Football is a game of decisions, some of them small, some of them big, all of them consequential in their own way. Make mostly good choices, and the odds are in your favor. Make one wrong move, and calamity can follow.
Welcome to Daniel Jones’ world.
The Giants’ second-year quarterback was doing some of his finest work in the second half of Monday night’s season opener against the Steelers, driving the Giants for what might have been the go-ahead touchdown with a series of smart moves. He was backed up to his own 9-yard line — and then the 5 — early in the third quarter but fought his way out of danger with the kind of poise and pizzazz the Giants had seen in him when they anointed him their quarterback of the future in last year’s draft.
There was an 18-yard dart to Darius Slayton on third-and-14 to keep the drive alive — this not long after he’d hit Slayton on a deep post for a 41-yard first-half touchdown. And a 10-yard pass to Slayton at the Steelers’ 45. He scrambled for 4 yards around right end to set up a fourth-and-1 and converted the play with a throw halfway across the field to Saquon Barkley.
And then . . .
The one wrong move.
At the worst possible moment.
On third-and-3 from the Steelers’ 4, Jones was under pressure, scrambled to his left and attempted to throw the ball toward Slayton in the end zone. But his right arm was hit just as he released the ball, which floated toward the goal line and into the waiting arms of defensive lineman Cam Heyward for the interception.
It was a devastating play and the turning point in a 26-16 loss in coach Joe Judge’s debut and Jones’ first opening-day start.
"Obviously a play I’d like to have back," Jones said. "That’s a costly mistake there after a long drive. Something I’ve got to work on and improve on."
Instead of putting the Giants ahead 17-16, Jones’ killer interception offered the opening Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers needed to put the game away. Pittsburgh produced a field-goal drive and then a touchdown to make it 26-10. By the time Jones hit Slayton for a 7-yard touchdown late in the fourth quarter, it was too late.
One bad decision, and there it was.
"As an offense, we did some good things and some not good things," said Jones, who was 26-for-41 for 279 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions. "I played good at times and I played bad at times. Have to do a good job of being consistent and avoiding the big mistakes. I’ll certainly work to correct those things."
It was a dispiriting moment for Jones, whose turnover problems last year ruined an otherwise promising rookie season. In 2019, he had a fumbling problem. To start 2020, the turnovers were through the air. And it was Jones’ second interception that proved the most costly, a calamitous ending to a 19-play drive that could have ended with a signature touchdown to launch his second season.
Instead, it offered a sobering reminder that Jones is far from a finished product and still has a long way to go toward being the true answer.
There certainly were flashes of positivity Monday night, especially the long touchdown pass to Slayton, when he smartly held the ball to let the pattern unfold and then delivered a perfect strike to Slayton in stride.
And he’d done some extraordinarily good work on the third-quarter drive, picking apart Pittsburgh’s defense with the kind of precision plays the Giants need from him.
But then there was that one ill-fated decision, that moment when he got too greedy instead of simply throwing the ball out of bounds or taking the sack.
He paid a heavy price, and his team paid with a loss.
He’s a work in progress, for sure, but Jones needs to overcome these mistakes to become a worthy successor to Eli Manning. It was the first time Manning wasn’t in uniform for the Giants since the start of the 2004 season, so Jones has a heavy burden to carry into the future.
There is only one way for him to live up to the expectation. It’s by making plays to win games, not making mistakes to lose them.