EAST RUTHERFORD – The MetLife Stadium crowd had just welcomed Daniel Jones back to the sideline, first chanting his name in a way traditionally reserved for franchise legends, then saluting his arrival into the good graces of the home crowd with a standing ovation.
That’s the last time Jones was on the field, leading the New York Giants to a victory two weeks ago that clinched their first trip to the playoffs in six years.
Giants offensive lineman Nick Gates seized the moment post-curtain call to double down on the praise for his quarterback, lauding Jones for his leadership, his growth and, perhaps above all else, his resolve.
“Keep balling,” Gates told him. “You deserve this, man.”
“We’ve suffered long enough,” Jones fired back, flashing a smile.
The losing. The mocking. The turnovers. The coaching carousel. The unanswered questions.
After enduring three seasons that raised doubts about his future, Jones has flipped the script, helping these Giants turn that suffering into something special by leading the charge into Sunday’s Super Wild Card game in Minnesota against the Vikings.
A new chapter is set to begin for Jones and the Giants, and the 25-year-old will embrace the chance that awaits in what could turn out to be a legacy-defining playoff game.
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The biggest win to this point in Jones’ career is how he continued to work, to fight and to earn for this opportunity.
Only five quarterbacks have won playoff games for the Giants in the Super Bowl era, which now spans 56 years: Eli Manning, Phil Simms, Jeff Hostetler, Kerry Collins and Scott Brunner.
Jones was asked following Wednesday’s practice if competing this weekend in the company of other quarterbacks that include the NFL’s best in Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes, the Bills’ Josh Allen and, of course, the Bucs’ Tom Brady held special meaning.
“There’s a lot of quarterbacks who play in the playoffs,” Jones said Wednesday. “I think what you do from this point on, the success you have, it’s all about what you do now.”
By declining the fifth-year option in Jones’ rookie contract, the Giants set up this season as a prove-it scenario where he would either prove himself and earn a new deal, improving his game and showing he can stay healthy in the process; or he could have failed, causing Giants coach Brian Daboll and general manager Joe Schoen to look elsewhere for their franchise quarterback.
All Jones has done is go out and stake his claim on who the quarterback of the Giants is: now and in the future.
Jones has silenced those doubts about his durability – the only game he did not start and play was last Sunday’s regular season finale against the Eagles, and that was because the Giants rested their starters. He has worked tirelessly to change the reputation he earned in previous seasons as a turnover machine with just five interceptions and three lost fumbles in 16 games.
Daboll is his third head coach in four years, and Mike Kafka is his fourth offensive play caller in that span since being drafted into the NFL as the sixth overall pick in 2019.
“I was always confident this would happen, and we would have this chance, largely because the guys we have in the locker room, the type of guys they are and how close we are as a group,” Jones said. “We had some tough years, but I think we learned a lot. That’s helped us get to where we are now.”
Sterling Shepard has watched and admired Jones’ maturation from the moment the latter walked into the building.
“It’s about time the perception of who DJ is catches up to the reality,” Shepard told NorthJersey.com, part of the USA TODAY Network. “People around the league ask me, what’s your quarterback like, and in addition to telling them what a straight-up talented guy he is, I just tell them, all you have to do is cut on the tape. If you take the time to look at the tape, and you look at him, you should get a great sense of the player he is. I tell you what, hearing the fans chant his name gave me chills at our last home game. I’ve seen all the stuff he’s gone through, and how hard he works. To finally see it pay off like this, for everybody else to see it, it’s special.”
Giants quarterbacks coach Shea Tierney has repeatedly praised Jones’ desire to compete, and how that hunger ultimately helped put down the foundation Jones and the new coaching staff have established.
“Something that has stuck with me from Bill Parcells, something he always liked to say: Don’t confuse routine with commitment,” Tierney said. “And Daniel is committed to being the very best quarterback he can be for this team.”
Jones went from being aggressive as a rookie with Pat Shurmur and Mike Shula in his ear, only to have the reins pulled in considerably with Joe Judge and Jason Garrett (and then Freddie Kitchens, albeit on an interim basis as a playcaller). The thinking under Judge and Garrett was that Jones had to eliminate turnovers, the biggest knock of his game, and that took away his aggression.
Daboll, Kafka and Tierney unlocked Jones’ willingness to play with abandon again. He played within the game plan for much of this season, making plays as the offense continued to evolve. The Giants were searching for a rhythm in the passing game, so in leaning on Saquon Barkley and Jones’ legs, they established one of the league’s best rushing attackes.
When the calendar turned to mid-December, Jones and the Giants found a new identity. They went on the road and beat Washington to take a huge step forward in the playoff race. Then, fittingly enough, Jones found a way to attack the defense in every aspect in the Giants’ heartbreaking 27-24 loss to the Vikings on Christmas Eve when Greg Joseph sent them home to New Jersey with a 61-yard field goal as time expired.
Jones completed 30 of 42 (71.4%) for 334 yards, a touchdown and an interception with a 2-point pass to rookie Daniel Bellinger that tied the score at 24 with 2:01 remaining. Jones also rushed for 34 yards, including a critical 8-yard run on third down that set up Saquon Barkley’s touchdown run on fourth and short.
“It’s one or two plays here or there that’s going to make the difference,” Jones said. “In a regular season game, maybe it’s a handful. But in the playoffs, these are good teams that you’re competing against. It’s one or two plays that’s going to make the difference. So, we understand that. We understand what’s at stake. We’re going to stick to what’s gotten us here.”
Here is a far cry from where Jones and the Giants have been on the first Wednesday following the last three regular season finales. Jones said he solicited advice from players and coaches about what it’s like to be in the playoffs.
He’s yet to speak with Manning this week, although Jones told NorthJersey.com that he plans to reach out.
“We’re definitely not satisfied just to have made the playoffs. That’s not how we see it as a group,” Jones said. “We were confident in our team dating back to training camp and knew what we were able to accomplish. We’re by no means satisfied just to be in the playoffs. We expect to play well and to win. And that’s our expectation every week; that doesn’t change this week.”
Another daunting challenge awaits, and the Giants will again be counting on Jones to bring his best with the stakes at their highest.
“This really is special., and I’m proud of him,” Shepard said. “Now I’m excited to see him take this next step.”
This content was originally published here.