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Wednesday, March 29, 2023

Why the Giants Had to Pay Up for Daniel Jones

Daniel Jones is one of several low-cost quarterbacks who found success in 2022, as teams built around the players they already had.

If you spent the last year in a cave unable to receive football-related information (perhaps your NFL Cave subscription expired), the current landscape would be a surprising one to take in as it pertains to the quarterback position.

Geno Smith is a franchise quarterback now. With the Seahawks. He broke Russell Wilson’s single-season franchise passing record and was rewarded with a three-year contract worth $75 million. Jared Goff is good, maybe on the verge of being really good. According to advanced metrics considered among the best measures of quarterback performance—a composite of completion percentage over expectation (CPOE) and expected points added per down (EPA)—Goff ranked ninth during the 2022 regular season, ahead of former MVPs Lamar Jackson, Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers (as well as a potential future MVP, Justin Herbert).

And Daniel Jones? The one you made fun of when the Giants selected him with the sixth pick of the 2019 draft because he looked like Eli Manning? Despite throwing to a collection of receivers that would most charitably be labeled as “backup caliber,” he just finished a breakout season, keying a five-win improvement for New York and putting on a masterful performance in a road-playoff victory over the 13-win Vikings.

For Jones, the timing couldn’t have been better. He entered the season in limbo after the team announced last April that it would turn down the fifth-year option on his rookie contract, which would have paid him a little more than $22 million in 2023. Back then, it put Jones on an uncertain course for unrestricted free agency. Eleven months later, with the looming franchise tag deadline hanging over the negotiations, he was able to squeeze four years and $160 million out of the Giants—the same rough framework of the Dak Prescott deal, albeit with fewer guarantees.

Erick W. Rasco/Sports Illustrated

The Case of Daniel Jones and the 2022 season’s other breakout QBs may ultimately serve as a catalyst for a leaguewide trend. It’s one that would make divorce lawyers everywhere shudder: With even just a little ingenuity from a coaching staff, and an honest assessment of a roster and its shortcomings, it’s often more economical and more practical for a franchise to eschew the star QB lottery and instead figure out a way to make it work with its quarterback. You might even make him into a star.

Jones spent the first three years of his NFL career with two head coaches (Pat Shurmur and Joe Judge) and three offensive coordinators (Mike Shula, Jason Garrett and Freddie Kitchens). At the time of those individual hires, Shurmur was viewed as the offensive mastermind behind backup quarterback Case Keenum’s run to the NFC championship game with the Vikings in 2017; Judge was seen as a culture-changing firebrand; and Garrett was considered a sturdy presence who could revive the reputation he had as sought-after young play-caller before he was named the head coach of the Cowboys in 2011. Jones’s lack of success under all those coaches was blamed on the quarterback not responding to the coaching. Even in hindsight, it didn’t take into account that Shurmur, Judge and Garrett were all viewed in a completely different light by the time their tenures in East Rutherford were done. Judge (fired after the ’21 season) returned to New England, where he helped oversee the regression of second-year quarterback Mac Jones this year. Shurmur (fired at the end of ’19) was let go after two seasons as offensive coordinator in Denver. Garrett (fired midway through ’21) failed to land head coaching opportunities at Duke and Stanford; he is now a studio analyst at NBC.

Enter Brian Daboll. He wasn’t ready to marry Jones when he took the Giants’ head coaching job, but he was willing to build a system that accentuated the quarterback’s strengths and emphasized plays in his comfort zone. Daboll’s 2022 offense almost doubled the number of play-action passes Jones threw under Garrett the year before and increased the number of RPO (run-pass option) concepts in Jones’s repertoire. Daboll also put Jones’s athleticism to work, much like he did with Josh Allen during his four-year tenure as offensive coordinator in Buffalo. Jones had 120 rushing attempts in the ’22 regular season (his previous season high: 65). His 708 yards and seven TDs on the ground were both top-five among quarterbacks, and his 78 rushing yards were key in the wild-card upset in Minnesota.

