Trying to build a football team from the bottom up is never easy, as the Giants are finding out now that Daniel Jones has been anointed as their quarterback of the present and the future. They entered Monday night’s game against the Cowboys with a 2-6 record, a testament to the inevitable struggles teams go through with a first-year quarterback.
But if there’s one stat the Giants can hang their hat on as they slog through another losing season, it’s this: Entering Week 9, the Giants had the most snaps – by far – played by rookies of any team in the NFL. They were at 2,907, outdistancing the Jaguars (2,418), Raiders (2,352) and Cardinals (2,228).
Why is that stat promising? Because the experience their first-year players are going through now, difficult though that process may be, could translate into eventual success down the road. Granted, many of those rookies, starting with Jones, must pan out as worthy players as they progress. But the fact they’re getting this much playing time may ultimately pay solid dividends.
The Cowboys once were the embodiment of that philosophy. In 1989, the year Jerry Jones hired Jimmy Johnson and the Cowboys drafted quarterback Troy Aikman, it was Johnson who wasted no time in moving on from the Tom Landry era by switching to a youth movement.
Aikman didn’t win a single game as a rookie, going 0-11 in Johnson’s 1-15 debut season. Eagles coach Buddy Ryan poked fun at Johnson, telling the former University of Miami coach, “There are no East Carolinas in the NFL.” But Johnson took that young team and transformed it into Super Bowl champions in four seasons. Dallas went on to win three championships with the roster built by Johnson.
That is, of course, a best-case scenario, and Johnson’s dramatic roster remake was one of the most remarkable transitions in NFL history. With Aikman as his franchise quarterback, Michael Irvin as his big-time receiver and Emmitt Smith as his workhorse running back – the “Triplets,” as they came to be known – Johnson catapulted the Cowboys to greatness. That process was helped immeasurably by the blockbuster Herschel Walker trade, an 18-player/draft pick deal that Johnson parlayed into a team for the ages.
The Cowboys haven’t been the same since Johnson’s ouster after the 1995 season, although Jones now has what he believes is a team capable of contending for a championship. The Cowboys were 4-3 going into the Giants game, featuring modern-day “Triplets” with quarterback Dak Prescott, running back Ezekiel Elliott and wide receiver Amari Cooper.
Giants GM Dave Gettleman can only hope the end product of his roster reconstruction can even begin to approximate that of Johnson’s Cowboys. It’s unrealistic to think that will actually happen. That team, after all, was one of the greatest dynasties in NFL history. But if Gettleman can at least build a playoff team with Jones as its leader, Saquon Barkley as the engine of the running game and a defense that includes rookies Dexter Lawrence, Oshane Ximines, DeAndre Baker and now former Jet Leonard Williams, then living through the growing pains of this year’s team will have been worth it.
“You have to build this thing brick by brick,” Gettleman told the Giants’ website in an interview last week about the Williams trade. “We have one of the youngest teams in the league and … it’s a process. [Williams] is a talented young football player who we can add to the other talented young kids that we have, a group that includes Daniel Jones, Saquon [Barkley], B.J. Hill, Lorenzo Carter, Will Hernandez, Evan [Engram] and Sterling [Shepard], among others.”
Gettleman subscribes to the theory Tom Coughlin often preached during his time with the Giants, that you build your team on both sides of the line outward. Get the big people in place on the offensive and defensive lines, and then go from there.
Getting the quarterback right, of course, is paramount. Coughlin won two Super Bowls with Eli Manning, and Gettleman now stakes his legacy on Jones, who began with a smashing debut performance in a dramatic comeback win over the Bucs but looked more like a rookie quarterback in losing four of his next five.
Jones now presides over a team filled with young players who are trying to find their way. It’s a difficult, but necessary process, just as it is for every team in similar circumstances. If Gettleman made the right choice with Jones and enough of his neophyte teammates, then success will eventually come.
If not, then the Giants will continue to wallow in their post-Coughlin/Manning malaise.