Last week, shortly after the New York Giants announced that rookie Daniel Jones would replace Eli Manning as their starting quarterback, reporters chatted with 25-year-old tight end Evan Engram about his reaction. Engram was neutral and diplomatic in response: This is a business, he said, in which his own personal job description is to come to work and catch passes from whoever is doing the throwing that day. Fair enough.
“What kind of respect do you have for Eli?” a reporter asked, and what the question presupposed was correct. “Through the roof,” Engram said, softening a little. “I wouldn’t be the player I am today, I wouldn’t have the growth I’ve had, without Eli.” Engram called the 38-year-old Manning a “true professional, great teammate, and definitely a brother for life,” though his polite reverence suggested a relationship more akin to one with an uncle or dad.
The next question was about the Giants’ new starting quarterback: What would fans see in Week 3 from the 22-year-old Jones? At this, Engram finally cracked a smile and even sort of silently whistled. “He’s gonna come in and let it rip,” he said, as if hinting at a fun family secret. “His arm is really alive, and he makes great throws, and is mobile.” Talking about Manning, Engram had sounded like a young man describing a mentor. On the subject of Jones, he had started hyping up one of his peers.
Engram wasn’t trying to speak for anyone other than himself, but I appreciated the way his admiration for the past gave way to his anticipation of the future, how he implicitly framed the team’s awkward quarterback succession as a natural progression rather than a zero-sum game. The past few months—the past few years!—of New York Giants football has trapped many fans in an exhausting generational purgatory between a fading status quo and a dawning unknown. On Sunday, both of Engram’s assessments turned out to be right: The Manning of yesteryear shone, sure, so that the Jones of today could be lit.
As Manning watched from the sideline Sunday, fist bump at the ready, Jones (and that sentient upper limb of his) hit Engram in stride with a pass early in the second half that Engram took to the end zone for a 75-yard touchdown. Engram finished the game with six receptions for 113 yards, while Jones finished with four (!) touchdowns, two in the air and two (!!) on the ground. And the New York Giants, somehow, left Tampa Bay with a weirdo 32-31 win (!!!) that was as exciting as it was bittersweet, as star-crossed as it was star-making, as lucky as it was good, and maybe the perfect imperfect start to the next Giants era.
The upside to most overreaction is that sometimes being wrong actually means that everything is going right. Yes—sigh—it’s unfortunate that Jones was booed at Yankee Stadium less than two months after being selected with the sixth pick in the draft, and that the greater diaspora of New Yorkers remained so preemptively fed up that Jones couldn’t even buy ice cream with his sisters in his native North Carolina this summer without getting rekt. It’s not what you want! But that just made it all the more newsworthy and hilarious when he wound up crushing his preseason performances and then his starting debut. And it also made it possible to bask in an optimistic afterglow that extended to every corner of Sunday’s Buccaneers game.
Yes—heavy sigh—the Giants lost their young stud running back Saquon Barkley, late in the first half, for four to eight weeks with a high ankle sprain. But that just made the early glimpses of what the Barkley-and-Jones collab might accomplish, from effective RPO plays to longer passing connections, all the more tantalizing. And it made the GIF of Barkley attempting to outrun his own crutches all the more GIFable. (Provided, of course, that he didn’t injure himself further in the process. When Jones ran full speed into a defensive lineman to help block for Barkley early in the game, it was a display of rugged self-sacrifice that was half-thrilling and half, in hindsight, omgstop!!!)
Yes—heavier sigh—the Giants defense still looked mostly atrocious, with its highest-paid member, safety Janoris Jenkins, getting absolutely got again and again. Not only did he allow a 44-yard completion to Mike Evans that put the Buccaneers in position for a potential game-winning field goal with just seconds left, but three different Tampa Bay touchdowns before that were caught pretty much right in his face. “Baby’s first early deficit!” I thought, minutes in, as Jones took the field, for the first time as a starter, already down a touchdown. But that just made it all the more satisfying when the Giants defense finally hauled down a big interception on the heels of a momentum-shifting third quarter. (Never mind that, on the very next play, Jones turned the ball over on a fumble: rookie mistake!) Or when the Giants defense finally made a crucial third-down stop with a few minutes left to play in the game, setting up what would ultimately be Jones’s game-winning drive.
