The cautionary tale that looked over his head before the season began will be on the other side of the field, staring Daniel Jones in the face on Sunday.
His name is Sam Darnold, quarterback, Carolina Panthers. A year ago, MetLife Stadium was his gameday home, and he thought he was ready take flight with the Jets in his third season, and so did the franchise, and so did the fan base.
Dave Gettleman drafted Saquon Barkley with the second overall pick in 2018 and the Jets, from owner Christopher Johnson to GM Mike Maccagnan to HC Todd Bowles, were high-fiving and all but plastering Joe Namath posters on the walls inside the Atlantic Health Training Center.
“It’s going to be fun for a long time here in New York,” Darnold said before his rookie season began.
And then Bowles was fired and Darnold was saddled with Adam Gase — the quarterback whisperer who apparently was overcome by laryngitis — and a surrounding cast that maybe only a young Arnold Schwarzenegger could have lifted, and he could read the handwriting on the green-and-white wall even after the Tank For Trevor fervor had died down.
Jones, with the exception of last week against the Rams, has made progress in this, his third season. The Giants remain convinced that he is the right man for his job, and Joe Judge is the right man for his.
The worry is if the ineptitude continues to swirl around him, if the walls of the foundation Judge is straining to build keep crumbling down around him, the quarterback’s growth will be slowed, and he won’t have a fair chance to be the franchise quarterback the organization so desperately wants and needs him to be.
The last thing the Giants are interested in is launching another search for a new franchise quarterback with their two delicious first-round picks in the 2022 NFL draft. Or for a new head coach.
Of course, last year at this time, the last thing the Jets were interested in was drafting Zach Wilson with the second overall pick to reset the financial clock and trading Darnold to the Panthers.
Jets GM Joe Douglas didn’t draft Darnold, and barring a dramatic turnaround no one right now sees coming, there will be a new GM making the call on Jones – and if the wheels continue to come off, potentially on Judge, as much as ownership would detest the thought of three consecutive head coaches lasting a mere two seasons.
Jones endured plenty of adversity during his Duke days, and his refusal to blink or waver convinced Gettleman that he was made of the right stuff to succeed Eli Manning.
Darnold, to his credit, never stopped fighting like hell to remain a Jet, but he did not, could not, raise his game above the rubble that helped compromise him to a level that would have made it folly for Douglas and new HC Robert Saleh not to keep him.
The Giants bent over backwards over the offseason — Kenny Golladay, Kadarius Toney, Kyle Rudolph — to help get Jones over the hump. And Saquon Barkley would be back, not as vintage Saquon Barkley in the beginning, but close enough.
And here was Jones against the Rams, handing off to Devontae Booker, and throwing to C.J. Board and Collin Johnson and Dante Pettis when he wasn’t throwing to Sterling Shepard.
That’s when he wasn’t on his back.
More than anything, it is the failure of Gettleman to fix the offensive line that will cost him. If you draft a running back with the second overall pick, you better get him blockers. When you draft your next franchise quarterback, you better get him protectors. Douglas began the process of getting Darnold protectors and playmakers, but it was too little, too late for him. Jones can only dream about the kind of cohesive offensive line that served as a wall in front of Manning during the long-lost Super Bowl days. And now LT Andrew Thomas is on IR, and Nick Gates and Shane Lemieux are sidelined until next season.
It is human nature for a raging competitor like Daniel Jones to sometimes try to do too much. His three interceptions and second lost fumble of the season against the Rams was an alarming step back for him. “I think it’s just forcing things that weren’t there and bad decisions that set us back,” Jones said.
It’s the quarterback’s job to make chicken salad out of chicken whatever. It’s probably a good thing the book he read on the flight home from Dallas was “Stillness Is The Key,” considering the order he needs to make out of the chaos around him. “It’s about managing situations and avoiding the bad plays,” Jones said.
He knows now that he can’t afford to run angry like Adrian Peterson when a slide is called for or one yard is needed for a touchdown — although that is easier said than done for anybody. “I think the Dallas hit was one thing,” Jones said, “but I think I’ve realized that through these first couple of years and it’s certainly something I need to do better.”
Next up is his childhood team growing up in Charlotte as a big fan of Jake Delhomme and Steve Smith Sr. “I grew up pulling for them in Charlotte, and certainly still have a lot of friends who are Panthers fans, so I think that’s cool to be able to play them,” Jones said. “But it’s another game, we’re preparing like we always do.”
The Panthers have lost three in a row and Darnold (61.2% completion percentage for 1573 yards, seven TDs, seven INTs, 26-110 rushing with five TDs) has struggled following a trio of 300-yard games. “Now when I say ‘Sam’s not playing well,’ what does that mean?” HC Matt Rhule said this week. “That means the offensive line isn’t getting it done for him, it means the running backs aren’t getting it done for him. Everyone on offense, every receiver, every tight end, every back, every O-lineman, their job is to help our quarterback play well. We are not getting that done.”
Left unsaid is that the elite quarterbacks lift everyone else around him.
“I got to know him a good bit and I’ve obviously watched him a lot,” Jones said. “He’s had a good start to the season, so always pulling for him.”
So Jones recognizes that circumstances can change for the better or for the worse. Some of them will be beyond Jones’ control. But he is the one with the ball in his hands. The ball, and his future. Once A Giant, Only A Giant isn’t etched in stone for most.