EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – The phrase "make-or-break season" has been used so often in connection with Daniel Jones it's reasonable to speculate if it is stamped on his driver's license.
Jones is entering his third year as the Giants' starting quarterback and many in the local and national football media are promulgating the theory that he must prove in the next 18 weeks that he can be a top-flight NFL quarterback. He'll step back onto the proving ground tomorrow when the Giants open their 2021 season at home against the Denver Broncos.
Is this really a defining season for a player who is less than four months past his 24th birthday?
"I'm not really seeing it that way, I guess," Jones said this week. "I think my mindset is just to go out and help this team win games. I think we're in a position, we've had a good camp and we're prepared, and my job is to put the team in a position to win games, to protect the football and distribute the ball to guys who can make plays for us. That's kind of how I'm looking at it."
To review, Jones was the Giants' first-round draft choice in 2019, the sixth overall selection. After entering his first career game in the fourth quarter, Jones has started in each of his last 26 appearances. Jones' 907 passes, 564 completions and 5,970 yards are the most in franchise history through 27 games for a player who began his career with the Giants. He has completed 62.2% of his passes for 35 touchdowns and 22 interceptions. Jones has also rushed for 702 yards and three scores.
As a rookie, Jones threw for five touchdowns in one game and four in two others. But his season-high in 2020 was two touchdowns, which he did four times. Last year, he threw 13 fewer touchdown passes than he did as a rookie. Jones has made some questionable decisions. He has played behind a line that did not always provide optimal protection (Jones has been sacked 83 times in his 26 starts, or 3.2 a game). Some of his most productive teammates have missed numerous games because of injuries; Saquon Barkley touched the ball 25 times in 2020 before his season was torpedoed by a knee injury. Sterling Shepard sat out five games in 2019 and four last year.
But the only numbers that are truly relevant are wins and losses and the Giants are 8-18 in games Jones has started.
Those who know him best and work closest to him know he can become a consistently productive quarterback and lead the Giants to the playoffs.
"I think the fact that he's within the same offense two years in a row (will help)," his predecessor, Eli Manning, said on the ESPN show "Get Up" this week. "Last year, he was in a brand-new offense. He's a young quarterback and had a shortened offseason. It wasn't just for him, also the whole offensive line. They had rookie tackles on both sides, and they're trying to learn. You got a bunch of young players that are trying to learn a new offense with no offseason, so it was a tough situation.
"The fact that he's going into that second year and had a little bit more of an offseason, has some familiarity with the offense and the players. I think they put some talent around him, you get Saquon back. I expect him to make that jump. I know how hard he works. I know how important it is to him. He knows it's a big year, but he's not feeling the pressure. He just wants to go out there and win games and get back to the playoffs. He has the ability and the work ethic to make all those plays to be a successful quarterback in the NFL. I'm rooting for him. I hope he goes out there and proves it this year."
Coach Joe Judge, arguably Jones' most ardent supporter, concurs.
"I think the biggest difference (in Jones this year), obviously, is just time in the system," Judge said. "He's obviously a year further in the league. We didn't have preseason games last year. We didn't have any kind of a spring last year. Training camp itself was just tremendously different and limited on time. I think obviously the time he's had to prepare and be with his teammates has helped him."
Jones' coaches and teammates are confident they'll get Jones' best this season.
"He's a competitor, (he) works hard," said wide receiver Kenny Golladay, a first-year Giant. "That's somebody that I want to play with. A guy that's going to go out there and give you everything he's got, and I'm going to do the same in return. That's all you can really ask for."
View photos of Giants quarterback Daniel Jones throughout his NFL career.
Judge has repeatedly praised his quarterback's ability, tireless work ethic and leadership (Jones was again elected by his teammates to be a team captain this season).
"I've seen a lot of growth with him throughout the offseason and it's carried through spring, training camp and in the regular season right now in terms of being a leader, being a guy who really is vocal with the team and gets the guys going," Judge said. "He's not a cheerleader, which I like. I don't like rah-rah guys running around, to be honest with you. I like guys who are just kind of about it and they line up and they do their job and guys respond to it and that's really what Daniel is. So, he's definitely progressed within his craft. He's a young player in this league. He has a lot of room to grow, but I think how he works on a daily basis that he's going to go ahead and take all the necessary steps to put himself in position to maximize his potential."
Jones threw only 22 passes in his only preseason appearance, two weeks ago against New England. He completed 17 of them, including a 23-yard touchdown to tight end Kaden Smith. But he got plenty of good work in during joint practices with the Cleveland Browns and Patriots and he had many good training camp practices.
"I think he's done a lot of good things," offensive coordinator Jason Garrett said. "Obviously, he hadn't played in the preseason until the (Patriots) game and if you look at that tape, there's a lot of positives on that tape. There were a couple of really bad decisions, a couple of things that he's going to continue to learn from, but there are a lot of positives in how he's playing. I think he's in general getting the ball out of his hand quicker, he's more decisive, he's making a lot of good throws. We've just got to make sure we clean up some of the plays that we want to have back. He knows that and we all know that, and he'll continue to grow from the experiences the more he plays."
Is that how Jones can take a step up, by improving his shortcomings instead of building on his virtues?
"It's really every quarterback I've ever been around," said Garrett, a former NFL quarterback. "One of our jobs as an organization, as a coaching staff, is to try to create a great environment for him – the players that we put around him, what we're calling, what we're running, give him an opportunity to take advantage of some of his strengths and also kind of put him in situations where he can be a really good decision maker. That's our job and we've got to continue to do that. That's why we add personnel. That's why we're trying to put some weapons around him. The better Daniel plays, the better the runner is going to play, the better the receiver is going to play, the better the line plays, the better they're all going to play, the better the defense plays – it all works hand in hand. So, we're trying to create a great environment for him and for all our players, and when we do that and when we continue to learn from our experiences, we'll get better and better."
View photos of the New York Giants' active 53-man roster as it currently stands.