When the New York Giants beat the undefeated New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLII and Eli Manning was named Super Bowl MVP, he was the leader of the team that nobody believed in. A dozen years later, the Giants are moving on to the quarterback that nobody believes in. New York is benching Eli Manning and anointing Daniel Jones as its starting quarterback just two weeks into the year. If Jones ends up a Super Bowl MVP like his predecessor, it will be nearly as big of an upset as anything Manning ever pulled off.
The Giants took Jones, whose nickname is Swag, with the no. 6 pick in this year’s draft out Duke University, a basketball powerhouse but a football motor home. That decision drew more derision than any NFL draft pick in recent memory. He was booed at Yankee Stadium before ever taking a snap. When the pick was announced, ESPN’s Mina Kimes screamed and ran off of the set during a live broadcast. It wasn’t much different from hearing the chorus of boos that rained down on the MetLife Stadium watch party when the pick was announced to thousands of Giants fans.
That reaction was representative of Giants fans’ internal screams across the country. I know because I am a Giants fan who pretended to be numb to the pain during this moment. Less than two years after Ben McAdoo benched Manning to the outcry of New York City and the near literal crying of Manning, the same fans have responded to the benching of the 2004 no. 1 pick (whose career record sits at 116-116) with sweet relief. Yet while the fans are ready to move on, the organization may not be. It cannot be ignored that the player the Giants have chosen to replace Eli Manning looks and acts like Eli Manning. Manning and Jones are the same height (6-foot-5) and the same weight (220 pounds), and both look like they pet rabbits the same way (too hard). Jones’s college head coach, David Cutcliffe, was Manning’s coach at Ole Miss. Jones’s bland, nondescript interview answers come off like a Manning impersonation. They look the same on the sideline. They look the same on the field. They even look the same off the field. The organization hasn’t moved on from Eli as much as it has replicated him. It’s like Barbra Streisand cloning her dog so it could live on after death.
The one way Jones differs from Manning is that when Manning took over for Kurt Warner in Week 11 of 2004, he inherited a talented team. Jones will not. The Giants are 0-2, tied for the second-worst point differential through two games, and have a defense that has been cooked more this season than the Tennessee Titans’ field. The most depressing thing I have read about this Giants season is a text conversation with my 91-year-old grandmother, the matriarch of my family’s sports obsession and the reason I am typing this today.
As always, Emma is right. Head coach Pat Shurmur’s offense has been bland and unimaginative this season and he has not introduced creative ways to get the ball into the hands of the team’s only hope, running back Saquon Barkley. Perhaps Shurmur can get far more creative with Jones, whose running ability is the only other thing that sets him apart from Manning. But little in Shurmur’s past indicates that he will be creative enough to have Jones running the college-style read-option offense he will need to succeed as a pro.
The “off season giveaways” Emma refers to is Giants general manager Dave Gettleman’s penchant for exiling players he dislikes without the common sense to get a maximum return for them, a trait he has had ever since he rescinded the franchise tag on All-Pro cornerback Josh Norman while he was general manager of the Panthers. Last year Gettleman gave away defensive tackle Damon Harrison, one of the league’s best run-stuffing defensive tackles, for a fifth-round pick, and then this winter let safety Landon Collins, the best Giants defender drafted this decade, leave in free agency for division rival Washington rather than use the franchise tag or try to trade him. Then the Giants traded away iconic receiver Odell Beckham Jr., the perfect complementary piece that Jones could have leaned on to create big plays, for a safety to replace Collins and a draft pick used on a defensive tackle to replace Harrison. The Beckham trade completed a downgrade at three positions, and the Giants’ season reflects that.
But the truly heart-wrenching part of that text is that this is the most disheartening Giants team in 50 years. That seems impossible until you remember that Manning is the only player on the roster the Giants drafted before 2016. This is the team that Jones is inheriting. That’s before considering that the NFL-media-fan-draft-industrial complex has thrown all of its weight behind the belief that Jones is among the biggest quarterback busts-to-be of the 21st century, closer to Brandon Weeden or Blaine Gabbert than Eli Manning or Andy Dalton.
After the Giants drafted Jones at no. 6 and Clemson’s Dexter Lawrence at no. 17 in April, ESPN’s Jordan Raanan asked Gettleman when in the draft process Jones became the guy. Gettleman said that he loved Jones on film but knew he was the Giants quarterback when he attended the Senior Bowl in January.
“To me it’s really important you see quarterbacks play,” Gettleman told Raanan. “Watching them on tape is one thing, but seeing them in the environment is very important. … Frankly, Jordan, he walked out there and I saw a professional quarterback after the three series that I watched. I saw a professional quarterback. That’s when I was in full-bloom love.”
Gettleman went on to say that Jones’s pocket presence and poise was impressive but that another major reason the Giants drafted him was his ability to handle the adversity of playing quarterback in the NFL, especially in New York.
“What kind of adversity have they had and how are they going to react?” Gettleman said. “That’s a big part of it for me. But that’s like a bonus here. This kid is really talented.”
Through three preseason games Jones looked excellent against backup defenses, with an 83.3 percent completion rate, 12.3 passing yards per attempt, and a 140.1 passer rating, all of which vastly outpaced what Patrick Mahomes, Baker Mayfield, and Manning himself logged in the preseason as rookies.
Whether the preseason can translate at all to the regular season remains to be seen, and Jones will be thrown into the fire early. His first two games are against Tampa Bay and Washington before he faces the Vikings, who sport the league’s most complicated defense and specialize in invisible double-A-gap blitzes. Then on a short week the Giants travel to Foxborough to take on the Patriots on Thursday Night Football in Week 6. Rather than Bill Belichick and Tom Brady getting a chance to end the story of their greatest nemesis, they can embarrass his successor just as his is beginning. The Giants drafted Jones based upon the unwavering feeling that they are right about him and everyone else is wrong. The odds of this situation—and especially that Week 6 game in New England—working out in the short term seem insurmountable. But Giants fans have been here before. I already believe.