The tweaks opened up the Giants’ offense and showcased Jones’s ability in ways the NFL had not seen. He finished the year with career highs in quarterback rating, total QB rating (an advanced statistic that takes the circumstances behind individual throws into account), adjusted net yards per passing attempt, fourth-quarter comebacks and game-winning drives. He also had a career low in turnovers (eight) and a league low in interception rate (1.1%). In the process, Jones’s career trajectory moved from the bin of misfit toys to, at least, the medium-term franchise quarterback shelf.

In the modern NFL, the hunt for a true, franchise-altering veteran quarterback requires the (sometimes embarrassing) forfeiture of either prime assets or organizational power (see: Tom Brady to the Buccaneers, Wilson to the Broncos, Matthew Stafford to the Rams or Deshaun Watson to the Browns). The hunt for a franchise-altering rookie already good enough to change the direction of a franchise (see: Joe Burrow or Trevor Lawrence) requires what Bills general manager Brandon Beane termed, at his end-of-season press conference, “sucking bad enough” to come into that good fortune. Or, “good” fortune, if you consider the long list of top-three picks over the last decade—Baker Mayfield, Sam Darnold, Mitchell Trubisky, Jameis Winston, Marcus Mariota—who fell well short of the franchise-quarterback mark.

We are seeing the dark underside of both endeavors play out before our eyes. Tampa Bay, for instance, is preparing for post-Brady life as a barren football wasteland. L.A. went 5–12 this past year, due in large part to a Stafford injury. In Denver, Wilson was one of football’s worst starting quarterbacks in 2022, his improvisational playmaking superpowers nowhere to be found (and, perhaps, at age 34, gone for good). The Jets’ roster is primed for playoff contention, but the long road to acquire the No. 2 pick in ’20 and Zach Wilson’s struggles through two seasons have created a frustratingly delayed return to relevance for the franchise. In Cleveland, the early returns for its Watson-led offense were underwhelming, especially considering the ethical bargain the Browns made in acquiring him while more than two dozen women had publicly shared accounts of sexual harassment and sexual assault.

Meanwhile, along the same lines as Jones:

• The Dolphins had attempted back-channel acquisitions of Brady and Watson; when both fell through, they turned back to Tua Tagovailoa. They then hired one of football’s sharpest young offensive minds (Mike McDaniel) as their coach and rebuilt the supporting cast by taking the resources they might have spent on a QB and acquiring an elite wideout in Tyreek Hill and signing All-Pro left tackle Terron Armstead. Before multiple concussions cut his 2022 season short, Tagovailoa was having a career year, and Miami broke a five-year playoff drought.

• After a disappointing playoff loss in Tampa last January, the Eagles resisted the temptation to spend all their draft capital and cap space to replace Jalen Hurts. Instead they chose to build around him, specifically trading for star wideout A.J. Brown. Hurts, working with a true No. 1 receiver while further acclimating in his second season under coach Nick Sirianni and offensive coordinator Shane Steichen, delivered an MVP-caliber season.

• While they, too, were likely surprised that Smith proved to be an upgrade over Russell Wilson, the Seahawks now have their quarterback, not to mention more cap space and a surplus of draft capital to build the rest of the roster. In last year’s draft, rather than chasing a QB, they came away with two of the league’s top rookies in RB Kenneth Walker III and cornerback Tariq Woolen, not to mention two potential long-term starting offensive tackles (Charles Cross and Abraham Lucas).

• And by sticking with Goff, the Lions were able to use their resources to trade up in the first round for a potential future star at receiver (Jameson Williams), and sign a handful of complementary players who helped spark a franchise turnaround.

Unfortunately for the Giants, they never got to enjoy the full breadth of benefits of Jones while he was on his cost-controlled rookie deal.

Still, they now know what Jones is capable of. There is a level of comfort. They are not in a panicked hunt for an option that may be better or could be markedly worse. And they showed the NFL that, sometimes, the path to happiness lies in appreciating what you already have. 

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