On a day when six quarterbacks made their debuts this season as NFL starters, no one had had more weight on their shoulders to succeed than Daniel Jones of the New York Giants.
Jones did not just ascend to the job, he dethroned Eli Manning, who for the last 15 years had come to epitomize – good and bad – the fortunes of his team.
When Giants coach Pat Shurmur promoted Jones, the sixth overall pick in the 2019 draft after Week 2’s loss to the Buffalo Bills, the New York media spent the next few days canonizing Manning, who had led the Giants to two Super Bowl championships since becoming their starter in 2004.
But over the last three seasons, Manning had become a polarizing figure, known as much for his mishaps as the championships he collected.
And so at 0-2 and on the verge of getting buried again in the NFC East, the Giants were basically begging Jones to give them something to feel good about, to provide some glimmer of hope for the future.
So imagine the relief, consider the joy in that locker room on Sunday night when Shurmur presented Jones the game ball after the team’s scintillating 32-31 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Shurmur asked Jones to say a few words to his team in the commotion of its locker room, but Jones proved a man of few words, limiting his oratory to “Giants on 3.”
Of course, it’s far too early to tell whether Jones will be what he appeared to be on Sunday. The Buccaneers defense will not remind anyone of the 1985 Chicago Bears. But for at least one day, the Giants offense had creativity and insistence.
Jones has not had it easy with the Giants. His selection was mocked, critics saying he was taken too high and hadn’t shown enough in his career at middling Duke to justify it. Just this week Shurmur canceled his weekly radio spot with the team’s flagship station in protest of the criticism the team had received.
Instead of letting it bog him down, Jones got to work and showed enough in training camp and the preseason to convince the Giants he could be ready sooner rather than later.
And when the Giants fell behind 12-3 midway through the second quarter, his quiet demeanor morphed into competitive fire, Jones spewing profanities in an effort to fire his teammates up.”
He was like, ‘Let’s f—–g score!’ And I was just like, ‘Wow. This is our quarterback,’” Russell Shepard told the media after the game.
The Giants really needed Jones after losing their franchise halfback, Saquon Barkley, to an ankle injury in the first half. Not only that, but New York’s dreadful defense allowed Tampa to score whenever it wanted and Tampa was ahead 28-10.
Then the face of the game began to change on New York’s first play of the second half, a 75-yard touchdown pass to tight end Evan Engram. Jones followed that with a 7-yard scoring pass to Sterling Shepard.
“What I noticed was his confidence and poise,” center Jon Halapio told The Athletic. “He was so calm. He wasn’t jittery. He hung in there. He hung in that pocket. Props to him.”
With the Giants trailing 31-25 with 3:16 to play, Jones got his chance to put an indelible mark on the game.
He moved the Giants to Tampa’s 48 with three straight completions, then he found Sterling Shepard for 36 more yards. Finally, the Giants sat fourth-and-5 from the Bucs’ 7.
With the Giants receivers crisscrossing routes, Tampa’s defenders got lost in the urgency to cover them, leaving a cavernous opening through the center of the field. Jones then did something quite un-Manning.
“I just saw a crease open in the middle of the field and I took it,” said Jones. “I mean, it was fun. It was an exciting last drive.”
Jones sprinted to the goal line and scored with 1:16 to play to give the Giants a 32-31 lead after the extra point.
“Daniel is not afraid of anything on the field; he’s always got this poise,” said Sterling Shepard. “If people don’t know that about him, maybe they do now.”
Of course, the Giants then had to survive the final 76 seconds. And on the day’s last play, Bucs kicker Matt Gay missed a 34-yard game-winner.
Jones had his win, completing 23-of-36 passes for 336 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. He added 28 yards rushing and two more TDs. It was more than enough to compensate for two lost fumbles and five sacks. He became the first rookie quarterback since 1970 with at least 300 passing yards, two passing touchdowns and two rushing touchdowns in a game.
The Giants had overcome an 18-point halftime deficit and the loss of two of their captains to first-half injuries (Barkley and linebacker Alec Ogletree) and stayed one step ahead of Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston (380 passing yards).
“Probably the story of the game will be the rookie quarterback,” said Shurmur. “I thought Daniel Jones did a pretty good job his first time out. I think as he goes along, he’ll continue to get better. There were mistakes within there. There were a couple of times when we took a couple sacks, the fumbles, some of that loose stuff, we can work on that, there’s drills for that. There’s stuff that he did in the game, there’s not drills for that. We believed in him from the day we drafted him and first time out, he didn’t disappoint.
“There’s certain things I knew about this kid when he drafted him. He was tough, he was competitive and, in my opinion, he’s a winner.”