TAMPA, Fla. — Daniel Jones wasn’t on the field. He had nothing to do with the plays that led up to the potential game-winning field goal by the Bucs, the long pass that brought them to the doorstep of breaking the Giants’ hearts and ruining what already was a record-setting debut for the rookie quarterback.
But maybe he did. Maybe his mere presence in the game was enough to lift the bad juju and ominous vibes that had been weighing on this franchise for the past few years.
He had rallied a team that had lost its best player, Saquon Barkley, to an ankle injury late in the first half. He had helped to erase an 18-point halftime deficit and had given the Giants a one-point lead with 1:16 left. Why couldn’t he summon some magic to allow the team to sidestep the kind of heartbreaking loss it had become all too accustomed to suffering?
When Matt Gay’s 34-yard field goal attempt as time expired went wide right, it felt as if it had been blown in that direction by the winds of change.
The Giants beat the Bucs, 32-31, for their first victory in three games this season and their first with Jones at quarterback. They had lost their last 55 games in which they trailed by 18 or more points at halftime.
Jones did something that his predecessor, Eli Manning, had built his Hall of Fame-caliber resume on through his 16-year career: lead the Giants to a thrilling comeback victory.
He did it, however, in a way that Manning never could have (by running) and to an extent that Manning never did (his largest comeback to win was from 17 points down).
After Jones dropped back to pass on an all-or-nothing fourth-and-5 from the 7 with a little over a minute remaining, the Bucs’ defense parted in biblical fashion and he was able to run up the middle for the go-ahead touchdown.
“I was running a route and I saw him hit the middle and I’m like, ‘He’s gone,’ ” Sterling Shepard said. “You guys see his wheels? It’s something serious.”
Jones didn’t singlehandedly beat the Bucs, though. It took the whole team to rally around him. With Barkley out, the chances of that seemed fairly dim.
“We came in here, we saw Saquon on crutches, and a lot of people would be defeated at that moment,” Shepard said. “We didn’t bat an eye. Everybody looked at each other and was like, ‘Let’s go win this game. Let’s man up and do this.’ That’s what we did.”
They emerged from the locker room rejuvenated instead of deflated. On the first play, Jones hit Evan Engram for a 75-yard touchdown and then found Shepard for the two-point conversion. The Giants’ defense, which didn’t stop the Bucs once in the first half, forced a punt, and on the next drive, Jones hit Shepard for a 7-yard touchdown that made it 28-25 with 8:14 left in the third.
The teams exchanged standoffs and turnovers, the Bucs kicked a 23-yard field goal to go ahead 31-25, and the Giants got the ball back in Jones’ hands for the game-winning drive with 3:16 remaining. He completed five straight passes to reach the 7, and after two incompletions, he dashed his way to the win.
The season is almost a month old, but Sunday felt like an opening day for the Giants. In a way, it was more than just a restart to 2019. It was the start of an era.
“This is a new chapter and we can finally see what we have,” said Barkley, who watched the comeback from the sideline. “The first two weeks, we felt like we were in games but we weren’t playing to our level. Even in this game we were out of it, got down quick, but that’s who we are in the second half of football. That’s who we are.”
It’s who they are now.
Jones was 23-for-36 for 336 yards, two touchdowns and a two-point conversion when passing, but he also ran for 28 yards and two touchdowns on four carries. He became the first rookie quarterback since the 1970 NFL merger with at least 300 passing yards, two passing touchdowns and two rushing touchdowns in a single game.
That’s not about a debut start.
That’s any game by a rookie quarterback.
“I said it months ago, and I’m going to continue to keep saying it: I think he’s going to be a great one,” Russell Shepard said. “He’s going to be a great one here and he’s going to bring a lot of wins to this organization and do some great things.
“He’s a winner, he’s a leader, and he is our quarterback,” Shepard added, “and we’re going to ride with him until the wheels fall off.”
Comparing the first NFL starts of Daniel Jones and the QB he succeeded, Eli Manning:
9/22/19 Date 11/21/04
TB Opp. Atlanta
W, 32-31 Result L, 14-10
23/36 Comp. /Att. 17/37
336 Yards 162
63.9 Pct. 45.9
2 Pass. TDs 1
2 Rush TDs 0
0 INTs 2
75 Long Gain 18
112.7 Rating 45.1