
The way Jones’ supporters are dug in resembles the Giants’ commitment to quarterback Eli Manning early and late in his career — even when the on-field results, like a 1-6 record in seven starts as a rookie — didn’t support that faith.
“We had some struggles as a team, but we believe that happens. … You have to struggle a little before you grow,” said Barkley, who is a close friend of Jones. “We’re going to continue to grow together, and I believe he has the potential to be an elite quarterback in this league. I know he will be.”
‘Let this guy grow’
The Giants insist there are too many positives for Jones to be a bust. He loves football. First one in, last one out. He cares. He works and leads admirably. He has an ability to relate with everybody (his other close friends include receivers Sterling Shepard and David Sills, guard Will Hernandez and defensive lineman Dexter Lawrence).
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“It’s important to let this guy grow,” Giants coach Joe Judge said prior to the season. “That is our focus right now. Let him keep learning, improving and growing.”
While the Giants remain confident in Jones, the doubters have been strong since the day the Giants made him a polarizing top-10 draft pick. ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay didn’t think Jones was a first-round quarterback and listed him as a prospect likely to be overdrafted before the 2019 draft. That year, he became Scouts Inc.’s lowest-graded first-round quarterback (80.0) since Buffalo’s EJ Manuel (76.0) in 2013.
But the way the Giants view it, how can a 6-foot-5, 221-pound quarterback with all that arm strength and physical ability (729 career rushing yards on 116 carries), who is smart, incredibly committed to his craft and well liked not be an overwhelming success?
“If you don’t see it, you’re blind,” said Shepard, who lived with Jones this summer during training camp and was blown away by his unending concentration on football.
“We see him every day,” Barkley said. “I know the work he puts in. I know his work ethic. I like to be seen as a hard worker. That’s someone I can say can challenge me with his work ethic. I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s Kobe [Bryant]-like to be completely honest.”
Given this unyielding devotion, it seems something will have to give after this season if the results on the field don’t match the belief in Jones.
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Shaky start to his career
Jones has accounted for 40 touchdowns in his career after completing 22 of 37 for 267 yards with one TD pass and no interceptions in Week 1.
However, the turnovers in particular have left those watching from a distance unsure if he’s ever going to be a high-end starter. He cut down on his fumbles last season, losing six in 14 games after losing 11 in 13 games as a rookie. But his fumble Sunday came at the Denver 15-yard line with New York trailing 17-7.
“I would not be very bullish,” former NFL quarterback and ESPN analyst Dan Orlovsky said. “The No. 1 thing that has been my issue since the moment he was taken was when moments of panic happen, when he’s dealing in a high-stress environment, he doesn’t play as smart as he is. He’s careless with the football. And that hasn’t changed in his first [two seasons].
“Now, there are factors that go into that. Of course there are. But I think to be one of those high-end quarterbacks, you can’t have that trait.”
Last season began with Jones being sacked three times and throwing one of those mind-numbing interceptions in the end zone in a 26-16 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Things got worse in Week 2 when Barkley tore his right ACL.
The Denver Broncos sacked Giants quarterback Daniel Jones twice in New York’s Week 1 loss. Alex Trautwig/Getty Images
The Giants were a mess in 2020, finishing No. 31 in total offense and in points. Jones was pressured on a league-high 41% of his dropbacks, per NFL Next Gen Stats, and it was four weeks after Barkley’s injury before he threw another touchdown pass.
Even Jones expected more from himself in his second season.
“I certainly did,” he said during the golf outing. “As a team we go out and expect to win every game. That is the mindset. You have to think like that if you want to be successful.
“It was disappointing at times. There were a lot of good things to build off of last year, and all that matters now is what we do preparing for this year.”
It was hard to pinpoint those good things Jones mentioned from last season. He finished with a QBR of 53.9, which ranked No. 20 in the NFL, behind the now-retired Philip Rivers and in front of former Chicago Bears starter and current Bills backup Mitchell Trubisky.
Orlovsky also mentioned the need to do more than the play asks in order to be a top quarterback. He hasn’t seen evidence Jones can play above the X’s and O’s.
Jones had 235 yards passing from outside the pocket last season. Only Teddy Bridgewater, Cam Newton, Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger, Drew Brees and Rivers started at least 12 games in 2020 and had fewer. Considering Jones’ age and ability, it’s a curiously low number.
The Giants look at the talent around him in his first two seasons, including a line that has often struggled (Jones was sacked 83 times in his first two seasons and twice last Sunday) and believe that has been somewhat prohibitive.
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They look back at some of their great quarterbacks (including Phil Simms and Manning) and realize it doesn’t always click immediately.
They have seen a player they passed on in the 2018 draft, Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen, develop into an MVP candidate in his third season after the talent around him was upgraded.
Maybe most important, the Giants see progress. They see Jones’ talent flash on the field on a daily basis. An emphasis was put on getting the ball out quicker this offseason, and they are happy with the results.
Giants defensive captain Logan Ryan went out of his way to name Jones the team’s offseason award winner for the way he outworked everyone.
So the Giants remain as bullish on Jones now as they were when Gettleman fell in “full-bloom love” with him prior to the 2019 draft.
“We’re excited to see what he’s going to do in the second year in the system,” Gettleman said. “Before [the 2020 season], it was his third system in three years. You know how diligent the kid is, we’ve talked about it all the time. He works just as hard on the field as he does off the field. He’s more comfortable, he’s more prepared. It’ll be fun to see what happens when we finally give him a full complement of players out there.”
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Turning the corner?
The most important opinion on Jones belongs to Judge, who agrees there is more than meets the eye when it comes to his quarterback’s performance.
“I’m not a big stats guy in how they evaluate everybody, especially for a quarterback and how they manage the game and facilitate around them,” Judge said. “I think [it’s impressive] when you watch him in practice have mastery of the offense. … He can steer the team in the right direction and he can make it right for the guys to go out there and operate and have success. … He’s taken these strides.”
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Jones has shown leadership by arranging for some of his top wide receivers to join him for throwing sessions throughout the offseason, whether it was in Arizona, North Carolina or New Jersey. And Judge has given him full control at the line of scrimmage.
But until he starts winning, the critics will grow louder.
Jones knows the deal. He isn’t completely immune to criticism, even if he doesn’t read or listen to much of anything. He usually gets his breakdown of the current narrative from the Giants’ public relations staff prior to media sessions or, occasionally, his mom, Becca Jones, who serves as his unrequested eyes and ears on the street and lets him know if the talk about him is positive or negative.
The way Jones has handled criticism has validated the Giants’ belief he is perfect for the demands of being a starting quarterback in the New York spotlight.
Jones has the confidence of his entire organization. Can he reward that faith with victories?
“You see someone that is putting in that work and effort, and you know they have the talent, all it is is a matter of time,” Giants wide receiver Darius Slayton said. “That’s it. And I’m just happy I’m here to be around to watch.”