Can Brian Daboll save Daniel Jones' Giants' career?

ByJordan Raanan ESPN logo
Monday, September 26, 2022

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- There was a collective sigh when Daniel Jones threw an ugly interception late in the New York Giants' season-opener in Tennessee. It wasn't just from Giants fans, who have seen that kind of throw too many times over the previous three seasons. It was also from the team's new head coach, too.

First-year coach Brian Daboll approached Jones on the bench moments later. He took off his headset, put hands on hips and animatedly expressed his displeasure about his quarterback's decision. It was Jones' second turnover of the game, and this one -- the result of staring down running back Saquon Barkley in the end zone before forcing a pass -- was especially costly.

"I said, 'What did you see?'" Daboll said afterwards. "He thought he could potentially back-shoulder it. I said, 'That's not what I saw,' but ..."

This is the kind of tough love that Jones is going to get from his new coach. And while it opened some eyes, Jones says this kind of stuff happens all the time. It just usually isn't caught on camera. He can handle it, though that better be true on such a big stage as a starting quarterback in New York.

"Everybody always says the same thing: Do you think it will hurt his confidence?" former Giants quarterback Phil Simms said. "I go, 'Oh my god. If it does, then get him out.'"

The Giants (2-0) did get the ball back after the interception against the Titans and drove 73 yards on 12 plays. Jones threw the game-winning touchdown and converted a two-point conversion shovel pass in a dramatic 21-20 win over last year's No. 1 seed in the AFC.

It was a promising start for a coach and quarterback thrust into this shotgun marriage in the final year of Jones' rookie contract. The question now moving forward is whether Jones' potential is maxed out or if Daboll's expertise can take him to unforeseen levels. The latter is what the Giants, for the benefit of their franchise, want to happen under the watch of Daboll, offensive coordinator Mike Kafka and quarterbacks coach Shea Tierney.

Time is running out with Jones set to become a free agent at the end of the season and veteran Tyrod Taylor currently the contingency plan. The latest test will come Monday night, when the Giants host the Dallas Cowboys (8:15 p.m. ET on ESPN) at MetLife Stadium while looking for just their second win over their division rival since 2016.

JONES HAD A pedestrian outing in Week 2, completing 22 of 34 passes for 176 yards, one touchdown and no turnovers, but New York won again, beating the Carolina Panthers 19-16. Jones has completed 70.9% of his passes in the first two games -- 4.1% above expectation, per NFL Next Gen Stats -- despite being pressured on 35.2% of his dropbacks, fourth-most in the NFL.

"I think he's made really good decisions," Daboll said. "There's always plays that we can be better at. But his decision-making process -- where he's gone with the football -- he's made the right decision, I'd say, a lot."

For Jones and many of these Giants players, this is the first time in their professional careers that they have a winning record. New York has a 14-25 record when Jones has started. The fourth-year signal-caller has 51 turnovers in 40 career gamesin three different offenses under four different coordinators. He showed promise as a rookie in 2019 after taking over for Eli Manning, throwing 24 touchdown passes in Pat Shurmur's offense. But he has thrown just 24 TDs since with Jason Garrett, Freddie Kitchens and now with Kafka and Daboll running the offense.

His pocket presence, in particular, has been a deficiency early in his career.Jones' 21 lost fumbles puts him four clear of Carson Wentz for the most in the NFL since the start of the 2019 season. He has one fumble and an interception so far this season.

"I think it is [something that can be taught]," former NFL quarterback and current Monday Night Football analyst Troy Aikman said. "Because when Sam Darnold was coming out in that [2018 draft] class, he was a turnover machine down at USC. And I said [at the time], 'I don't think you can coach accuracy, but I do think you can coach protecting the football. There just has to be an emphasis on it.'"

This is partly what Daboll is trying to fix while rekindling Jones' ability to make splash plays. The Giants' receivers have just two receptions of 20-plus yards so far this season. He completed just 24 such throws last season after throwing more than 30 of them in each of his first two seasons.

DABOLL COMES TO the Giants having spent most of the past 15 years working with quarterbacks or running an offense. He's seen Tom Brady dominate, worked with Jalen Hurts, Mac Jones and Tua Tagovailoa at Alabama and overseen the Josh Allen ascension in Buffalo. Daboll has been exposed to a lot of different schemes, which makes his own system a good mesh of concepts.

