The first three seasons of Daniel Jones’ career ended with losing records, deepening disappointment and few reasons for optimism.
He’d clean out his locker after those last games and say goodbye to coaches and teammates, many of whom, it was very clear, would not be back with the Giants when spring workouts rolled around. But even on those days of apparent finality, Jones had pretty good reason to believe he would be a Giant the following year.
This fourth season wrapped up in a different manner. It ended with the disheartening 38-7 loss to the Eagles in Saturday’s NFC Divisional Round playoff game in Philadelphia, but for the most part, things are looking up for the Giants.
Finally there was tangible progress with a winning record, a postseason victory and a fairly clear path forward for the franchise.
Jones himself had a season in which he answered many of the questions that have long haunted him; his turnovers were reduced dramatically, and for the first time in his NFL career, he was able to play a full schedule of games without missing any because of injury.
Yet Jones walked out of the locker room Sunday, stepping over boxes holding the personal effects of the players, as uncertain about his future with this team as he has been since the moment he was drafted.
Just when the team finally is good enough for him to win, the team could determine he is not good enough for them to win more.
Welcome to the Daniel Jones Paradox.
The Giants’ front office and coaching staff now will decide what to do with the quarterback they inherited when they took over the organization 12 months ago.
The quarterback who led them through a modestly successful campaign but also left them wondering at times if they might be able to find someone better to lift them to the next echelon without taking a huge step backward and essentially starting over.
The quarterback who threw only 15 touchdown passes in 16 regular-season games in a league in which 11 other quarterbacks threw 25 or more.
Needless to say, it’s a huge, complicated decision that could define many careers — not only Jones’ but those who ultimately make it. It is weighed by the millions of dollars involved but also the implications for the immediate and long-term futures of the franchise.
On Monday, we’ll get our first on-the-record hints of what general manager Joe Schoen thinks about Jones and the one-year audition process he set up when he declined the fifth-year option on the quarterback’s rookie contract in the spring. Schoen will meet with reporters for his end-of-season news conference.
Don’t expect him to say much one way or the other, though. A definitive answer likely won’t be given.
What will be more interesting is to observe the Giants’ actions in the weeks and months to come. How many quarterbacks they start wooing through free agency or trade options. Which pro days and in-house visits they line up for prospects. And, of course, what kind of talks they have with Jones and his representatives.
For his part, Jones said Sunday that he loves the Giants and wants to be back (he was noticeably reluctant to say that explicitly in the emotional aftermath of Saturday’s loss). But he also said he understands that football is a business, even if he noted that it is not one of his favorite aspects of the sport.
“You can’t ignore that piece of it,” he said. “But as a player and a person, I have always played for the love of the game.”
He said he has had “positive conversations” with the team but nothing specific about his role on it, and he dismissed a report that emerged earlier this month about the two sides being close to an extension agreement. “There’s not much truth to that,” he said.
He also said: “There are a lot of those conversations to be had down the road.”
That road is now upon us. Jones’ prove-it season is over. What he had to prove and whether he did it now are the most important offseason questions for this team.
“I’m proud of my improvement, I’m proud of my progress,” Jones said. “That’s always the goal. You are never going to get where you want to go. It’s a continual process and a journey, and I feel like I made some strides in that regard. I think we all did as a team. I’m proud of that.”
If Jones needs a stark reminder that what he did might not be enough, well, it spent this season sitting next to him in his position room.
When Schoen arrived in Buffalo as the assistant general manager, the Bills made the playoffs in their first year of the turnaround. Just like these Giants, they ended a postseason drought and generated a lot of excitement about their potential.
The quarterback who carried them on those first steps of the rebuild? It wasn’t Josh Allen; he came along the next year. It was Tyrod Taylor, who wasn’t even on the Bills’ roster when the ensuing season began and spent this season as Jones’ backup.
This whole 2022 season was played against the backdrop of Jones’ contract uncertainty. With no more games to play, that drama now moves to the foreground.