The unease didn’t end with a chorus of all-out boos, but the murmurs clearly were evident as Eli Manning jogged off the field after a three-and-out to begin the 2019 preseason. Giants fans have become increasingly impatient with these moments in recent years. Manning’s play and the play of the offense has not been good. But there has been no viable alternative, no quarterback worth reconsidering Manning’s place in the starting lineup.
What Daniel Jones did with the first drive of his NFL career in the Giants’ 31-22 victory over the Jets on Thursday night will only increase the pressure on Manning, whose time as the starter remains in question.
Manning’s offense went four yards in three plays before his night was over, prompting restlessness among the fans. It might have been a blessing for Jones, whose selection was met with fierce opposition when general manager Dave Gettleman made him the sixth overall pick in the draft. Jones was greeted in much friendlier terms this time, in part because fans are anxious to find Manning’s successor.
There were cheers and there was anticipation as Jones walked onto the field. By the end of what turned out to be his first and only drive — in part because of a weather delay that lasted nearly an hour — Jones had put together a terrific drive to begin his career. Playing with a patchwork assortment of receivers and without running back Saquon Barkley, who was given the night off, Jones completed all five of his passes and capped a 75-yard scoring drive with a perfectly placed 12-yard pass to Bennie Fowler III in the right corner of the end zone.
“I think overall I did some good things,” Jones said. “It was short, so I take that into account. Missed a couple of things, could have been a little better with a couple things. Good to just get out there for the first time.”
Jones has impressed coaches throughout the spring and in training camp, and that continued in his first live action against an opponent. Although it’s still premature to anoint him, he certainly turned up the heat on Manning, who now faces the inevitability that his performance during the regular season will be scrutinized like never before.
Manning was promoted to the starting job after nine games in his rookie year, and there hadn’t been a time since then that he faced a serious challenge. The only time he was benched turned out to be a farce that resulted in Ben McAdoo’s ouster a day after Geno Smith started in Manning’s place late in the 2017 season.
Gettleman declined to select Manning’s eventual replacement in his first draft in 2018, passing on Sam Darnold and instead taking Barkley. Darnold put together an admirable rookie season and looks poised to make a significant jump in Year 2, so Gettleman’s conviction on Jones will be one of the most significant decisions in franchise history.
Gettleman refused to flinch about his decision to take Barkley, a player who could go down as the team’s all-time best running back. It was a no-brainer in his mind, and no amount of convincing — or Darnold’s availability — could change it.
Jones’ development therefore is critically important. If he pans out, the Giants will have a capable quarterback and running back tandem for the foreseeable future. If not, the franchise is set back for years. And Darnold’s continued development — he looked terrific Thursday night, leading a 75-yard touchdown drive in his only action — would only make things worse.
Giants coach Pat Shurmur isn’t about to change his plans about going with Manning, who will be the starter heading into the regular season. But you know how these things work. One bad game — one bad quarter — and the pressure will build.
“This is just his first go-round,” Shurmur said of Jones. “He’s done nothing to disappoint us.”
Asked what he’d say to Giants fans who believe it already is time to give Jones a shot at the starting job, Shurmur said, “I think slow your roll.”
He added that “nothing at this point has changed” about his plans at the position.
As long as Manning keeps the Giants in contention in the NFC East, he’s almost certain to keep his job. But if he starts to slip and produces enough three-and-outs like the one Thursday, it will be only a matter of time before Jones gets his chance.
That time may be sooner rather than later.