New York Giants quarterback Daniel Jones climbed the pocket away from Thomas, his teammate, and started to scramble up the middle. The Giants had anticipated the Lions playing man coverage, but they were in zone, so Jones had to improvise on the run.
Instead of tucking the football, he instead fired a pass from a three-quarters arm angle, on the move. The throw traveled across his body to the left and found Darius Slayton, who had sprinted along the back of the end zone and made a leaping grab for the touchdown.
The Jones-Slayton connection left Detroit safety Kerby Joseph shaking his head – figuratively, not literally – trying to figure out how he lost on a play the Lions seemingly had covered from start to finish in their second of two joint practices between the two teams in Allen Park, Mich., last month.
That is, until Jones found a way to beat them anyway, with Slayton closing the deal by making a catch just as brilliant as the throw, not to mention the spontaneity and instincts to get to that point.
“To sum it up quickly, Daniel is becoming a really good problem solver in this offense,” Giants quarterbacks coach Shea Tierney said. “We can’t predict what the defense is going to do all the time. We have all the research in the world through tape and scouting, and everything else, sometimes you get a look that you never talked about, and you have to have an answer back there for something you did not see coming. He’s done a great job of being a problem solver in that respect. And that play to Slayton in Detroit was exactly what we’re talking about.”
A leap forward
Jones began his NFL career saddled with the reputation as a problem creator, and mostly of his own, doing behind a suspect offensive line, with a receiving group bereft of game-breaking skill and a severe lack of coaching continuity. He was branded a turnover machine, and some still view him as such, even if – in his best season as a pro last year – Jones finished with the lowest interception rate of any starting quarterback in the league.
The losing. The mocking. The turnovers. The coaching carousel. The unanswered questions.
After enduring three seasons that raised doubts about his future, Jones flipped the script and led the Giants to their first playoff victory since Super Bowl XLVI in January, ripping the Vikings to shreds with the most complete game of his football life.
Since Brian Daboll took over as head coach 15 months ago, Jones has embraced the methods by which the new regime led by general manager Joe Schoen and Daboll took aim at his development.
The 26-year-old Jones still is a player committed to making the most of the marriage with his new coaches and the teachings he is receiving from offensive coordinator Mike Kafka and Tierney. He earned a contract worth $160 million this offseason, after accounting for 22 total touchdowns, including seven as a runner.
But team brass believes there is more to his game to bring to the surface even now.
Ready for prime time
The beauty of this for the Giants, if it comes to fruition, is that Jones believes it, too, and that’s how he has attacked the new season that begins in prime time on “Sunday Night Football” against the Cowboys this Sunday.
“You have to find ways in this game to improve every year, to make throws and make completions, and I’ve learned that,” Jones told NorthJersey.com. “Give guys chances to make those plays. That’s this job as the quarterback, and I accept everything that comes with being quarterback in this city.”
The Giants have a quarterback whose arrow appears to be pointing up, and that says a lot for what Jones did in a season where so much was seemingly stacked against him last year.
He answered those doubts about his durability, and has worked tirelessly to fix some of the issues that hindered his progress and production. There has been gradual development within his game, too, adding necessary enhancements that have helped him continue to evolve.
“There’s definitely that tangible growth in terms of just comfortability, familiarity with the offense,” Tierney said. “And that bleeds over to everything else.”
From every angle
Jones improved his play action fakes and off-platform throws last season. He’s taken that to another level this summer with a newfound comfort executing from various arm angles to get the ball around pass rushers and defenders in coverage.
Throwing from different arm angles is something Aaron Rodgers, the quarterback who now shares MetLife Stadium as his home with the Jets, has done his entire career. Brett Favre was a master before him in Green Bay, while Patrick Mahomes has essentially taken the skill to a whole new stratosphere with the way he plays the position like a baseball shortstop turned gridiron magician would.
Jones has been able to quicken his release from varying angles, which has allowed him to get the ball through traffic and to smaller windows more than usual. He did that with the dart to Slayton in Detroit, and seemingly delivered at least one of those in every training camp practice for the past six weeks.
“You can’t throw the same way when you’re sitting perfectly in the pocket with a nice base; on the move, it changes, not completely, but where you can get your arm, up, to the side,” Tierney said. “And those things are different based on whether you’re throwing to your left, throwing to your right, if you’re moving up in the pocket and throwing square, those things always change with that and where the defenders are. You navigate around a guy, over a guy and the arm angles change, for sure. You need to be able to throw not only off-platform with your lower body, but off-platform with your upper body.”
Some of that improvisation comes from Jones’ basketball background. He was an AAU star in his native Charlotte and could have played in college somewhere had he not chosen this profession. He also practices the unconventional throws during drill work with Tierney and alongside Tyrod Taylor and rookie Tommy DeVito.
“You can kind of bake into the thought process, this is what we’re trying to accomplish,” Tierney added. “But we can’t predict what the defense is going to do. We’re calling the play based on what we think they’ll do, and if you don’t get it, what’s your answer?”
Jones placed an emphasis this offseason on his footwork in the pocket while increasing his awareness against the challenge of being forced to make throws under pressure. He worked with his private coach, QB Country’s David Morris, on gaining more of a feel of how to solve differing coverages and defensive concepts.
The Giants have certainly taken notice of the next steps in Jones’ maturation as their quarterback.
“I think it starts as an ability thing – you have to have the athleticism and the arm to be able to do it, and I think DJ has both of those,” Slayton told NorthJersey.com. “He grew in that area, being able to make plays out of the pocket, and it’s something he added to his game last year. The league has gotten past the point of being able to just sit in the pocket and pick people apart. His creativity is coming out because this really feels like his offense now.”
The 6-foot-6, 245-pound presence of tight end Darren Waller, plus the speed and talents of newcomers Parris Campbell and rookie Jalin Hyatt, provide Jones and the Giants with far more explosive pieces to the puzzle. Saquon Barkley, Sterling Shepard, Isaiah Hodgins, Daniel Bellinger and Slayton all return, giving Jones his deepest group of weapons to date.
Yet the most impactful addition promises to be Waller, who allows Jones a margin for error that’s just not there with others.
“Any time you’re throwing to a guy who’s got that size and catch radius, he helps you – you don’t always have to be perfect to him,” Tierney said. “He’s gonna go up and get that ball, and you have confidence in a guy like that. You have the mindset of, ‘I’m just gonna put the ball in his vicinity and he’s going to go up and make a play for me,’ and that helps a quarterback. Because you’re not thinking, ‘Hey, I’ve gotta be perfect on this pass,’ and there’s a degree of difficulty that you can play with. You don’t have that stress of having to be perfect, and that takes a little bit off your shoulders, knowing that it all doesn’t have to be on you.”
The ‘elite’ question
As much as that is the case, for Jones, he’s been with the Giants and in the shadow of the Big Apple long enough to know exactly how much falls on him. It’s a responsibility he accepts, and the next chapter begins Sunday night.
Like Eli Manning before him, Jones had a definitive answer to the question of whether he viewed himself as an elite quarterback.
“I’m very confident in myself,” Jones said. “I’m very confident that I can play this game at a high level and lead this team to win a lot of games.”
He paused before adding: “Yeah, I’m very confident in myself.”
Those who watched Daniel Jones all summer saw that manifest itself not just in his play, but the way he played.
Now it’s time for the quarterback of the Giants to prove himself again when it counts.
This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: Daniel Jones: NY Giants quarterback set to take next step in evolution