What should Giants fans want this season?
That used to be a very simple question. The answer usually entailed playing meaningful games in December, getting into the playoffs, and making a run at a championship. Even when many of those objectives seemed unrealistic at this point in seasons past, that was the goal.
But this season is unlike any in the past two decades. It is, in many ways, a more complicated season for the Giants, especially when it comes to their present and future at quarterback. And so, the answer to the normally routine question becomes a little more complex.
There are, in other words, a number of ways that this upcoming 2019 campaign can be judged as a success or a failure, and most of them have little to do with a Lombardi Trophy. The minute the Giants used the sixth overall pick to select Daniel Jones in April’s draft muddied those perspectives.
“I want to feel like at the end of the season we’re moving in the right direction,” co-owner John Mara said earlier this summer of the rubric from which he will judge 2019. “I’m not going to say it has to be a minimum number of games that we have to win, or we have to make the playoffs. I want to feel when I’m walking off the field after the last game of the season, whenever that is, that this franchise is headed in the right direction. That, to me, is the most important thing.”
Even that gets fuzzy when weighing now impulses against later needs.
A .500 record or better would seem to be a step in that “right direction” for a team that has won eight games in the past two seasons combined. A fan base tired of losing should embrace that. But if Eli Manning is the quarterback the entire year and Jones spends it standing on the sideline, has it done anything to push the franchise toward progress? Won’t 2020 feel like another restart rather than the next phase in a long-term transition?
What if the Giants take a step backward from their five victories a year ago and win just three or four games . . . but Jones plays the last half of them and goes through some growing pains but also flashes some of the abilities that the Giants think he has? Would that not be planting seeds for the future? Could that not be seen as heading in the “right direction”?
General manager Dave Gettleman has said it is possible to win and rebuild at the same time. In the offseason that could be true. At some point in the coming months, though, he may have to make a choice. This season will be a step in a direction, for sure. It’s his job to make sure it’s the right one.
That’s not to say the Giants should tank for the sake of playing a rookie quarterback, even though last time they did it and Tom Coughlin pulled the plug on a potential playoff team in the middle of 2004, the Giants won the division the following year, went to the postseason four straight years, won a championship three years later, and set the foundation for a second title four years after that. Giants fans, perhaps more than those who follow any franchise, love to play the it-happened-that-way-once-it-will-happen-that-way-again game. Sometimes they’re even right. Most times, though, each decision and outcome is unique to its own circumstances.
Jones may look and act and sound like Manning, but asking him to follow each and every footstep of his mentor’s career is absurd . . . and even a little creepy.
Internally, the Giants seem optimistic that they can succeed in an old-fashioned definition of the word.
Manning — the hinge of this season whose play will determine where it goes and how it is viewed by both contemporary and historical standards — is of course bullish about his 16th and perhaps final year with the Giants.
“It’s making the playoffs to start with, and then making a run in the playoffs,” Manning said of his objective for 2019. “Obviously, the goal is to always win a championship, and you can’t do that without making the playoffs. I think the goal is to win the division and go from there.”
Even younger players seem to be buying in. Saquon Barkley is the player who should most urgently like to see the Giants move into their next stage. He’ll likely play many more seasons here with Jones as his quarterback than he will with Manning, and the window for a running back’s prime can be a brief one. If the Giants are going to win with Jones, as they believe they will, he should be the one screaming ‘Let’s get on with it, then!” But he also wants to win games and thinks these current Giants can.
“We know what we have with this team,” Barkley said. “We know we have a lot of talent, and we can be special and we can compete his year.”
To what end remains to be seen.
Some teams have all-or-nothing barometers when their season starts. It’s the Super Bowl or bust. The Giants used to have that kind of standard, and they may again very soon. But 2019 presents this team with a hazier demarcation of what they can achieve, what they would be best served to achieve, and what they might want to achieve. Chances are strong that 2019 will be framed in the context of upcoming seasons’ successes or failures rather than its own. It will be seen as a steppingstone toward one era, or a tombstone for another.
So, what do you want?