Read those words again: Jones’s game-winning drive. Yes—heaviest sigh—it was super-weird, though not wholly unprecedented, to see Manning, who has started all but one game for the Giants in the past 15 seasons, literally sidelined as the Giants succeeded; to see him with an earpiece dangling past his scruffier-than-usual jaw, reduced to tapping his friendly young usurper on the shoulder to get in a post-touchdown fist bump. But it was also a relief to know that, for the time being and presumably beyond, the Giants have demonstrated that they’re for-realsies-this-time capable of stepping into a sensible post-Eli era. Jones scrambled at speeds upward of 19 mph into the end zone, and he dropped inspirational f-bombs in the huddle. He even generated a little bit of precious, elusive luck. Last year, when the Giants had a similar come-from-behind game against the Panthers in Week 5, they ultimately lost on a 63-yard field goal. This time, New York won because of a simple 34-yard miss by a rookie Bucs kicker having a very different day than Daniel Jones.
“Good morning,” gushed a WFAN caller Monday morning, “I’m in love.” Another man confessed: “I’ve never been so happy to be wrong in my life.” Jerry Recco and Al Dukes, two of the station’s morning show producers, discussed whether they thought that Manning was actually happy when he went up to congratulate Jones with a “good job, good job” after the game. (Manning praised Jones, patted him on the back, and ran off, as if to let him bask unimpeded over having totally thrived. It was a distinctively parental gesture, on par with the iconic image of Manning hauling tiny beach buckets.) Their verdict: Two seasons ago, when Manning was unceremoniously and randomly benched for Geno Smith, of all people, he would not have enjoyed such a turn of events. Yesterday, he genuinely did.
Maybe that’s because it was nearly impossible not to be entertained, whether you were a Giants fan, a Giants hater relishing the thought of the entire fan base having been so wrong about Jones, or just someone who gets a sick kick out of reading about a young high school quarterback called “Swag” for the same reasons someone’s stringbean brother might get nicknamed “Tubby.” It also made me feel silly for getting this het-up over one single game, for thinking, at one point, that Week 3 in 2019 was on par with that glorious Giants loss to the Patriots in Week 17 of 2007, the epic game in which Manning drove the field for a late go-ahead touchdown, the Patriots drove back to cap a 16-0 regular season, and everyone left the Meadowlands in a state of happy bewilderment over what their quarterback was capable of. That’s when the Giants accrued enough favor with the football gods to dial up the Helmet Catch a few weeks later. But there I go again, talking about the past.
Daniel Jones in middle school. pic.twitter.com/fdTpX3Jx5m— Tom Rock (@TomRock_Newsday) September 22, 2019
When it comes to the future, it will take a moment to adjust, as watching Jones on Sunday reminded me of all the times I’ve gotten a new phone or been a passenger in someone else’s new car and have marveled at how even the base model these days is such an upgrade on beloved premium equipment from just a few years ago. That made me feel guilty for comparing human athletes to Subarus and iPhones. But as a Giants fan, it’s been a real while since I’ve had to acclimate to something new. When Manning’s Giants won their first Super Bowl, I hadn’t even heard of Twitter yet.
The ongoing joke about Jones is that he’s part of some sort of Manning family cloning experiment. There’s some actual relevance to this idea: One reported reason that the Giants took Jones as early as they did was that they saw a lot of Eli’s blessed blankness in his nature. The parallels became a running leaguewide punch line! But now Jones’s many similarities to Manning, from his bone structure to his formative coach, only serve to clearly highlight the differences between them. After the game, Engram praised his new QB: “He stayed calm, stayed poised, stayed true to himself,” he said. Jones is new enough to the franchise that we don’t really know what “true to himself” means yet, but I look forward to the journey of finding out.