"The thing about this offense is it changes schematically week to week," said Giants backup quarterback Davis Webb, who came with Daboll this offseason from the Bills. "I think that is why it's successful. We're a big game-plan offense. Whatever we feel is going to give that defense in particular trouble, we're going to try to do the most of that. Whatever our strengths are, we're going to build off that."

Daboll's past four seasons were as the Bills' offensive coordinator, where he helped Allen blossom into one of the game's best quarterbacks. Allen went from a quarterback with serious accuracy concerns (56.3% completion percentage over his first two NFL seasons) to a player who is currently completing 75.4% of his passes this year.

The Giants would love for Jones to prove he's their Jersey Josh Allen and quarterback of the future. It would save them from pouring endless resources and assets (potentially multiple first-round picks) into filling the toughest position in the sport. There are teams that have gone years, decades even, trying to find their answer.

New York did decline the fifth-year option on Jones this offseason, leaving his future in New York murky. A team source said this summer that the Giants would still be open to signing Jones to a deal during the season or using the franchise tag on him in the offseason if things went really well. They would prefer not to have to go through all this again.

Jones, 25, was the sixth overall pick in the 2019 NFL draft out of Duke. He has the arm, mobility and work ethic that provides hope his Giants career can be salvaged. Daboll and Co. have built an offense that emphasizes getting him on the move, finding easy scripted throws and creating a bit more.

"I think the system brings out a lot of the strengths of our guys," Jones said. "Inside the pocket, outside the pocket, making plays with my feet, whether it's a scramble or quarterback-designed run. All that stuff has been good for me, and we'll continue to work on it.

"I think [the system] has a lot of answers built-in to it. Things we've worked on since the spring that we're able to get into quickly. Get us into a good situation depending on what the defense is doing."

Jones' biggest plays this season have come with his legs. He had a 2-yard run on a naked bootleg on fourth-and-2 on the game-winning drive in the opener and then rushed for a big first down to ice the win over the Panthers. It's clear there is an emphasis on Jones using his legs to his advantage.

The Bills under Daboll did the same with Allen, who was third among all quarterbacks last season with 122 carries. Jones is averaging eight rushes per game over the first two weeks. That's significantly higher than his career-high 5.6 carries per contest he had last year before missing the final six games because of a neck injury. At this pace, Jones would finish with 136 rushing attempts if he played all 17 games.

"I think he's done a good job of seeing seams and hitting them," Kafka said. "He's converted on several big-time third and fourth downs for us. That's a part of his game, he's an athletic guy who can get out of the pocket. You definitely don't want to take that part of a game away from him."

IT CERTAINLY HASN'T been perfect under Daboll and Kafka. Jones, whose accuracy on the deep ball is one of his top traits, has thrown just one pass of at least 20-plus air yards. His QBR of 30.2 ranked 28th of the 32 qualifying quarterbacks through two weeks, he was 23rd in the NFL at 6.6 yards per attempt, and he didn't throw for more than 200 yards in either contest.

Jones also hasn't seen too many open receivers downfield. There were a handful last week against Carolina, including one where he failed to recognize wide receiver Kadarius Toney coming across the field uncontested on a two-man route.

It shows there is still work to be done, but at least Jones has a chance. The offense is designed to best fit his skills, Barkley is healthy and the offensive line appears slightly improved -- at least with its run-blocking.

"Daniel can do a lot of things. He has the ability to run, he has the ability to make plays with his feet, he has toughness, and he can throw it," former Giants quarterback Eli Manning said. "[Daboll will] be creative and get Daniel to play loose. Go out there and be aggressive, make plays and not be afraid to make mistakes.

"Hopefully it can be a quick turnaround. I feel for Daniel. He's had a lot of different offenses, a lot of different coaches and offensive coordinators as a quarterback. Here is another one."

The Giants have 15 games remaining, including Monday against the Cowboys, to decide if the Jones project is going to work or if it's time to move on -- to conclude if Daboll can get the most out of a quarterback that former GM Dave Gettleman once deemed worthy of a top-10 pick. Daboll and Co. have been nothing but complimentary of Jones early in their tenure. They are committed to seeing it through, at the very least for the bulk of this season.

If Jones is the answer, it would expedite the turnaround of an organization that entered this season tied with the New York Jets for the worst overall record in the NFL over the previous five years. It would also elicit another palpable sigh from the Giants' fan base -- this one of relief.

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