There could not have been a better beginning for Daniel Jones.
The rookie quarterback, who was welcomed to New York in April with a chorus of boos and a heaping dose of derision, put on an absolutely remarkable comeback in his debut as a starter for the Giants. He breathed life into a franchise that has been adrift for much of the last seven seasons and offered hope that he someday might develop into an able successor to two-time Super Bowl champion Eli Manning.
Yes, Jones was all that on a steamy Sunday afternoon in Tampa, where — without injured Saquon Barkley — he rallied the Giants from an 18-point halftime deficit to a 32-31 victory over the Bucs and made a definitive statement that he is ready for the herculean task of turning the Giants back into a playoff contender.
He did it with his arm. He did it with his legs. He did it with his will.
Jones passed for two touchdowns and ran for two more, the second of which was the winning score. He drove the Giants 75 yards on eight plays in the final minutes of the fourth quarter, running up the middle for a 7-yard touchdown with 1:16 remaining on a fourth-down play.
The Giants had to sweat out a missed 34-yard field goal attempt by Matt Gay at the buzzer. The ball sailed wide right, just as it did in Tampa in 1991, albeit in far more dramatic circumstances. This didn’t come close to the Giants winning Super Bowl XXV over the Bills, 20-19, when Scott Norwood’s field-goal attempt missed to the right. But this was a salient moment nonetheless.
If Jones does turn out to be the player the Giants envisioned when they ignored the skeptics and staked their future on him, this moment certainly will be remembered as the launching pad for his career.
“We believed in him from the day we drafted him,” coach Pat Shurmur said after the game. “First time out, he didn’t disappoint.”
The Jones era began far sooner than the Giants had expected. The plan was to go the entire season with Manning, let Jones learn along the way and anoint him the starter next year. But an 0-2 start and mediocre play from Manning hastened the timetable, and Shurmur relied on a gut feeling that the time was now.
That instinct turned out to be spot on, and the Giants now feel invigorated with Jones under center. Yes, he made a couple of mistakes, losing two fumbles and nearly throwing a costly interception in the first half. But he overcame the missteps with some brilliant play, leading three long touchdown drives in the second half after Barkley went out in the second quarter with a sprained ankle.
Jones, who wound up throwing for 336 yards, hit Evan Engram on a midrange pass over the middle on the first play of the third quarter, and Engram turned it into a 75-yard touchdown by racing down the left sideline. Jones finished off an 80-yard drive on his next possession with a 7-yard touchdown pass to Sterling Shepard. And with the Giants needing a last-minute score, he faded back to pass on fourth down from the Buccaneers’ 7.
Realizing that the Bucs had deployed their defensive backs to cover patterns toward either side, Jones took advantage by running up the gut for the touchdown.
“They were playing some kind of man, and it just opened up there,” Jones said. “Saw the grass and took it. Fun finish to it, exciting last drive.”
Jones said he was most pleased that the team “showed a lot of fight and we battled back after creating a hole for ourselves in the first half. It’s an exciting win, and we look forward to building off it.”
Doing all this without Barkley? Now that says something.
“We’re certainly confident in who we are as a team,” Jones said. “I think we have a number of playmakers and obviously he’s a huge piece of that. There’s no doubt about it. We had guys step up and make plays. I think it just shows the versatility of this team.”’
The entire organization was ebullient afterward, although team president and co-owner John Mara tried to low-key the victory and Jones’ role in it.
“It was a nice win. He did a great job and we’re 1-2,” he said.
But when it was suggested to him that this should be a great moment, Mara smiled and said, “It is a great moment.”
With many more to come, according to those who have been around Jones the most.
“He believes in himself and he believes in all the players out there,” Shurmur said. “I’ve been around a lot of smart people. I’d rather be around the tough people. And he’s tough.”
“I think he’s going to be a great one,” wide receiver Russell Shepard said. “He’s going to be a great one here [in New York] and he’s going to bring a lot of wins to this organization. He’s a winner. He’s a leader, and we’re going to ride with him till the wheels fall off.”
Only one game, yes. And surely there will be disappointments ahead. But Jones made you believe there will be plenty of special moments ahead, too.