TAMPA, Fla. — The franchise was hopping wildly on one leg toward the middle of the field, crutches waving aloft, the walking boot on that valuable right ankle as gray as the New York Giants’ big-picture prospects without Saquon Barkley.
Who would have thought there would be anything to celebrate with Barkley hobbling toward the locker room and headed for an MRI to determine the severity of his ankle sprain? Who would have imagined that the most important legs Sunday would not have belonged to him?
The Daniel Jones era arrived with a fourth down touchdown run, a seven-yarder with just over a minute to play to complete a comeback from an 18-point halftime deficit, straight up the gut of the Tampa Bay defense, into the heart of a Giants franchise that wouldn’t say it but certainly knew it: Jones won his first game on a play that Eli Manning likely could not have made.
"You guys see his wheels?" asked receiver Sterling Shepard. "Something serious."
The defense is still a mess and nearly blew the 32-31 victory, Barkley is probably going to be out a while, and the Giants are still 1-2. But the jubilation that followed the missed Bucs field goal attempt at the buzzer was something out of the post-season, a release of the tension and dejection that has engulfed the Giants since 2017. Manning is not the only reason that those seasons were lost and he was certainly not the reason the Giants were 0-2 — Mike Evans’ 190 yards and three touchdowns can speak to that. But the Giants badly needed a change of direction whoever could pilot it and it was Jones who grabbed the wheel Sunday.
He threw two touchdown passes — including a beauty of a throw to Shepard in the third quarter — and ran for two more. He rolled out and scrambled and scored on a naked bootleg. It was, unquestionably, a more high-energy, creative offense. To the delight of his teammates, he dropped the aw shucks demeanor in the huddle and cursed. And with 3:16 remaining in the game, the Giants trailing by six points and Barkley perched on the bench, Jones walked onto the field, hyped up.
"He said, ‘Let’s go win this game, boys,’" Shepard said.
So much is riding on Jones now. The trajectory of the Giants — mostly forlorn since that last Super Bowl in 2011 — for the next dozen years or so, the futures of Pat Shurmur and Dave Gettleman, too. This change came much more quickly than anyone, most particularly the Giants braintrust, imagined it would, and the temptation will be to overvalue what Jones did in one game, against an opponent that had little tape of his deficiencies to study. There were, as Shurmur noted, a few deficiencies that will stand out to Washington next week and opponents to come: the five sacks he took and the two fumbles.
Still, what would have been a catastrophic day under almost any other circumstance because of Barkley now feels like a breath of fresh air has blown through the organization. Manning, ever the model leader, helped Jones prepare throughout the week and spoke to him throughout the game, sharing his observations and his encouragement. Then he dutifully got out of the way, dressing quickly and exiting the locker room long before the cameras crowded around Barkley and Jones. There really wasn’t much left to ask Manning. Jones had already answered the biggest and most sensitive question that loomed over the decision: he did give the Giants the best chance to win on Sunday, especially when Barkley was lost for the entire second half.
"I think we were certainly confident in who we are as a team," Jones said. "We have a number of playmakers. Obviously, he’s a huge piece of that, no doubt about that. We had guys step up and make plays which I think shows the versatility of this team."
But, are you excited, Jones was asked.
"Yeah, I am excited," he said, smiling, but not really sounding that excited. "I think this is an awesome win, fun to be a part of."
Shurmur’s affection for Jones has been obvious since the draft. After the game, Shurmur talked about mobility as a value-added trait for quarterbacks, a bonus that allows teams to prosper when plays inevitably break down because the quarterback can get outside the pocket to find big plays. And he addressed Jones’ calm. He did not say anything special to Jones after the negative plays.
"That’s part of his charm," Shurmur said. "He’s mature beyond all of our years. We’re looking for consistency. We’re looking for him not to be heroic. We’re looking for him to be the best Daniel Jones he can be. We’re very confident in what we’ve seen. He keeps passing the test."
The job now will get exponentially more difficult. The threat of Barkley will be gone. The notice on Jones will be out — the Bucs’ Vernon Hargreaves, for one, said "He knows what he’s doing. He’s going to be very good for a very long time." And the expectations are going to soar even higher than they did on draft night.
Team president John Mara, who hasn’t smiled much after games in recent years, had a small grin as he headed out Sunday night. Jones had tucked the game ball into his bag, but Barkley sat just a few feet away, the boot off, gingerly crossing one foot over another. That scene summed up the decidedly mixed Giants fortunes of the moment and so did Mara.
"It was a nice win," he said. "He did a great job. We’re 1-2."
"It was a great moment."
Shurmur’s voice, though, broke for a second when he spoke to reporters. It was his decision to turn to Jones now, and even within the Giants organization, there may have been some question about whether this was the right time. Shurmur has staked his reputation, and the biggest job of his career on Jones. An 0-3 start would have almost certainly doomed another season. His players made that clear in that celebration on the field. For Shurmur, there was just a long exhale when he considered what it said about Jones that he had prevailed.
"I’ve been around a lot of smart people," he said. "I’d rather be around the tough people. And he’s tough."
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