Training camp is finally here! Be sure to check out NFL Network's extensive live coverage, including Inside Training Camp every day and highlighted by Training Camp: Back Together Saturday Fueled by Gatorade on July 31.
To give some context to Daniel Jones' prove-it season, consider a peer who, like Jones, arrived with great expectations only to turn in some middling early results.
Before Josh Allen became a Paul Bunyanesque folk hero in Buffalo last season, he, too, was a question mark, possessed of a 75-yards-in-the-air arm, not much touch and an uncertain future. In his first two seasons, his completion rate was an unsightly 56.3 percent, six percentage points lower than Jones' in his first two seasons. Allen averaged just 184.4 passing yards per game, 37 yards fewer per game than Jones. Most tellingly, Jones' touchdown-to-interception ratio is 35:22, compared to Allen's 30:21.
Allen, of course, made a big leap into the top tier of NFL quarterbacks last season -- his third in the league. He got the right coaching, had a new explosive weapon in Stefon Diggs and became the QB the Bills projected he could be, improving his completion percentage by 10 points over his second season and passing for 37 touchdowns. The Bills followed him into the AFC Championship Game.
There is no reason Jones can't match Allen's ascension.
The Giants still seem like a work in progress, not a conference championship contender. But after going 5-3 in the second half of last season, they could make a push for a playoff spot again.
Even that, though, should feel like a bonus this year.
The goal for the Giants this season is a more modest but ultimately critical one: They have to emerge from 2021 knowing whether or not Jones is their long-term quarterback. Teams have more of a wandering eye than ever and move more quickly away from even the most highly drafted but underachieving choices (see: the Philadelphia Eagles, New York Jets and Los Angeles Rams this offseason alone).
With a new coach and the second overall pick, the Jets sent Sam Darnold packing to cast their lot with Zach Wilson. The Giants' circumstances are different. Barring a disaster, there won't be a coaching change. After mishits with Ben McAdoo and Pat Shurmur, the Giants believe they got it right with Joe Judge, who has given the Giants an identity as a team that will be well-conditioned and physically tough, despite the doubts of the recently released Kelvin Benjamin. In fact, when asked on Thursday about how Jones and receiver Kenny Golladay looked when working together, Judge quickly transitioned to praising his players for their fitness.
"The first thing that stuck out was the players and the condition they were in," he said. "Our guys really moved around well yesterday. They responded to the training regimens and a much different look than we had last year, to be honest with you. Last year, day one, we had a lot of guys that were further behind physically than they are right now."
That said, if the Giants are bad enough to wind up with the second overall pick in 2022, a quarterback decision would be only one of many high-profile ones.
Jones can make this easy on the Giants by taking advantage of the pieces that have been put in place, reducing his turnovers (a league-high 39 since 2019) and making the third-year jump of which the Giants believe he is capable.
"I think at this level and in this job, we're all expected to perform and play at a high level every day, and that starts today," Jones told reporters earlier this week as the Giants reported for camp. "I certainly feel that. I think everyone on the team does and I think that's healthy, I think that's the way it should be, and I know we're excited for the opportunity."
Jones certainly should be. The Giants overhauled their pass catchers this offseason, adding free agents Golladay and Kyle Rudolph (who is on the physically unable to perform list for now) and first-round pick Kadarius Toney to a group that already featured Sterling Shepard, Darius Slayton and Evan Engram. Saquon Barkley will return from his knee injury, although he also opened camp on the PUP list and worked on the side during the Giants' first practice Wednesday. It is, by far, the best talent Jones has played with in the NFL. The refrain has been constant since free agency: There are no more excuses for Jones and what has been an abysmal offense.
Last season, with Barkley missing all but two games, the Giants ranked 31st in the league in scoring, ahead of only the Jets, a woeful basement to share. The Jets believed their quarterback was a big part of the problem and, after three years, moved on. The Giants, after two years with Jones, are convinced that he has the qualities to be a franchise quarterback, which is why they spent lavishly in free agency.
Still, without blaming Jones, it is clear that patience with the shortage of victories is running out and the time to consider this a rebuilding team is coming to an end. And that might be the biggest difference between Allen and Jones -- even when Allen was still struggling in his second season, the Bills won 10 games and went to the playoffs. The Giants haven't been to the playoffs since 2016 and it's never a good sign when the boss -- in this case team president John Mara -- uses the word "brutal" to describe the last few years.
In a way, the Giants were spared the worst of it last season. The pandemic meant there were no restless fans at MetLife Stadium to offer commentary on the 0-5 start or the three-game skid in December that all but doomed their playoff hopes. With full houses expected this season, every home game will serve as a referendum on the Giants' and Jones' fortunes. There has been no mandate for Jones to reach a certain level to secure his job, but Mara's message has been clear for months: It's time for the Giants to win again. And as camp began this week, that meant the story of the season will be Jones.
"The more guys that we have helping make plays and making big things happen, the defense is going to have to pay attention to them," Shepard said. "It frees guys up and hopefully we can do the same for them, draw some attention and free those guys up. Playmakers are what we need and that's what I think we've addressed over the offseason."
Just as important is that Jones finally got what Allen has had throughout his career: familiar faces. Allen has had Brian Daboll as his offensive coordinator for every one of his seasons. Jones had to learn two offenses in his first two years, the second during a pandemic-erased offseason. The pandemic undermined a lot of plans across the NFL last season, but nobody had it tougher than first-year coaches and the players they were charged with grooming despite minimal contact and a dearth of reps. OC Jason Garrett is back, with the benefit of having a full season and a full offseason with Jones.
"I think it's valuable," Jones said. "I think it's valuable for all of us. ... A lot of us are back and, like I said, have developed chemistry and know how to communicate with one another."
As camp opened and Jones threw his first passes of the season Wednesday, there was the whiff of optimism around the Giants for the first time since 2017, the start of McAdoo's ill-fated second season -- a lifetime ago in football years. If Jones protects the ball and makes a jump, and Barkley returns at full strength, the Giants could be a sleeper hit, with an opportunity to take advantage of a division in transition. That would be another path taken by Allen that Jones and the Giants would be happy to follow.