Whenever the Giants finish their stretching and warming up prior to a game, one of the players normally jumps in the middle of the group and delivers a fiery speech intended to set the tone for the upcoming contest. That job usually falls to one of the hooped-up defenders ready to rip his opponents’ arms off, or maybe some wild-eyed offensive skill player expecting to have his run of the field that day.
When the Giants reached that point of the evening before their big scrimmage late last month, though, it was neither of those two archetypes who stepped up into the moment.
It was the soft-spoken, Carolina-drawling, 22-year-old quarterback who did.
Daniel Jones, entering his second season in the NFL and his first as the clear starter, addressed the team.
Jones downplayed the act.
“It was just an opportunity to get the guys together,” he said. “Getting everybody fired up and ready to go… I think the guys were excited and I just wanted to kind of continue that excitement and add to it if I could.”
And maybe it is something that happens naturally for a lot of other NFL teams. But for the Giants, for most of the past decade and a half, the starting quarterback stayed on the fringes of such ceremonies. Eli Manning, who earned two Super Bowl MVP awards and retired in January as one of the most admired and accomplished players in franchise history, was never one for such overt spectacles of leadership. His tone was always more reticent, more withdrawn. Early in his career veterans called his attempts at leadership comical. Late in his career, surrounded by players years younger than him, it may have come off as a bit aloof.
Last year, it was one of the many things Jones the rookie mimicked from Manning the mentor. Even when Jones became the starter, he yielded that pregame stage to others.
So here then, finally, is where the descriptions of Manning and Jones diverge. Here is the difference. Because while Manning would never jump in the middle of a pregame hype huddle and start screaming at his teammates – and to be fair, such actions would have been so forced and against his natural personality that they likely would have backfired – it was really the only place Jones wanted to be.
“He’s definitely a guy who’s taken a leadership role on this team,” Joe Judge said of Jones. “That’s been evident with the way he comes to work every day, the way he holds himself and the way he practices and prepares, and then the way he performs when he gets into competitive situations. In terms of him calling up [the team], I don’t know if it’s new to somebody else to see. For us, it’s no surprise. He’s in a position where he’s in front of the team on a daily basis. For us, it’s just business as usual.”
This season, Jones will be in the middle of everything. There are plenty of storylines surrounding the Giants in 2020, from a new coaching staff to a rebuilt offensive line to a defense that will be relying on many unproven parts, and that doesn’t even include the outside influences such as a pandemic and a franchise-wide awakening to racial injustice. But Jones, in his second year with the Giants and first alone at the helm of the offense and the organization, is by far the biggest and more important.
That means on and off the field.
Certainly the Giants want him to excel as a quarterback, which will give them a better chance to win. But they also want to see him develop a presence, become the type of player who can steer a locker room.
“I’m definitely excited for D.J.,” running back Saquon Barkley said. “We definitely got a lot closer than we were with him being a rookie to us actually hanging out, working out together and stuff. He’s a hard worker, he’s a heck of a player, he’s very talented. You just grow.”
Jones did grow substantially. During the offseason he bulked up, adding almost 10 pounds of muscle to his frame. The guys in the locker room had some fun with that.
“He’s definitely looking a little buff out there,” defensive lineman Dexter Lawrence said. “He felt like he needed a little more beef. I gave him a hard time, too.”
Added wide receiver Golden Tate: “The guy is ripped now. The guy is solid, a very solid guy. I love seeing that.”
It’s certainly a good sign when teammates feel comfortable enough to throw jabs at their quarterback. There were not many in the locker room who had the audacity to pull that off in the past few seasons. It shows, in the convoluted psychology of a football team, that Jones has their respect and admiration.
Tight end Evan Engram did have one critique of Jones’ de facto inauguration address in that scrimmage.
“The words were great,” he said. “We have to work on his hand gestures and body language, but he did pretty good for the first one.”
It won’t be the last.
“D.J. has definitely grown as a leader,” Engram said. “Just kind of seeing him take over that leadership role has been a natural thing. D.J. is a great leader by his actions and now he’s starting to figure it out vocally as well.”
That will go a long way this season. It means that when Jones jumps into the middle of the entire team before a game and starts talking, no one will be surprised or shocked or humored or made uncomfortable by it. It will feel completely natural.
It will be exactly where Jones belongs.